Dye Your Own Semisolids:
Playing with the Louet Hand-Dyed Sock Kit
The perennial popularity of semisolid sock yarns and Jane's Hedgerow sock pattern got me thinking more about semisolid yarns, how high the demand and the supply are right now, and how we mere mortals could make them for ourselves—in colors exactly to our liking.
One of the most popular suppliers of yarn for sock knitters and hand-dyers alike is Louet, and they are the same folks who make this kit. I bought mine a few months ago and decided that this would be the perfect time to finally open it up and test it out.
My mission? First, to find out how the kit really works. And second, to see if I could really make my own semisolid sock yarn.
Because this kit was created for one specific dye method, that's the method we'll be talking about here—but remember that there are many, many other ways to dye yarn.
What's In the Box
I'm a sucker for packaging, so I had no problem with the fact that the box was much larger than its actual contents. This is a solid box that begs to be reused. I see mine quickly being filled with more jars of dye, well-used rubber gloves, various squirt bottles and syringes, and pages and pages of dye-splattered notes.
But right off the shelf, here's what's in the box:
- Three skeins of Louet Gems superwash merino sock yarn (approximately 555 yards total)
- One plastic squeeze bottle
- Three 10g containers of Gaywool dye
- One small sample bottle of SOAK woolwash
- A two-page, black-and-white hand-out with dye instructions and a simple ribbed sock pattern, all written by Trudy Van Stralen
What's Not in the Box
The following list is just as important as what's in the box because you can't dye without these things, and yet you otherwise won't find out what they are until after you've bought your kit.
First and foremost, you need a microwave oven to follow the instructions in this kit. I was rather surprised that the instructions made absolutely no mention of the potential health risks of using a kitchen microwave to dye yarn that has been treated with chemicals.
I did some research on my own and found several references to increased safety with increased enclosure—that is, the more you wrap the yarn and contain the fumes and/or splatters, the less risk you run with using a microwave that you also use for food preparation.
Ultimately, though, you really should use a separate microwave oven for dyeing yarn. I took the risk for this review alone and had so much fun that I do plan on buying a separate inexpensive microwave for future dyeing.
Second, you need a glass measuring cup. Again, there's no mention of safety here, but conventional dyeing wisdom dictates that you use separate containers for dyeing and never use these for cooking or eating.
But even if you went out and bought one glass measuring cup for this kit, I don't think it's enough. The instructions tell you to use only one measuring cup for all three colors, to mix the first dye and apply it, then rinse the jar and repeat with the second and third dyes.
I found this approach far too cumbersome and creatively restrictive, so I picked three canning jars (with ml/oz markings on the outside) and declared them permanent dye jars. I could see and have access to all three dyes at once. For semisolid dyeing, you really need this degree of flexibility.
Third and most essential, you want rubber gloves. You don't need industrial-strength mitts, any standard old-fashioned rubber gloves will do. You just don't want this dye on your skin. It won't sizzle and eat through your flesh, but it will stain, and—again—these are chemicals.
Fourth, remember the paper towels. You want a big roll of paper towels by your side at all times to catch any excess drips and splatters.
Fifth, make sure you have any standard clear plastic wrap handy. You'll use this to tightly wrap the skeins before you cook them.
Sixth, at least two large freezer bags. After you wrap each skein in plastic wrap, you'll put them all into two doubled-up freezer bags. The more layers between the yarn and your microwave, the less chance of anything bad getting into your microwave. The risk is ultimately yours to take, and if you plan on doing lots of this, you may want, like me, to invest in a separate microwave for dyeing.
Ready, Set, Splatter!
Now let's get started. The first thing you're told to do is prepare the yarn by soaking it in hot soapy water (using the SOAK woolwash that comes in the kit). The dyes are still safely in their jars, so I used my favorite mixing bowl and didn't bother with the gloves yet.
This step is crucial to preparing the yarn to receive dye. You're told to let the yarn soak for a minimum of 30 minutes, which was just enough time for me to get my workspace ready.
Van Stralen instructs you to cover your table/counter/surface with plastic wrap, but I found it much easier to simply lay out a large plastic garbage bag and tape down the edges. Do cut the bag open so you can use its entire width—I didn't, and I had to run an extra length of plastic wrap under one side.
The dyes come pre-measured and ready to go. One benefit of Gaywool dye is that it contains everything—the dye, mordant, and dyebath acid are all combined into little crystals that you simply pour into a jar and dilute with boiling water. I found that the boiling water tended to splatter the dye around the jars just a little, so I kept a wet napkin handy to wipe up the spots. (Time to put on those rubber gloves!)
I chose a set of wooden chopsticks to stir the dye. They served three purposes: First, they kept me from mingling my food utensils with my dye utensils. Second, they allowed me to see how the dye would look on something. And third, they were an easy visual reminder of what was in each jar. But this was just the beginning.
Next I took out a piece of paper, dipped each chopstick in dye, and drew one long line with each dye. Then I drew shorter lines of the other colors next to each long line so I could see how the colors interacted with one another. Because dark colors tend to bleed into the lighter colors and overwhelm them, I decided to use the lightest blue (aptly named Blueberry) as the dominant foundation color, and then merely dot the skeins with the grayish Silverbirch and stronger blue Cornflower for accent.
