The Big Red Experiment

The Big Red Experiment

If you follow us on any social media, you'll know that I've been undergoing a big natural dyeing experiment to find a decent red on a superwash wool/nylon blend (and how appropriate for it being February!). This adventure is part of a new and exciting product launch coming early February (check out the teaser HERE).

It started out as "I want a red yarn," and about seven attempts later, I was no closer to a red (with several pink/orange hanks to show for it). Seeking advice from professional dyers (Kathy from Botanical Colors, Jackie from @forage_color, and Ruth from The Natural Twist), I was given insight on things to try and consoled on my struggle to find a beautiful red on a wool/nylon blend - no easy feat. Getting red on a 100% wool fiber isn't difficult - and even red on superwash is doable, but something about that nylon makes things extra challenging.

I took all of the tips and recommendations from the professionals, which I consistently bothered with questions and decided to try four different official "recipes," done in more of controlled science experiment. I need to be able to replicate my red color if found, and so documented it well enough to repeat.

Just a Note: You literally may "see red" after reading this post, and that's normal - there is a lot of red going on here. I did my best to capture the colors accurately, and I promise you although they may all look like the same shade, they are varied in color. 

JUMP to the FINAL Red Recipe


From my initial red attempts and with the advice I received from the wise ones, this is what I learned and considered before starting the Big Red Experiment:

  • Your tap water is not the same as my tap water. This I knew from our Dye Club, but what I didn't know was that it's much more bothersome when you are trying to get a specific color.
  • Your dye extract is inconsistent, even if it's from the same source. This makes sense - just like the wood for our crochet hooks and how the grain differs - there are always slight variations in natural things.
  • Fibers are picky for natural dyeing. 100% wool loves color (and it also loves itself, felts, and ruins that handmade sweater if you're not careful). Artificial fibers (such as nylon) do not have the same dependable affection for natural color.
  • There's a whole lot of chemistry involved in natural dyeing, and I hate chemistry. I think this stems from my lack of understanding, because as soon as someone starts mentioning pH, alkaline, basic, etc. it's like my ears shut off. I powered through it though, despite the dreams of red yarn (yes, I literally had dreams of red yarn) and constant questioning of WHY. Point being - if you like or understand chemistry, this may have been easier for you. 

The Big Red Experiment

The Fibers

  • (A) 80/20% SW Merino, Nylon @ 10:5% Alum/COT Mordant - Fingering
  • (B) 100% SW Merino @ 10:5% Alum/COT Mordant - Bulky
  • (C) 100% SW Merino @ 12% Alum Mordant - Sport
  • (D) 75/20/5% SW Merino, Nylon, Stellina @ 12% Alum Mordant - Fingering

For experimental control, I used the same four different fibers for each recipe by dividing some hanks in to mini skeins. Since I generally only dye superwash fibers (again, with the felting), I used only superwash for the experiment. I also wanted to compare two different types of mordant recipes, which is the preliminary step that must be done to fibers when natural dyeing to help the dye adhere to the fiber. 

Ordinarily in natural dyeing I use a standard 10% Alum, 5% Cream of Tartar (COT), so half of the fibers used this mordant. The other recipe I was told to try was 12% Alum, no COT (in case the acid in COT affected the Madder, therefore responsible for my orange colors).

All fiber was mordanted in normal tap water, and either dry or damp before presoaking in distilled. I didn't do any scouring (my fiber supposedly comes scoured), nor did I use any special wool washes after dyeing.

The Dyes

  • Madder Root
  • Cochineal

The main character for getting a natural red is Madder Root, but it’s not as simple as throwing some madder root extract in a pot of water and getting a red. Furthermore, madder extract is ORANGE until it basically reaches 150 degrees, and then BAM you start getting red. However, madder is sensitive to pH, how hard or soft your water is, and temperature. Take it above 180 and your pretty red goes back to a rust brown. Talk about a challenge. Let’s also add in the fact that it takes A LOT of madder to go towards the reds – 6-7%, which eats up your dye and makes your husband ask “why can you just choose a red” while pointing to the heaps of pinkish/orange hanks on the floor. 

Another player in the game of red is Cochineal, a hot pink dye extract and much more potent than madder.

The Modifiers

  • Soda Ash/Washing Soda (Sodium Carbonate)
  • Chalk or Tums – (Calcium Carbonate, referred to as calcarb)
  • Cream of Tartar or COT (Tartaric Acid)

    Modifiers are used to alter the pH, water hardness, and more. Soda Ash is an base, used to raise the pH of a dye bath. Calcarb is used to make the water "hard," which Madder thrives in but Cochineal does not. COT is an acid (think opposite of Soda Ash), which will lower the pH and keep Madder orange, but supposedly can cause Cochineal to turn red. I wasn't able to get a red from plain Cochineal on previous experiments. So - want more acidity? Add COT and lower the pH. Want less acidity? Add Soda Ash and raise the pH. Commence head spinning. 

