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Mordanting Wool

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Wild Colours natural dyes > mordants > mordants for wool

Scouring, Mordanting & Dyeing Wool

1. Scouring the wool

2. Scouring a Fleece

3. Mordanting Wool with Alum

4. Mordant & Dye Yarn

5. Mordant & Dye Wool Tops/Roving

6. Dyeing Knitted Items

7. Dyeing Fabric

8. Dyeing Coloured Wool

9. Storing Dyed Wool

1. Scouring the wool

Failure to clean wool properly is one of the main reasons for not getting good colours from your dyes. Wool needs to be well scoured before it is dipped in the dye pot even if it has just been bought and looks clean. Scouring is much more than washing; when you scour you remove grease and oils from the fibre as well as dirt. To scour wool, fill a bowl with warm water (between 50 and 60 C), add some soap or washing up liquid and leave the wool to soak for two hours or overnight. Rinse carefully because agitating the wool or changes in temperature can cause the wool to mat together and to felt. Be even more careful if you are washing wool tops. Read the section below if you are washing fleece. If you are going to mordant your wool straight after washing, you may wish to weigh the wool whilst it is still dry.

2. Scouring a Fleece

It can be very exciting to deal with a fleece, especially one that you have received for free. Free fleeces can also be useful when you are learning to wash them, as you do not need to worry about mistakes. Mediocre fleeces, however, are not worth the time spent spinning them as they make very poor yarn.

Use rubber washing up gloves when handling a dirty fleece, and use separate utensils reserved just for this kind of work. First open your fleece out to sort it. Be very ruthless and put all the bad bits in your compost. Large amounts of wet wool are heavy and difficult to handle, so do not try to wash the whole fleece in one go. I wash a small amount of wool at a time, as I do not have much space to spread the fleece out to dry.

You will find several different ways of washing fleece; I will describe the one that works best for me.

  1. Put a bucket in the garden and fill it two thirds full with cold water. Put some fleece in the bucket, but do not cram the bucket too tight. I leave the fleece to soak for a few hours or overnight.
  2. Put the fleece in a colander to drain and throw the dirty water on the compost.
  3. Repeat this soaking with cold water two or three times or until the water is no longer very dirty. Drain the fleece again.
  4. Fill a washing up bowl two thirds full with warm water between 50 C and 60C (use lower temperatures for very fine wool) and add about three good squirts of washing up liquid (about two tablespoons). The warmth helps dissolve the lanolin. Gently put the fleece inside and leave it for just under an hour. Make sure you remove the fleece from the water before it has cooled down too much; otherwise the lanolin gets back into the fleece. If the water was very dirty, repeat this step.
  5. Drain the wool and let it cool.
  6. Rinse the wool it in a bowl with cold water, and repeat the rinsing until the water runs clear. Always handle the wool gently, and do not agitate it inside the water.
  7. Drain the wool. I usually put the wool in a large colander to drain and then spin small amounts at a time in a salad spinner.
  8. Put the wool on a towel and let it dry. The next step is mordanting the wool, but before you do that, tease the dry wool by gently pulling it apart to aid mordant penetration.

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3. Mordanting wool with alum

When you are mordanting fibre, it is best to use no more than 10g of wool per litre of water. I usually use 100g of wool in a ten litre stock pot. Different authors suggest slightly different proportions of alum and cream of tartar. I use 8% of alum and 7% of cream of tartar in relation to the dry of weight of the wool. Too much alum, for example, more than 20%, can make the wool feel sticky.

Cream of Tartar is an ‘Assistant’ that increases the amount of alum absorbed by the wool. It can modify the final colour, especially with cochineal and madder. Proper Cream of Tartar (Potassium Bitartrate) should be used rather than the substitute (Sodium Pyrophosphate) commonly sold for cooking (buy Cream of Tartar here).

  1. Weigh the wool and leave it to soak in water for at least an hour or even overnight.
  2. Fill a saucepan full of cold water.
  3. Pour boiling water into a small heatproof container and add the cream of tartar, stirring it well until it has dissolved then add it to the saucepan.
  4. Pour boiling water in a small heatproof container and add the alum, stirring it well until the alum has dissolved. Add the dissolved alum to the saucepan.
  5. Add the pre-soaked scoured wool to the saucepan.
  6. Raise the temperature of the saucepan slowly to a simmer (87 C to 93 C) for most wools. Fine wools may need a lower temperature. Simmer gently for an hour. Make sure the fibres are submerged, and stir very gently and occasionally.
  7. Leave the wool to cool in the saucepan (it is OK to leave it overnight).
  8. Drain the wool. I usually put the wool in a large colander to drain and then spin small amounts at a time in a salad spinner.
  9. Put the wool on a towel and let it dry.
  10. When you are ready to dye, rinse the wool well to remove any unfixed alum.

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4. Mordant & Dye Yarn

It is easier to dye wool as yarns wound in skeins. If you buy the wool as a skein or hank, untwist it if necessary and check that the ties are secure. If you spin the wool yourself, wind it in a skein using a niddy noddy, a skein winder or the back of a chair. To prevent tangling, tie the skein securely (with tight knots) using loose ties in a figure of eight in at least 4 places. Do not make the ties too tight, as the wool expands when wet and you might end up with a tie dye effect.

Note: In the past, I used to tie my handspun wool with garden string and throw the bits of string in the compost afterwards. Now I use more handspun wool or even silk thread for the ties. When I remove the ties, I use them for embroidery or card them with some fleece.

5. Mordant & Dye Wool Tops/Roving

I find this is the best way to get a good colour as the open fibres facilitate mordant and dye penetration. I also find it more enjoyable to spin dyed wool rather than plain white. However, it is safer to dye fine and very fine wools after they have been spun into a yarn, to reduce the risk of felting and matting.

Note: If you spin wool, you might want to dye singles. In my experience singles tend to twist and turn and get a bit tangled up. I find it best to dye fleece in different colours, spin the different colours separately and then ply two or three colours together.

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6. Dyeing Knitted Items

Knitted items can be difficult to dye. Bearing in mind that you need about 10 litres of dye liquid for 100g of fibre, a 500g knitted jumper would need a very large container indeed. On the other hand, a pair of socks weighing 100g or less is quite feasible to dye.

One reason people might want to dye a whole jumper is to cover a stain. I do not recommend doing that, as the stained area will still look a different colour after the jumper has been dyed. The stain may also act as a mordant or modifier, affecting the final colour.

7. Dyeing Fabric

It is difficult to dye fabric evenly, fabric is also very bulky and difficult to handle. It is easier to dye the yarn, and weave the fabric afterwards.

8. Dyeing Coloured Wool

There is no reason to dye only white wool. I have obtained very good results dyeing grey Jacobs’ wool and brown Blue-faced Leicester. The colours are darker and more muted, but very beautiful.

9. Storing Dyed Wool

If you become addicted to dyeing wool, you will quickly accumulate bags and bags of the stuff. I store my wool in pillow protectors kept inside cardboard boxes. I do not like storing wool in plastic bags.

Back to:

Mordants introduction

Mordanting Cotton

Mordanting Silk

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Last updated on 28 December 2015
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