Food Color Dyeing
With Undertones

You're probably familiar with undertones without realizing it.

Interior Designers have a trick for painting "white" ceilings that harmonize with the walls. They mix a touch of the wall color into the ceiling paint.

The ceiling isn't actually white, it is a very light pastel version of the wall.

Think of a white t-shirt and then a hank of natural color wool yarn. The white t-shirt is a bit blue and the yarn is a bit yellow.

This tutorial shows how dyeing each hank twice will create skeins that harmonize because they have the same undertone.

Supplies for Dyeing Undertones

  • 12 mini-hanks of white wool yarn

  • Yellow, Red, Blue and Black food color for the undertone.
    Your choice of brand, but I suggest McCormick food color drops because it is easier to control the amount of color.
    Wilton icing gel is very concentrated. Kool-Aid has strong reds but the yellow is weak.

  • 3 more food colors.
    Here I used McCormick red, green and blue.
    You can use any food color as long as it isn't so dark that it obscures the undertone completely.

  • Vinegar - enough to make the colors set and the water to go clear.

  • Heat source

  • Scraps of yarn for ties
    You will need 7 colors that are close to the colors of your dyebath.
    These scraps will be a visual reminder of the dyebaths each hanks went into.
    Use acrylic or cotton for ties so they won't dye.

The video is an overview of how to dye undertones.

Step-by-step directions follow the video so you can dye your own.

Directions to Dye Undertones

  1. Make twelve mini-hanks of yarn.

  2. Tie each hank with a scrap yarn - to remind you which dyebath the yarn is going into.
    Four hanks should be tied in red, four in yellow, four in blue and four in black.

  3. Prepare four dyebaths - a light red, light blue and black (just barely gray) and yellow.

    I used one drop each of McCormick red, blue and black and four drops of yellow.

    The amount of water isn't important because the shade the hanks end up depends only on the amount of dye and yarn.

    I use 8 oz of water because I dye in the microwave, and I have calculated how long it takes my microwave to heat 8 oz to 180 F.

    I chose to make my yarn pastels, because it is easier. The less food color you use, the less fooling with the vinegar to keep the colors from crocking or splitting.

  4. Drop the four red tied hanks in the red bath, the yellow tied hanks in the yellow bath and so on.
  5. Heat and add vinegar to exhaust each bath using the immersion method of your choice (see "Immersion note" after step 11).

    For .2 oz (2/10 oz) of Lion Brand Fishermen's wool, usually a teaspoon of fresh white vinegar is needed. The amount of vinegar is less for yellows and reds and more for greens and blues.

    Most brands of food color will bond at 160 to 180 F (71 - 82 C).
    I use a meat thermometer to measure temperature.
  6. Remove hanks. They can drip dry for a few minutes. No need to dry the yarn completely.
  7. step2

  8. Divide the hanks into three piles, one of each colored hank per pile.
  9. Tie a second marker tie on each hank that matches the color of the dyebath that the hank will go into next.

    In the photo below, at the top right you can see a red, yellow, blue and gray hank each tied with a dark blue tie. All four of these hanks will go into a blue dye bath.
  10. step3

  11. Prepare three new dyebaths and drop the four hanks in each.

    I used one drop each of red, green and blue.
    You should dye all four hanks at once. This saves time and insures that all hanks get the same amount of dye.
  12. Heat and add vinegar (like in step 4) to exhaust each bath using the immersion method of your choice (see below).
  13. Remove hanks, rinse and let dry.

  14. Immersion note: You may heat the dyebath on the stove burner, in the microwave or in a slow cooker. Whichever way you prefer, just be sure the dyebath gets hot enough to cause the food color to bond to the yarn and make the dyebath go clear. Try to heat the dyebath to between 160 degrees F and 180 degrees F (71 - 82 C).

    This is how the hanks looked out of the second dyebath.

    yellow undertonesred undertones

    blue undertonesBlack undertones

    McCormick red is a very strong color. In hindsight, I should have used less.

    In the photos the reds look more alike than in real life.
    The yellow-red is a tomato, the blue-red is more purple.

    The second blue bath was a bit weak (or my food color was too old) and I should have used two drops. I will re-dye the blue hanks after my next trip to the grocery.

    The nice thing about dyeing a hank that is too light is that you can always re-dye it.

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