How To Dye Cotton Yarn

 Learn how to dye cotton yarn with Tulip 12 Color Tie Dye Kit

Worked up cotton front

Every single time I plan out my next washcloth colors, I always think that I need to dye cotton yarn. I can never find colorways that I really like. So the last few days, I’ve been experimenting with dyeing cotton yarn, that natural fiber whose spinners always seem to have colorways I DON’T want. I love Lily Sugar N Creme, I use it exclusively. The only real gripes I have is that their stripes yarn is a bit crunchy in some areas, and they only have one or two ombres that I really enjoy working with. So I figured I’d learn how to dye the insane amounts of white yarn I got to get the ombres and stripes I wanted.

What do I use to dye cotton yarn?

First off, cotton can’t be dyed with any of the traditional or shortcut dyes out there (like Kool Aid and Wilton Gel Cake Dye) because those dyes aren’t considered “fiber reactive”. So I searched around and found a YouTube channel for ChemKnits, hosted by a biochemist named Rebecca. A few of her videos take the viewer through the dyeing process with wools, but she does do experiments with other fibers like acrylic, cotton and more. Her information is crazy valuable to new dyers like me, who want to branch out into genuine custom knits, whether for profit or pleasure. Her best video as far as dyeing cotton goes, is How to Dye Cotton Yarn with a Tulip Tie Dye Kit. This is the video I used as a basis for dyeing my cotton.

How to Dye Cotton Yarn

First, after my research, I purchased the Tulip One-Step 12 Color Tie Dye Kit from Amazon, recommended by ChemKnits. What you’ll get when you purchase this kit is: rubber bands, gloves, a plastic tarp, 12 squeeze bottles with dye powder already in them, and an instruction poster/pamphlet. Other prep materials I added in were: plastic wrap, Ziplock bags, plastic grocery bag, a cookie cooling rack and paper towels.

Cotton Soaking

I took a giant ball of Lily cotton and separated the 710 yards into 6-72g hanks (roughly 118 yards each ball). Since I don’t have a swift yet, I overturned one of my dining chairs, wound the yarn over three legs, and tied the yarn ends into the rest of the hank securely with some acrylic yarn bits.  Then I soaked it in a washed plastic coffee container full of water for about 15 minutes to half an hour. As the yarn was soaking, I prepped my table, added water to my dye bottles, set aside a chunk of paper towels, and plotted out my color scheme.

Once the yarn was finished soaking, I gently squeezed out the water enough so it was still wet but no longer dripping and laid it out on my prep area. Then I went to town on this.

Cotton Dyeing SetupThis one was just and experiment, I put colors in that matched a specific ombre that Lily had, but I added a green to give it a little punch. One thing to make sure of, and this will come in time, is to control the dye. Controlling a liquid color of some sort, like paints and dyes, I’ve never been good at. I ended up getting a bit of green in the middle of the yellow, a little fuchsia in the middle of the green. Live and learn, right? This does get a bit messy, but your paper towels will help you control the rogue dye pooling on the plastic.

After I was finished with my dyeing sessionWrapped up dyed cotton 2, I carefully wiped everything I could down with the paper towels. This is crucial because the little pools of dye will end up in very odd places, and before you know it, you’ll have a spot of color where you don’t want it. With the gloves on, I adjusted the hank to a thin oval and wrapped it up as tightly as I could in the plastic wrap. Then I put the wrapped bundle in a ziplock bag, and for good measure, a plastic grocery bag and let it sit for 6 hours. The instructions in the tie dye kit say to let it sit for 6-8 hours depending on how bright you want the colors, but I couldn’t wait and started rinsing after six.

The kit instructions and ChemKnits both say to rinse until the water comes clear and wash the hank by hand with soap. ChemKnits used dishsoap she had on hand, I used our laundry soap, and a rather healthy amount at that. Bubbles were everywhere. It was okay, though, because the bubbles washed away quickly with cool water and, even though there was still a ton of residual dye in the sink, none of the colors ran together, and the yarn was vibrant and as vivacious as I wanted it to be. I honestly wanted to use the word “vivacious” because that’s how the colors make me feel: bright and alive, and I usually hate colors like that. It reminds me of those 80s jelly bracelets and neon spandex, which makes me cringe most of the time at the fact that I wore just that back then. (Ugh.) But this yarn was different. Even drying out, I couldn’t get over at how pretty it was.Rinsed out cotton

I was dying to see how this puppy knit up. In this Florida weather, because of the humidity, it seems to take forever for a 70+gram hank of cotton to dry out completely. It took about a day and a half, between laying it flat on a cookie cooling rack and hanging on a hanger both inside and outside. The colors, wet vs dry, seemed to pale out a bit, but that’s to be expected. The kit instructions say to let the dye sit in the fiber for 8 hours for very solid, vibrant colors. Next time, I’ll try leaving it overnight and into the next day, and see how saturated the colors get.

