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9 Mistakes to Avoid in Natural Dyeing

This article is all about 9 common mistakes to avoid in natural dyeing of textiles, aka yarn and fabric.

If you are in the beginning stages of your natural dyeing journey, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Maybe you have even already tried dyeing a skein of yarn or a piece of fabric with natural dyes and it didn’t turn out as you expected? If this is the case, read on. In this blog post, I will share typical mistakes to avoid in natural dyeing and answer the most common questions beginners tend to have.

Since natural dyeing is a multistep process, there are certain aspects you have to pay special attention to at every step of the process. But please don’t feel intimidated by this. More often than not, mistakes can still be corrected later on.
Another important factor you should keep in mind is the fact that there is always a certain portion of coincidence involved. After all, we are working with natural materials. Personally, I don’t view this as a drawback, though. It is what makes natural dyeing so interesting and fascinating, in my opinion.

Mistakes to Avoid in Natural Dyeing

Table of Content:

If you want to learn how to dye yarn with natural dyes, you can check out this step by step tutorial on my Youtube channel:

a woman holding a yellow skein of yarn. a second picture is showing a basket filled with colorful skeins of yarn. a text saying: How to dye yarn at home with natural dyes

Mistake #1: Creating a tangled mess

To be honest, this happened to me quite regularly in the beginning. It is rather frustrating to have dyed a beautiful colorway that you are eager to knit or crochet with and then have to spend a significant amount of time to untangle a completely messy hank of yarn first.
Fortunately, this mistake is easy to avoid. All you have to do is make sure that you secure the skein of yarn in multiple spots using ties. This is the very first step you take before you start scouring the yarn.
To segment the yarn, you put the tie around the yarn in the shape of an infinity sign. You should create at least four segments. The tie should not be too firm, as this will result in uneven color distribution and not be too loose in order to successfully stop the yarn from tangling in the dye pot.

undyed hank of yarn with a tie around it

Mistake #2: Too little scouring or none at all

Although the step of scouring the yarn or fabric you want to dye doesn’t seem that important, it truly is the basis for all of the other steps. If you don’t thoroughly wet the fibers before you move on to the mordanting part, the mordant cannot be taken up evenly. And this also means that the dyestuff cannot be taken up evenly. Therefore you will not be able to achieve an even color distribution if you don’t execute this step properly.

Personally, I scour the yarns for about 24 hours before I move onto the next step. This ensures that the yarns are evenly wet all throughout the skein. You have to make sure that the yarns are evenly immersed in the water by gently pushing them below the surface. When I take them out of the water, I gently wring them out so that they are not dripping wet but evenly moist before I put them into the mordant bath.

undyed cream skein of yarn in a pot with water

Mistake #3: Choosing the wrong mordant or none at all

If you want to ensure a good uptake of the dye and create a long lasting colorway, the mordanting step is very important. You have to make sure that you use the right mordant (protein and cellulose fibers require different types of mordants) and in the right amount.

If you are using a tannin-rich dyestuff, you can consider skipping the mordanting step. But in all other cases, don’t forget to mordant your fibers.

Do you want to know more about mordants? Have a look at this blog post.

Do you want to learn more about tannins as natural mordants? You can check out this blog post.

a spoon with alum above several natural dye materials (onion skins, madder, fustic, rose petals), mordants for natural dyes

Mistake #4: Using the wrong dyestuff

Choosing the dyestuff is a crucial step if you want to create long lasting, vibrant colors. Spare yourself the disappointment of using a fugitive dye that might look great in the beginning but will fade out very quickly or even turn into a completely different color over time. I recommend that you stay away from elderberries, black beans and red cabbage.

beige mittens on a white sideboard and a wooden basket in the background
the beautiful pink color that elderberries produce turns into beige very quickly

Mistake #5: Not using enough dyestuff

The amount of dyestuff you need to dye a skein of yarn or piece of fabric is highly dependent on two factors: what kind of natural material you use and the color result you are aiming for. Using equal amounts of dyestuff and fiber can be a good rule of thumb. However, I usually find that I need a lot less dyestuff, even if I want to achieve saturated colorways. I recommend that you research beforehand how much of a particular dyestuff you need to dye the amount fiber you want. Later on, you can experiment with the amounts to create exactly the saturation you are looking for.

