Monday, August 15, 2011

Kool Aid: It's Not Just for Kids!!!

I think grocery-store cashiers are trained to be friendly while simultaneously directed to not judge, assume, or otherwise question what a customer buys in their store. Imagine the combination of things one can buy--and generally you see the cashier simply smile, or maybe initiate a friendly encounter by saying things like "oh, looks like chili tonight," or "yum...pie...when should I show up?"

So when I plopped down 60 Kool-Aid and a few Klaas drink mix packets (on sale 5 for $1.00) in a large store in Tucson a few years ago, I kept a close watch on the cashier. I figured there would no doubt be a range of expressions, from "What the h....?" to "could this have something to do with DRUGS, and am I selling DRUG material to this crazy WOMAN who will sell cherry, grape, and lime-flavored METH to my KID and ruin my LIFE?????" I was right. After letting her stew a bit, I handed her my $12 and change and said in a genuinely friendly tone "I'm not doing anything illegal." She finally said "I give. What ARE you doing with 60 packets of Kool-Aid?" (We had plenty of time to talk since she had to scan each one separately; I couldn't go through the "15 Items And Under" line). "Well," I explained, "I'm dyeing yarn."

Which of course prompted a whole 'nother series of questions, which will all be explained below. I finished my transaction with the cashier who no doubt will have a little nugget of a story to tell her family that night, and almost did a jig on my way out. I really scored at that store. In Pinetop, I'm lucky if I can find lime (green) KoolAid ("KA" for those in the yarn-dyeing biz), I'm generally stuck with grape (a weird purple), lemonade (light yellow) and a couple different reds. But here I found Pina-Pineapple (a lovely gold); lime (green), Berry Blue (a sky blue), Ice Berry Lemonade (a darker blue), and I even found Klaas mixes in the Hispanic Food aisle: Mango (a lovely rich orange), Jamaica (a light red-pink), and Tamarindo (brown, a major coup; that helps tone down the bright pastels of most of the other colors).

The discovery that you can dye your own yarn is one of those things that happens to a knitter; it's like graduating from high-school, going to college, and finding out another world exists. You can design your own colors, set your own stage for the product you'll be knitting next--the world now has endless possibilities, as long as you can score some great KA flavors. You can set up your yarn to dye it in long stripes, blend colors together, create different tones of the same color, or just experiment with different yarns and color combinations. Best of all, you can take bland, boring yarn of a myriad of neutral colors that you may find cheaply at thrift stores or on sale, and change it into something spectacular.

OK, I'll start with the "before" and "after" so you get my drift. This past weekend, I was in New Mexico with three of my crafty friends, Pam, Jeanne, and Beth, and Saturday was our KA Dyeing Extravaganza. We started with yarns like these:

Gray, brown, and off-white yarns waiting
for a new lease on life

And ended up with this rainbow:

The best thing is that these dye-jobs are colorfast, permanent, and will not fade. If you do it right, that is. The other great thing is that you don't need special equipment; it's just KA. You can use your microwave, pans, crockpot, and utensils, without having to worry about strange chemicals contaminating your food containers. You only need to understand a few key concepts:

1. Why KoolAid? It's the combination of dye (i.e. Red Dye #3) and citric acid. You need the dye/color and some sort of acid base.

2. You need to use protein-based yarn, i.e. wool, angora, alpaca. Any yarn that originates from animals. A blend would work (i.e. acrylic/wool), but the dye won't take as deeply. Nylon-based yarn works as well for some odd reason, but other yarns like cotton, pure acrylic, rayon, etc. won't take the dye. You may "stain" such yarn, but, like if you spill coffee on your t-shirt, it is a stain that will eventually fade over multiple washings. If you've ever dyed Easter eggs, it's the same phenomenon. Protein egg shell, dye, and vinegar. By the way, those Paas egg dye tablets work as well (buy them on sale after Easter!).

3. You need heat. The dye will only form a permanent bond to the proper yarn with a heat-induced reaction between the protein in the yarn and the acid in the dye.

4. Never fear, if you don't have KA or some other powdered drink mix (preferably unsweetened, with dye and citric acid), you can use food coloring, cake-icing colors, or other dye-based products with some sort of acid (i.e. vinegar, a common addition; or plain citric acid you can buy at health food stores or with canning supplies).