The Knit Sample

Worked up cotton backI’ve never really worked with a variegated yarn that I could really enjoy, and yarn from a big box store like JoAnn’s and Michael’s, a lot of the ombres have colors that are 6″ or less before the hues change. My colors were roughly 12 inches long, leaving for some guaranteed color pooling, which is what I wanted. This sample is on size 7 (4.5mm) needles, 25 stitches per swatch.

I finished 28 rows in the first swatch, and picked up the selvedge stitches – Pick Up Stitch [PU st, PU st, YO] with yarn overs to create the second swatch (the selvege edge is a slipped stitch at the beginning of a row, essentially covering two rows instead of one, hence the extra yarn over every other stitch); kind of like an entrelac effect. Whichever way the swatch goes, the color pooling still seems to work out with a nice, diagonal striping effect, a result I didn’t expect, but love!


If you purchase this Tulip Tie Dye Kit (follow the affiliate link above) to dye cotton yarn, here are a few tips for you to keep in mind while you proceed with your dyeing experience.

  1. I experimented with the black and found that it’s not really a true black, it’s blue based. So when I did a small hank of black into red into grey gradient, the red turned purple. Since orange is the opposite of blue, and when mixed will create a bit of a brown, it might be wise to add a touch of orange to the black if you’re going to create a dye job of black into a warm color. If you do this, let me know how it turns out, I’ll be experimenting with it myself. Black to Red
  2. If you want to do a hue saturation gradient, I recommend: soak your hank, squeeze out the water, but not by a lot. Take your preferred color and saturate one part only of the hank, about one third. Massage the dye into the strands, then pick up that dyed section and, holding it over a bowl, gently squeeze the dye into the rest of the hank, letting it drip into the undyed wet section. The kit instructions say to lay your cotton flat, saturate one end, then take a water soaked paint brush and paint the fiber to draw the dye further into the yarn/t-shirt. As that probably works really well with a shirt, the squeezing method may be quicker and get better results. Doing my black to red gradient job, it worked nicely and turned out pretty cool.
  3. When you mix your dyes in the bottle, shake it really, really well. After I had mixed my black dye, a small clump of yellow somehow made its way into the yarn. It was weird looking, but the black overpowered it and I thought nothing of it. I haven’t seen it happen with other dyes, but just to be sure, really shake the hell out of that bottle.
  4. When mixing dyes to create a gradient effect, here’s a quick rundown of what basic complementary colors two will create:
    -Red and Green: grey
    -Blue and Orange: brown
    -Yellow and Purple: brownish grey (Typically, with something like watercolors, brownish gray is the norm. However, if you look in the picture above of the yarn drying, the purple and yellow create an orange shade.)
    These are complementary colors, those opposite each other on the color wheel. These basics I have listed are results mixed with equal parts. You can experiment with the colors in the kit to see what they’ll create and adjust accordingly, but don’t be surprised if you get a weird looking brown when mixing dyes in the fiber.
  5. You don’t need to warm anything up, boil any water, or microwave anything.
  6. This is a basic, very effective way to dye cotton yarn. I haven’t tried linen or bamboo yet, but I’ll add any results as I experiment.
  7. This will stain your stainless steel sink and Formica countertop if you let drops of dye sit. Be sure to keep a paper towel ready to swab any stray dye.
  8. I was wondering about pastels and lighter colors, and experimented a bit. Right after saturating and squeezing a new hank, I rinsed out a portion of it under some running water. The dye still took really well to the fiber, but it rinsed out enough to get a nice lighter color. We’ll see how it looks when it dries.

Dyeing cotton yarn is not hard to do, and once you get started, be prepared to get addicted. It’s interesting to see what colors you can come up with. I’m actually pretty thrilled with the outcome of some of my projects so far, and as I continue to design, my first thought after concept is color. I never used to design anything like that. I hope this has helped you out and cleared up a few things for you. Feel free to go to my Facebook page and post pictures of your finished dyed projects, I’d love to see them.  When I set up an email list, I’ll be creating color inspiration emails for dyeing probably once a month, depending. Comment below if you think you’d be interested in that.

Thank you again for reading and have an awesome, creative day!

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