Tip: You should always have more fiber ready to be dyed. Just in case there is still color left in the dyebath after the first exhaust. You can often use the dyebath multiple times until it is completely exhausted. The colors you get will be a bit lighter every time.

four glass jars filled with natural dyestuff

Mistake #6: The dyebath is too hot or too cold

Heating the dyebath up until the right temperature is crucial to achieving the color hue and intensity you are looking for. If the dyebath is too hot, it can result in muddy, dulled colors. If the dyebath is too cold, the yarn or fabric might not be able to take up enough dye, resulting in very light colorways.

Another aspect to keep in mind is the type of dyestuff you are using. Some plant materials aren’t as sensitive towards higher temperatures, while others have to be handled extra carefully. Still others have to be soaked in water for several days before heating the dyebath to extract the color.

Tip: Make sure to take your time with this step and slowly heat up the dyebath. The ideal water temperature is a light simmering. Avoid boiling the yarn or dyestuff in the water.

skein of yarn in a dye pot and a wooden spoon

Mistake #7: Stirring too much or too little

The right amount of stirring of the yarn or fabric in the dyebath is not a one size fits all situation. Rather, it depends on the color distribution effect you are looking for.
If you are aiming for an even color distribution – meaning you want to dye a solid colorway – you have to make sure that the whole skein of yarn or piece of fabric is evenly immersed in the dyebath throughout the dyeing process. Gently stirring the fiber in regular intervals is crucial.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a more tonal effect – meaning that you aim for lighter and darker parts within the skein or cloth – stirring often is not as important.

Whatever effect you are trying to achieve: you have to make sure that you stir only gently and don’t agitate the fibers too much. In the worst case, this could result in a tangled mess. Or even worse, cause some felting, if you are working with wool fibers.

orange yellow skein of yarn and a spoon in a pot with a onion dye solution

Mistake #8: Rushing the process

Natural dyeing is a slow process. In my opinion, that’s part of its beauty. It also means that you are somewhat flexible as to when you perform the consecutive steps. If you take the fiber out of the dyebath as soon as it is cooled down or wait until the next day is usually not crucial, for example. However, you should never try to rush the process. It is best to expect the whole process from scouring the fiber to holding the dyed and dry skein of yarn or fabric into your hands to take at least three days. Depending on the dyestuff you use, it can also take a lot longer.

Mistake #9: Bleeding due to too little washing

It is very important that you thoroughly wash out the excess dye after you have taken the yarn out of the dye pot. Otherwise, the dye particles might come out later on which is called bleeding. This is can be very annoying. Especially if you knit or crochet with multiple colorways and one of the colors bleeds and discolors the others during the washing of the finished product. I know it can be a bit tedious, depending on the dyestuff. But it is crucial that you gently but thoroughly wash the yarn until the water runs clear.

yellow skein of yarn in soapy water

And there you have it, nine common mistakes to avoid in the natural dyeing process. What are your natural dyeing experiences and struggles? Come share in the comments!

Where are You on your Natural Dyeing Journey?

Have you experimented with different plant materials and gained some experience already? Or are you a beginner and a bit hesitant to start because the whole process overwhelms you?

I would love to help get you started on your natural dyeing journey. And in addition, I can provide tips, tricks and specific techniques for the more experienced natural dyers among you. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, let’s tackle this together, shall we?

In fact, I have compiled everything you need to know to get started with natural yarn dyeing into a beginner’s guide for you. And the best thing: it is available for free! You can get the Beginner’s Guide to Natural Dyeing here.

four hand dyed skeins of yarn in shades of purple and blue on a wooden surface and a text saying beginner's guide: natural dyeing. everything you need to know to get started dyeing yarn with natural dyes

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I am a yarn dyeing artist, writer and educator.
I am also an avid knitter and love to create something with my hands every day.
Read more about me here:

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