    By using these modifiers, you can change the behavior of the dye extract, and get color change. See what I meant by endless color possibilities? 


    The Recipes

    All fiber presoaked and dyed in distilled water. All fiber was left in the dye pot overnight to cool and soak up color, rinsed the next morning in normal tap water, hung outside to dry.

    RING 1

    1% cochineal and 6% COT, cooked to 150 degrees. Added 1% madder, cooked about 3 minutes, added another 1% madder. Killed heat at 150-160, added .5% calcarb.

    Results: A pink red, not as orange as previous experiments but still lacking the depth of a red color. Mostly consistent color for all skeins, but non nylon blends (skeins B and C) had deeper color. Skein A slightly more orange, Skein D muted.

    RING 2

    Mixed 6% madder, 1% calcarb. Brought to 150-160 degrees. Killed heat at 150-160, added .25% soda ash.

    Results: Great red only found on the 100% sw wool, nylon blends showed orange, especially skein A.

    RING 3

    Combined experiments of A and B, 1% cochineal and 6% COT first to 150, then added 6% madder and 1% calcarb. Killed heat at 150-160.

    Results: Generally a more orange result across all skeins, skein A being the most.

    RING 4

    Mixed 7% madder, 1% cochineal, tossed in one TUMS 1000g tablet towards the end. Killed heat at 150-160.

    Results: Perfect red on Skein B, almost the same with Skein C. Skein A much more orange, Skein D in between. 


    After all of these experiments, I was the closest on RING 4 (the 7:1% madder cochineal recipe), recommended to me by Jackie @forage_color. What I can conclude from my results is that Madder especially did not like the 10:5 mordant recipe on a SW wool nylon blend - all of these turned the most orange.

    Madder had no problem with the different mordants on 100% SW merino - both showing a beautiful red. The nylon blends, regardless of their mordant, kept showing muted blush colors, which allowed me to conclude that superwash nor the mordant seemed to affect the red much - it was indeed the nylon. It's hard to know what I need to do to the nylon blended fibers to move them from blush colors to RED, so I decided to try raising the pH in the Last Chance Recipe (see below).


    Unfortunately, my pH strips suck. I was not able to get a valid pH reading for any of my recipes, nor previous experiments. Every time I tested it said a neutral 6 or 7, which couldn't be right. This is extremely frustrating, since it's a well known brand of pH strips and I really needed this information. 

    Using distilled water is great - not. It's expensive, and not practical. If I were a dye house, would I really use a 100qt pot of distilled? No. But supposedly, even though my water is soft, iron in my water is affecting my dyeing. Again - something I'd like to further play around with because I think I could get a red with tap water. 

    It's hard to get precise measurements of what to do. I was often told "just add some soda ash," and I'm going - how much?! This was hard - but, I took things slow and kept recording every pinch I added. The one thing I think was the most ambiguous was the TUMS. Online and professionals say "you can use one TUMS tablet," but there are different strengths, different colors (different food dyes!) of TUMS - so what does this really mean? I have actual calcarb too - but how does that compare to TUMS?? Unknown at this point.

    The FINAL Red Recipe

    I decided to take the plunge and use the recipe from RING 4 on my actual fiber – a plush single-ply 80/20 SW merino nylon blend, mordanted at the 12% Alum without any COT. 

    Before adding any fiber, I completely prepped my dyebath. After mixing the 7% madder, 1% cochineal, I crushed up one 1000g TUMS and threw that in. Jackie mentioned to get my bath looking like wine by raising the pH (again, lowering the acidity), and soda ash does that! Super tiny amounts have to be added at a time otherwise your bath will be plum purple before you know it. When all was said and done, I added a total of 1% soda ash to my bath, which gave me a wine color.

    I presoaked and dyed in distilled, and held my breath when I dunked my 200g of precious fiber in to the dye pot. I panicked, I sweat, I swore, and I pulled my fiber out about every minute to see how it was doing. At 150-160, I killed the heat, said a prayer, and went to bed.

    It was better than Christmas morning. I ran downstairs, and jumped with joy. Now, call me particular (yes - yes I am) but I wouldn't call this a bright red. But - it was red. Not pink, not orange, not purple. I finally got a great red, on my actual fiber, and I am so happy! 



    The Final Recipe on my actual fiber showed a slight pink/maroon hue, and this may have been due to 1% Soda Ash. I really wanted to stay away from orange, so I am happy with a more rich red. 

    WHY RED?

    We have a very exciting new product launch happening early this month that will include this plush, single ply RED yarn. But shhh, it's still a secret! Check out the teaser HERE!


    I learned a lot, but there is still so much I could try, so many variables I could change. Really, the red experiment is never over in natural dyeing. That is why natural dyeing is so addicting - or really any type of dyeing - because there is no end to color possibilities.

    Have you ever been stuck on something related to your craft, determined to figure it out? Tell me about it in the comments below! 



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