Dyeing 1,2,3 for acid dyes: 1 – What can I dye?

As a teacher in a former life (years ago) I always love to share information with anyone who asks…and even those who don’t! Today, I’m starting a series of posts about the dyeing process. Having taught several dyeing classes, I have a fairly good idea what questions are asked about beginning to dye.

What can you dye with acid dyes?  Acid dyes are used for protein fibers. Think something grown on, or in, an animal. They include wool of all types, alpaca, llama, yak, mohair, rabbit, dog, silk and even milk fiber and spider silk (google spider silk fabric, you’ll be amazed). Milk, you say? Well, if you think about it, milk contains protein, and it is the protein that is processed into a fiber form that readily bonds with acid dyes. For a much more in-depth and very clear explanation of the chemical aspect of acid dyes, check out gnomespun yarn.

Protein Fibers for Dyeing:

All protein fibers take acid dyes. Protein fibers are those that come from an animal: wool and alpaca and dog and bunny and goat are all animal fibers, and all protein fibers. Because of their molecular composition (from amino acids), protein fibers form ionic bonds with acid dyes on a molecular level. However, different protein fibers absorb or take up dye in different ways. To make matters more confusing, even the same fiber – wool for example – will take up dye differently depending on the way the wool is prepared!

Superwash wool will absorb dye very quickly compared to non – superwash wool, and the colors will be more intense.

Alpaca: takes up dye slowly and the resulting color is less intense

Silk: takes up dye slowly but results in vibrant, clear colors; it can be challenging to get the dye to reach all surfaces of silk top. Can be dyed with fiber reactive dyes as well!

Nylon and Firestar: take up dye readily and produce clear, vivid colors when handled like wool


OK, now for the weird ones!

Chitin: comes from the shells of crabs and has both glucose and amino components in the molecules, so can be dyed with both acid and fiber reactive dyes. The fiber reactive dyes will give a stronger color.

Milk fiber: the best way to remember that milk fiber takes acid dyes is to remember that it comes from an animal! The protein in milk, casein, is what actually becomes the fiber. Again, the resulting color can be a little muted compared to silk or wool.

Soysilk: yeah, soy is a plant, and plants are (with very few exceptions!) not animals…but here is where it gets complicated: the part of the soy plant that is used to make fiber is the bean; the part of the bean that is leftover after they make other products has a high quantity of the amino acid lysine in it (the same amino acid they gave the dinosaurs in Jurassic  Park) and makes a great fiber when chemically treated. Since it is made from an amino acid, it can be dyed with acid dyes! And, you may have guessed, the resulting colors may also be a little subdued compared to wool.

What won’t take acid dyes?

Bamboo and other cellulose based rayons, Seacell, Viscose, Tencel, Rayon, and Lyocell: all examples of  “regenerated cellulose.” Any type of plant material that is chemically altered to form a fiber from its building blocks of strings of glucose sugar needs to be dyed using fiber reactive dyes. The molecular makeup of these fibers has no amino acid in it to bond with acid dyes.

Bast fibers: linen, bamboo bast, hemp, ramie, nettle, wisteria – if it comes from the stem of a plant without being chemically altered, it is a bast fiber or yarn and needs fiber-reactive dyes…no amino acids for acid dyes to bond to.

So, step one in acid dying – make sure the fiber you are dyeing is a protein fiber.

Next post – what you need to get started.

2 thoughts on “Dyeing 1,2,3 for acid dyes: 1 – What can I dye?

  1. Joy

    Thank you so much for this series. I’ve encountered every single question you have mentioned and am truly appreciative that you are willing to share your knowledge. Thank you.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s