Living for Dyeing – Food Colours


I usually like to use natural materials for dyeing. I like the whole foraging process and the subtlety of colours you get. But recently I thought I would have a go at dyeing with food colouring . The good thing about food colouring is that you can use the same pots and pans you use for cooking, and its relatively simple and cheap to source. I did find some VERY old food colouring in my sister-in-law’s cupboard (we’re talking decades here) but the ones I used are Wilton’s food colouring gel. You can get them from craft and baking supply shops and from Amazon (or try your sister-in-law’s cupboard).


Food colouring for icing can be used to dye threads

This is what you’ll need:-

food colours
clear vinegar (this stops the colour washing out)
rubber gloves (unless you want to look like you’ve got a twenty a day habit)
yarn or fabric
pots and pans
a source of heat (the heat is what fixes the colour)

As it’s getting close to Christmas I decided to use seasonal colours and went with red, yellow (gold) and green. You can only use this method for animal fibres like wool and silk (wool works best).   You can get more detailed instructions here (using a microwave as the heat source) but this is the basic method I used and it worked for me.

Step 1: Soak the yarn or fabric for a few hours in a solution of water and clear vinegar. A rough guide is a quarter cup of vinegar for each 100g of yarn or fabric. But as I was dyeing very small amounts I just added a few good squirts to the water.
Step 2: Mix the dye in a cup of hot water. You only need a small amount. I used a cocktail stick to get the colour out and to mix it. Make sure its fully dissolved.
Step 3: Add the dye to a pan of water. Add a few more squirts of clear vinegar and mix well.
Step 4: Add the yarn or fabric to the pan making sure it’s all submerged then heat it slowly to simmering.
Step 5: Let it simmer for about 20 minutes or until it’s the colour you want.
Step 6: Remove the wool or yarn from the dye and let it cool (be patient, this is important, especially for wool).
Step 7: Rinse well and you’re done!


Wool and silk dyeing with golden yellow food colouring


I dyed pre-felted wool green and wool and silk yarns red and gold. As I expected, the wool took up the dye much better than the silk. I had to leave the silk in the dye solution for a lot longer and added more colour and vinegar to get the colour I wanted. When I’d finished, I made a Christmas card with the help of a few small washers.


Christmas card materials dyed with food colouring


The colours are OK for a Christmas card but they are a bit bright and ‘flat’. I think where dyeing with food colouring really comes into its own is space-dyeing. It’s something you can’t really do with natural dyes, or at least its more difficult. You can do this in a microwave but I prefer to do it in a vegetable steamer. Step 1 is the same as above but then you squeeze out the liquid from the yarn, lay it onto a plastic sheet or similar and apply the dye directly onto the yarn using a cocktail stick.


The food colour paste has been applied directly to the yarn ready to go into the steamer


You need to be aware that some of the colours will mix, so if you put yellow next to blue you’ll also get green. Then pop it into a steamer and steam for about 20 minutes. If you move it around a bit the colours are more likely to merge. Then let it cool and rinse as above.

The colours are very bright but can be calmed down by putting them with something more neutral.


A neutral colour tones down the space dyed wool


And I’ve still got loads of the food colouring left…..


Margaret Yates

Marg Yates is a textile and mixed media artist living and working in North Staffordshire. A recent graduate from Derby University's foundation degree in Creative Art and Design practice she is a member of the Take Ten artists collective (FB: TakeTenArtists). She uses natural dyes in her explorations of colour and texture and exhibits and sells her work at venues across the North Midlands. Instagram: @margyatesart FB: Margyates Art

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