How much does the average handknitter or spinner really want to know about dyeing? Sure, some of us will eventually seek out every chemical formula and study color theory until we know it by heart. But I suspect that, at least in the beginning, most of us just want to know how to make something that vaguely resembles a colorway in our minds—or something we've been coveting in someone's Etsy shop.
If this sounds like you, head to your LYS or local independent bookstore straight away and pick up a copy of Gail Callahan's Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece. It's one of the best, easiest, and most beautiful introductions to home-dyeing that I've yet to find. Comprehensive and accessible, the book covers lots of territory without ever boring or overwhelming. You learn exactly what you need to know in order to have great fun playing with fiber and color at home.
Gail Callahan may be better known to you as The Kangaroo Dyer. She lives in western Massachusetts, and can often be found teaching or working at WEBS. Study her hands closely and you'll likely see stains from her latest dye experiments.
Gail is a gifted, patient teacher, and that skill transfers seamlessly to her writing and to this book.
The Color Journey
Gail begins simply enough by explaining the kinds of things you'll need for your dye studio—everything from plastic wrap to measuring devices, stirring tools, and dye applicators. She even talks about the importance of measuring the pH of your water supply if at all possible.
She doesn't tempt you with glamorous shots of a fancy dye studio, she shows you a clean, bright reality of recycled bottles, jars, and jugs—the kinds of things you'll likely find in your own home.
Next, you get a quick overview of the two main methods of dyeing, immersion and steam, just to familiarize you with the language and steps that you'll return to again and again later in the book.
The Fiber Journey
Here comes my favorite part: Gail even talks about fiber and yarn, running you through the most popular protein fibers (i.e., fibers that animals grow) and explaining how they absorb and reflect dye differently.
She even talks about twist and ply. This is important because the same color and fiber can look quite different depending on how it's plied. It's worth noting that this book focuses exclusively on dyeing protein fibers and silk. If your passion is cotton, you'll need another reference.
By now you're hankering to play with color, so Gail starts you off with some simple exercises. The first is on paper. Then she moves to small loops of yarn from your stash, and finally she lets you play with full-sized hanks and PRO Chem dye. After this last exercise and after all the remaining ones in the book, she always shows you how a dyed skein knits up into fabric—an invaluable tool for mentally translating what you dye into what you'll knit later.
Without delving too deep into color theory geekdom, Gail spends some 23 pages explaining the different concepts behind color—how to work with color wheels and grids; the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors; values and saturations; and she even gives you a simple tutorial for dyeing your own color wheel. All in preparation for what comes next: the dyeing.
Here you'll find step-by-step instructions for specific techniques. These include simple handpaint multicolor, dipping for shades and contrast, painting unspun fiber, injecting color into pre-wound balls, and even dunking entire cones of yarn in different colors of dye. She walks you through several variations on the basic immersion dyeing technique, including dyeing half-wet/half-dry skeins, tie-dyeing, dripping and immersing, and step immersion to create semisolid colors (think Malabrigo) or multicolored yarns.
Gail is clearly having fun here. She even shows you how to dye long spans of yarn (for self-striping patterns) by winding your yarn between two parking meters.
What happens when you don't like what you've done? Gail shows you how to fix those mistakes—the magic word is "overdyeing."
Each step is well-documented and accompanied by large, extremely detailed photographs that show you exactly what you need to do if you want to create what you see in the book. Kudos to photographer John Polak for managing to capture the spirit and steps of hand-dyeing so vividly.
Putting Yarn in Action
And what are you supposed to do with all your dye experiments? Fear not, Gail has thought of that too. At the very end of the book, she provides nine easy to intermediate patterns—things like a ribbed hat, leg warmers, socks, a scarf, etc. Each pattern includes clear instructions on which base yarn and dye technique to use.
While Gail briefly mentions other kinds of dyes you may use (from Kool-Aid and Jell-O to Rit and food coloring), all of her tutorials call for PRO Chemical wash-fast acid dye. Most small-scale hand-dyers use either PRO Chemical (affectionately called "Pro Chem") or Cushing, which Gail also mentions fondly from time to time.
Enjoy the Journey
As I said, this book covers a lot of territory—more for knitters than spinners. (Spinners seeking deeper technical help with the spinning side of color may want to read Deb Menz's classic Color in Spinning.) Fortunately, it's written in an easygoing, conversational style that is both intelligent and reassuring. Gail uses language and metaphors that make the dye process understandable and inviting.
And if you do fall in love end up pursuing that Ph.D. in dye theory (were such a degree to exist), this book will have given you a solid foundation. Read it from cover to cover, experiment with each technique as you go along, and you'll be able to achieve almost everything your imagination desires.