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You can dye with frosting paste colors….

…but only if you really like pink.

Mom and I were in Milwaukee a couple weeks ago, and we stopped in to a fab little yarn shop called Just 4 Ewe. The owner, Jan, enthusiastically shared enough fiber tips and tricks to send my brain into complete and happy overload (while her dog, just as enthusiastically, kept trying to lick my feet). If you’re in the area, I strongly recommend the shop – but think carefully about your choice of shoes. Anyway, one of the things Jan recommended was using Wilton’s Past Food Colors to dye fiber. She showed me roving in a series of joyful pinks.

Now, I have some sort of crafter’s disorder that causes me to believe in absolutely every trick I see, read, or hear. So I’ve been looking for an excuse to try the food-paste-color-dye-job. I need to make a scarf for the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, and I want something with a lot of character and a sense that it’s been made up over years, and probably falling apart over just as many. But it should be really interesting, too, because he’s the Dodger, right? I tried making up a scrap scarf with many of the little bits left in my yarn stash, but that totally failed. (Well, not failed, precisely…. I realized about 40 rows in that it was a titch girly and I was actually making a scarf for myself, and I felt a little guilty about it. But it’s a great scarf!) So my new plan is to use a fuzzy taupe-y acrylic yarn as a carrier, and push in bits of yarn in random colors so it looks like it was striped at one point, and maybe still would be with a good washing up. But where to get the other yarn? Weeeeellllll…… I read a think a while ago about this crazy knitting trend, where people were knitting up sweaters, painting dye on them in patterns, then unravelling the sweater and re-knitting the exact same sweater, just to make the pattern a little less defined. Now, I admire that, mostly because it’s six-cat crazy and I come in at a mere two cats.

But I’ve always wanted to try it. Sort of. (Are you getting back to the scarf and the paste colors, Missa? Yes, no, really, we’re almost there! Honest….) So I went to the Sally Army store, picked up a plain cotton sweater (and saved some poor fellow from wearing a style that flatters precisely no one save catalog models), and brought it home to dye it in random splotches of red, blue, and brown. My intent, obviously, being to then unravel it and knit it into the scarf. This is my favorite part of costuming: Complicating Things Beyond All Reason. I am, as Lisa-tall-and-fabulous says, comfortable with my crazy. So I smeared the paste dye on, being careful to use only a titch more than I’d use to dye a pound of fondant (yes, I really have, and “titch” should be read as “one to two orders of magnitude”). Then I added hot water around the sweater, and waited for my favorite dyer’s miracle: capillary action. That’s where you dye stripes with space between, then rely on water to do your blending for you. Generally, it will do a far better job than you could if you tried, and it’s really cool to watch too. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen if your dye source is, say, a paste that’s been gelled with agar. Good to know. I didn’t, mind you. I had gotten a nice cup of tea and was taking a break from all six of the other things I was working on so I could watch the show, and the show never started. Pooh. So I did the official dyer’s Laying On Of The Hands, swished things around a bit, and promptly dyed by fingers bright pink. Pooh, indeed.

I left things to set for an hour, came back to a lovely melange of reds, blues, browns and greens, all swimming in green water. That’s odd – red plus blue plus brown does not, in any color theory I’m familiar with, equal green. (I was beginning to realize I was in trouble at this point….) The thing with past food colors is that, like so many other dyes, they’re just combinations of basic dye colors in the right proportions to make the desired color. Unlike many others, they’re all basic dyes approved for human consumption, therefore good if you suspect someone will be chewing on their scarf. (I don’t, but I hear it’s a concern with very young children.) The particular trouble with them, though, is that some of those basic dyes shift in the presence of water, and some of them do not. The blue and yellow components, particularly, completely departed with the rinse water, leaving me with a sweater in a sadly mottled color best described as Laundry Accident Pink. Well, then, not quite what I was going for. I tried again with much more coloring, and much less water. This got me occasional splashes of true color, and a lot of rather brighter pink. Since the Dodger is not a six year old with a strong love of Barbie dolls and ponies, it seemed inappropriate.

Eventually, because I really hate losing, I did what I should have done in the first place: chucked the sweater back into my little dye vat (a disposable foil turkey roaster – not terribly convenient to dye a sweater in), sprinkled randomly with powder dyes in indigo and orange, added hot water, and let capillary action handle the tricky bit of randomly blending these.

I don’t know what color the sweater is right now. It’s still in the drier, with the pack of sweaters that were being felted down to make easy urchin coats. I’m a little afraid to look, actually. If I don’t have areas of saturated color in the tones I need, I’m afraid I’m going to have to take my mother’s suggestion – “It’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a little judicious Sharpie use.” It’s a good suggestion. I wish I’d thought of it first, because it would give me a great heathered effect. It’s just that she came up with it first, and I’ll never hear the end of it if I do it.

Moral of the story: Past Food Colors really only dye things pink, regardless of the color of the paste.


  1. Beth
    Beth October 28, 2009

    Sharpie with a rubbing alcohol spritz to blend is also on Sometimes she stock “seconds” of Sharpies at a really good price, too.

    Kool-Aid will dye yarn colors other-than-pink if you truly want food-safe. I’ve done blue with Cub Scouts (3rd grade boys don’t do PINK).

  2. Kathleen
    Kathleen October 2, 2010

    I can tell you what went wrong. Food type dyes only work on protein fibers like wool or silk. Cotton requires a different type of dye.

  3. Katie Wiseman
    Katie Wiseman May 11, 2011

    INNNNNTERESTING!! Just found your site. . you’re a HOOT!

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