The Curious Colorist: Small-Batch Dyeing for the Dabbler

See how one spinner explores color by building a stash of hand-dyed handspun using mini loaf pans and a roaster oven from the thrift store.

Susan Z. Douglas Oct 11, 2023 - 11 min read

The Curious Colorist: Small-Batch Dyeing for the Dabbler Primary Image

Color for all. Photo by Matt Graves

Quick! What’s your favorite color? I used to just say “green,” but now I find the question more complicated. My favorite is a particular shade of green, leaning far into gold, and the color is mellowed a bit. Even that description doesn’t seem adequate. It also brings up another color concept, juxtaposition of color. How can I explain that I also like a particular shade of golden tobacco, but I really love it next to a bit of Prussian blue?

Exploring color interactions can be as simple as holding two or more skeins together. We all do that at yarn shops or in our own fiber stashes. Lately, I have been experimenting with knitted slip-stitch patterns, and I keep in mind the Kaffe Fassett adage, “When in doubt, add twenty more colours.” I like to make my eyes dance over the fabric. I like it when a color combination seems plain wrong but as I continue working, the “bad” part somehow fits right in.

To create the handspun palettes needed for color experiments, I often blend my hand-dyed fiber to spin into small amounts of yarn (see “Never-Ending Blending: An Experimental Method of Sequencing Batts,” Spin Off, Spring 2014). However, I also wanted a way to dye several small skeins of my handspun yarn in different colors at one time. Imagine having dozens of colors, shades, and tints at hand and always having the power to make even more. That’s what this little exercise in small-batch dyeing is all about.

Susan developed a palette of colors in small handspun skeins by just playing with—not measuring or planning—her dye mixes. Photo by Matt Graves

The Gathering

I rummaged through my handspun stash for some undyed skeins that were about sportweight, which is my favorite range for knitting. To me, this means a consistent (ish!) yarn with a grist of about 100 yards per ounce, or 1,600 yards per pound (3,225 meters per kilogram). I found some Tunis two-ply processed from fleece and some decade-old Merino two-ply spun from top. To these, I added some newly spun white Targhee top, a Bluefaced Leicester/Corriedale blend, and a charcoal Merino blend that I could overdye for darker shades. The yarns in my pile were far from identical, but close enough was good enough since I was making small amounts of so many colors. The different fiber characters and breeds would be used together, and the occasional variation in weight or softness wouldn’t pose a problem.


I had some trepidation about cutting the yarn into small skeins because it meant my full skeins could never be whole again—it changed their possibilities. However, the thought of making a fabulous assortment of colors quickly won me over, and I snipped. I made roughly three skeins from each ounce of yarn. I wanted to make enough yardage to play with, but the skeins also needed to fit into the little dye pans I planned to use. Each skein needed to fit in a mini loaf pan and still have space to move around in the dye solution. I tied the small skeins loosely in a couple of places to ensure that they would survive the process untangled. (Note: If you are seeking exact dyeing results, use a nonreactive dye vessel, such as glass or stainless steel. The aluminum pans used here could impact results, but they are accessible and suited this project’s purpose.)

Dyeing Little Bits

I could fit six mini loaf pans in my thrift-store roaster oven, so this determined the number of skeins I could dye at one time. Because the small pans require little water for the skeins to move around in, the resulting skeins can be a bit semisolid. You may want to try using a different heat source, larger vessels and skeins, or different dye products, but this method can be a platform for you to develop your own technique.

Left: Susan used mini loaf pans to create many dyebaths at once. Right: A second pan placed on top of the first held the skeins down while still allowing the bath to circulate. Photos by Susan Z. Douglas

Susan’s Supplies and Equipment

  • Synthrapol for presoak
  • Pro Chemical & Dye WashFast Acid Dyes in Sun Yellow, Fuchsia, Bright Blue, Caramel, and Black
  • Citric acid
  • Noniodized table salt


  • 1/8-teaspoon measure (0.6 milliliter)
  • 3-cup measure (720 milliliters)
  • Squeeze bottle for each dyestock (recycled dish-soap bottles work well)
  • Pint jar marked at ½ cup
  • Spoon or dowel
  • 12-quart roasting oven (no turkey ever again for this oven)
  • Rack for bottom of oven
  • 12 aluminum-foil mini loaf pans

Safety Supplies

  • Mask for handling dye powder
  • Gloves for handling dye mixture
  • Oven mitts

Step 1: Presoak the Skeins

I gathered six small skeins and soaked them in a small basin of warm water and a few drops of Synthrapol, a wetting agent, for a half hour. While they were soaking, I mixed the dyes.

Step 2: Mix the Dyestock Solutions

I first selected five colors: three primaries, Caramel, and Black. In individual squeeze bottles, I mixed 1/8 teaspoon of one dye with ½ cup of the hottest tap water I could get. I doubled the recipe for yellow, since I knew I’d be using more of it than the red and blue. Making sure the cap was on and snapped down securely, I shook vigorously until no particles of unmixed dye remained.

Step 3: Mix and Distribute the Dyebath Base

I prepared a dyebath base by mixing 3 cups of hot tap water, ½ teaspoon of citric acid, and ½ teaspoon of salt. After squeezing most of the water out of my skeins, I arranged each in a separate mini loaf pan and added ½ cup of the dyebath base to each.

Then I was ready to add the dyestock solutions to create new colors. I mixed the dye for each skein separately by first placing small squirts of dye into the pint jar, mixing the colors at whim. Great colors are at our fingertips even with just a few basic color-theory guides: mixing two primary colors creates a secondary color; adding a teensy bit of a color’s complement can tone down brightness; a golden brown like caramel can mellow and de-intensify some brighter colors; and black will darken and shade.

I had to remind myself that the skeins were tiny, so very little dye was needed, even for saturated colors. After mixing the dye, I added enough water to the jar to make ½ cup, lifted a skein from its tin, and poured in the dye mixture. I gave the dyebath a little stir and replaced the skein, making sure it was covered completely. If needed, I lifted out the skein again to add a bit more dye or to add a little more water.

Step 4: Set the Dye

To steam the yarns, I placed a rack in the bottom of a roaster and added an inch or so of water. I had already determined how to fit the six pans into the oven, so I carefully placed them in. With such small dyebaths, it was important to keep the skeins submerged as the temperature rose. I punched holes in a second set of mini pans that could gently push down on each skein while still allowing the dye to circulate.

I turned on the heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius) and set my timer for 45 minutes. The little dyebaths were mostly or all clear by then. (The time needed to bring small dye vessels up to temperature will vary depending on the heat source. Checking the skeins every 20 minutes or so is a good idea.) I shut off the oven and unplugged it, letting everything cool gradually. Once cool, I drained, rinsed, dried, and admired the skeins.

Mixing dyes and pondering the results when the skeins have dried is a wonderful way to explore color. Luckily for spinners, this can be just the first step in the color-theory exercise. Now I can cast on and put these little skeins to work. (Note: See Susan’s swatches using her mini skeins in the Spring 2023 issue of Spin Off.)

There are many ways to experience color creation and dyeing. This method is footloose and fancy-free. If reproducible colors and measured aliquots are your jam, check out Terry Mattison’s “Find Your Colors: Road Map to Repeatable Dyes” in Spin Off Spring 2021.


  • Fassett, Kaffe. Glorious Knits. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1985.
  • Pro Chemical and Dye,

This article was first published in Spin Off Spring 2023.

Remember the old toy commercials that urged kids to “collect ’em all”? Now retired and living in Maine, Susan Z. Douglas loves all the colors, and her goal is to collect ’em all.