Semisolid dyeing is most effectively done when you have all the colors in front of you and ready to go. The kit's one mere squeeze bottle didn't do the trick, so I used two 10ml plastic syringes for the accent colors. (You can find these online at Amazon.com—this link will take you to the 20ml syringes, which I think would work better. I kept having to stop and refill my syringes.)
I was finally ready to dye. I lifted the skeins from their bowl and squeezed out the excess water, putting them in a colander so that they could continue to drip a little longer. Then I set them out on my table and got started. I first applied the Cornflower in a zigzag formation and rubbed the dye evenly into the skeins. I chose the zigzag direction rather than even and rhythmic stripes so that the color repeats would be more randomly staggered. If I had wanted to create self-patterning yarn, I would have used more precise and rhythmic striped repeats.
Next, I slowly and carefully began dotting the other colors on the skeins, being careful not to create large splotches of one single color and always pausing to rub the dye into the yarn. I turned my skeins and continued, always working to fill the white spots without painting over the spots I'd just painted. Some overlap is inevitable, so don't panic if you do this. The real goal is to create a basic backdrop of one color but repeatedly interrupt it with smaller random spots of the contrasting colors.
When I was finally done, my skeins looked like this. You may find that you run out of the primary color before the others. The kit was created on the assumption you'd be dyeing in equal amounts of each color. Don't fret, just do the best you can.
Finally, after I'd used up all my Cornflower and had filled up all the other white spaces satisfactorily, I wrapped each skein tightly in plastic wrap. Pull a generous length of wrap and lay the skein along it lengthwise. Then fold the wrap over the edge of the skein and start rolling until you've enclosed it all, pushing out any large air pockets as you go. Finally, twist the ends tight to secure.
Then it was time to put those skeins in the plastic freezer bags. I folded them in thirds and they fit perfectly. After filling the first bag, I did not seal it—sealing these bags may cause them to explode, which you do not want. Instead, I tucked the open end underneath and then slid that bag—tucked-end first—into a second freezer bag whose end I also tucked underneath. By staggering the openings, my goal was to trap even more bad stuff before it could get into my microwave.
Then I carried my work into the kitchen, popped it in the microwave, and cooked it on high for four minutes. Once those four minutes are up, you need to very, very, very, very carefully flip the bag over, re-tucking the end underneath, and cooking it again for another four minutes. I say "very" so many times because this bag will be hot. Be careful. When my yarn was done, I removed it from the microwave and set it out on the porch to cool.
Every ounce of you will be dying to rip open the bag and see what your yarn looks like, but resist the temptation. It really does need to cool. I let mine sit outside for about two hours until I could comfortably handle it again.
At that point I filled a sink with warm water (made bubbly with a few more squeezes of the SOAK woolwash), ripped open my plastic-wrapped skeins, and lowered them one by one into the water.
Just two rinses later, the water was clear and my skeins were ready to go back outside.
I draped them on a chair out in the yard and let nature do her thing. At far right you'll see a fourth skein. This was an extra skein of Louet Gems from my stash. It was originally a very pale lilac color, but I mixed up my leftover Silver Birch and Cornflower dyes and dyed it to see what would happen. It came out a lovely deep blueberry color.
As the yarn dried and the colors became more true, I'll confess that I was very pleased with the results. The kit really did enable me to create a semisolid yarn. Not only any semisolid yarn, but a yarn that's perfectly suited for Jane's Hedgerow sock pattern—and I've already cast on a new pair with my yarn. We'll see how it knits up.
In Summary: The Pros
This kit has several things going for it. First, it uses arguably the best materials for basic sock yarn dyeing. Louet Gems Merino is one of the most popular and well-respected sock yarns on the market, and many of the most popular hand-dyers use it as their core material.
And second, everything is right there, premeasured and ready to go. The instructions are extremely easy to follow. As an added bonus, you don't have to try and decide which of the (currently) 61 colors of Gaywool dye to use—something I'd find impossible.
Louet currently has five color options for this kit: Blues (which I used), Reds, Browns, Pinks, and Greens. You can also play around with blending the dyes in your kit to create different colors. I'd be careful, though, because you only have so much dye in your kit. If you use too much in an experimental blend you don't like, you're stuck.
Kit Wrap-Up: The Cons
Are there any drawbacks? Just a few. First, at $49.95, this kit is costly. But buying the individual components would be even more expensive because you can only buy Gaywool dyes in 100g jars (priced at $16). I think the investment is worth it if you're curious about dyeing, curious about dyeing sock yarns in particular, and are looking for a very easy method.
Note: In 2009 I checked in with Louet again and discovered that the kit cost has been lowered to $31.99. Most recently in July 2012, the kit price is $36.
This kit makes the dyeing process extremely easy and fun, and, if you fall in love with this form of dyeing, then you can invest in your own set of Gaywool dyes. (Each 100g jar dyes approximately 800g of fiber, or 18 skeins of Louet Gems yarn.)
The second drawback, safety, is really only an issue if you bought the kit without reading this review. I'm uncomfortable with the notion of people being told it's safe to use cooking utensils to mix their chemical dye, and likewise I'm still nervous about what I may or may not have introduced into my microwave. I wish the instructions had included just a few more safety precautions. If hear any compelling arguments why my concerns are unfounded, I'll let you know.
In the meantime, does anyone have a used microwave I could buy?
Suggested Retail Price: Was $49.95 in August 2007 when this review was first published; as of July 2012, the price is now $36.
Where to Buy Online: Louet North America