First, you prepare your yarn by figuring out just what you want to do with it, but in general, you wind it in a loop. Here, Pam is winding yarn around two chairs:

Then, you take some undyeable yarn like cotton, and make little ties around your loop about every 8-12 inches or so, so the action of dyeing, heating, stirring, and general movement of your yarn throughout the process doesn't get it all knotted up. Then, stick your yarn in the sink with some lukewarm water and let it soak thoroughly.

Now, you mix up your dyes. Put on rubber gloves, please. Cover your counters with old shower curtain liners or other plastic. You can use baking soda to clean up, but it just helps to protect everything. Keep plenty of paper towels handy. I use plastic 16-oz water/iced-tea bottles. You want these to be highly concentrated with dye. Even though KA has citric acid already in it, I tend to add a little vinegar (about a 1/4-cup) to the bottle, pour in at least two, if not more, packets of KA in your preferred color, and fill about 2/3 with water. If you want more depth to your color (for example, Lemonade flavor is a very light yellow), add some drops of food color. Sometimes, I'll add a different food color to make a different color--I can add some red food color drops to pink lemonade, making it a strong, deep pink, and then mix in some orange KA to make a sort of coral/salmon color. Brown (Klaas tamarindo) is added to Berry Blue to make a nice teal. Berry Blue and Limeade make a nice aqua. Etc. etc. The point is to play and have fun making your concentrated colors. Cake icing (Wilton's brand, found at most craft stores) comes in a myriad of colors not found in KA: burgundy, copper, black, lavender, moss green, mauve, etc. For Wilton's icing dyes, I take a small jar, put in a teaspoon of gooey gel that is the icing dye, add hot water, replace the lid and shake up until it's completely dissolved, then pour it in a plastic water bottle, and add my vinegar/citric acid, and water.

You end up with multiple colors:

Some leftover colors from my last dyejob, plus
a bunch of empties waiting to be filled

Wilton's Leaf Green gel mixed with hot water

Mango, a deep, rich orange
The yarn gets pulled out of the sink, squeezed out, and placed in either microwaveable Pyrex dishes and jars, or in a crockpot. There are other ways to dye, but I'll just show you what we did.

Slowly pour your colors into your jars, crock pot, dish, whatever. If you want multiple colors for one yarn, or, in the case of the green-colored yarn below, a mix of the same family of hues, carefully pour your dye in sections, pressing each color into your yarn until it is saturated, and then add your other color in a different section.

A mix of yellows and light oranges in this crockpot

Multiple greens

Black Wilton's dye, which is basically every dye color together,
"breaks" into different colors, almost looking purpleish
And now it's time to cook. For the crock-pot yarn, I just set it on low and forgot about it for an hour or so. For yarn that will go in the microwave, I heat it up for a couple minutes, take it out, let it sit for a few minutes, re-heat it, and so on. You don't want the water to boil or even simmer, you want it heated just below a simmer. Keep heating/cooling, and minimize your stirring. You can poke the yarn around with a spoon to make sure the dye is distributed consistently. You eventually want to see the water turn clear.

To show you what happens before and after cooking, here is another example. The highly-concentrated dye liquid starts out dark, with your color. To this I would add my yarn:

Magic. The dye reacts with the acid and bonds with the protein in the yarn. The water goes from a deep color to CLEAR. Absolutely clear. I didn't get a great shot of clear water, but this one is close:

You can see the yarn that has been colored from that red. When the water is clear, you're basically done. Let the yarn cool, rinse it out in lukewarm water, squeeze gently, and let dry. The great thing about dyeing at home in Arizona or where I was in New Mexico this weekend is that the yarn dries fast in the sun.

Just to show you again....
After the yarn is completely dry, wind it into balls, and you're ready to go!!!

This is actually the black icing dye; the different dyes "broke"
into a bunch of violet/purple hues

Multiple green dyes

Another example of black icing dye, left to soak longer
 The next dilemma is what to knit with these new lovelies. Shawls? Scarves? Hats? The possibilities are endless. Right now, I just like to look, squeeze and squish, and remember a great weekend where color was the name of the game.


  1. Aloha Sue! Love this project, the dyes look smart. xoxo Lea Lani

  2. Hey Sue! Gotta Love it, food, wine, everything is here. I'm beginning to suspect that the proper enjoyment of a glass of wine each day is becoming a Trachy trait. Suits me fine.