Knitting Blog

Hand Dyeing Cotton Yarn Into An Artsy Fiber Masterpiece

When we covered how to hand dye animal fiber yarn like wool and alpaca back in January, several Craftsy members had questions about hand dyeing cotton yarn, too. Craftsy to the rescue! Hand dyeing cotton yarn —and any other yarn for that matter —gives you an endless rainbow of colors that you may not be able to find in your local yarn store. Grab those blah-hued hanks and let’s talk about hand dyeing cotton yarn to turn it into an artsy fiber masterpiece!

Blue Sky alpacas worsted weight yarn

Blue Sky Alpacas Worsted Cotton yarn

Cotton vs. wool

You might ask yourself, why do I need to know about cotton if I already read about dyeing wool? Don’t forget that wool is an animal fiber. Cotton yarn, as you may know, is a plant fiber. Plant fibers behave just a little bit differently than animal fibers, so we need to treat them differently when dyeing them. This not only ensures that we get a gorgeous color, but it also ensures that the beautiful color lasts through wearing and washing.

Prepping your yarn and space

Tying yarn into hanks

You don’t want the yarn to get all tangled up during dyeing, so tie it in a loose hank to hold it all in place. This will also ensure the entire hank is dyed the same color evenly. If you’re not sure how to tie yarn into a hank, see our post on washing coned yarn. There’s a small tutorial for tying yarn into a hank there. And if your yarn is already in a hank, then skip this step and start washing!

Washing yarn

Before you start the actual dyeing, you’ll need to wash your yarn to remove any kind of residue, including wax and other yucky stuff. Here’s how:

1. Place the cotton into a large saucepan, then add some mild soap. Pour in warm water until it just immerses the entire hank of cotton. Place the saucepan on the stovetop, then turn the heat to simmering. Simmer the cotton for about an hour.

2. Once the cotton is ready, rinse it and let it dry. You may notice that the water turns a bit brown. That’s totally normal, so just keep rinsing until the yarn rinses clear.

Rowan Siena cotton yarn

Rowan Siena mercerized cotton yarn

Choosing dye

Different types of dye work differently on each type of yarn. So just because you dyed that wool a beautiful purple with one dye doesn’t mean it will dye the same beautiful purple on cotton. Kool-Aid, for example, is great for dyeing animal fibers, but it won’t work on cotton or other plant fibers.

One of my favorite dyes to use on cotton is dye intended for tie-dye. Most T-shirts we tie dye are made from 100% cotton, right? So any dye that’s appropriate for a 100% cotton T-shirt is also appropriate for dyeing cotton yarn. I know quite a few knitters and crocheters who had luck with Tulip’s One-Step Tie-Dye Kit, but check your local craft store’s T-shirt dye aisle and you’ll find plenty of options there. (And yes, you can totally tie-dye your cotton yarn!)

And another note regarding different types of fiber: Remember that some cotton yarns are mercerized. Check out the Rowan Siena yarn pictured above. Notice how the fibers are a bit shiny? That’s because the cotton is mercerized. This type of cotton will take dye differently than cotton that has not been mercerized. But, don’t worry if you’re not confident about identifying mercerized cotton on your own. The yarn label will always specify that the cotton has been mercerized, so you’ll know before you dye.

Dyeing methods

There are a lot of dyeing methods floating around out there, but I’ve found that dye kits and liquid RIT dyes are among the easiest to navigate. Here’s the method I use with my liquid RIT dye — and remember that it’s just one of many dyeing methods for cotton yarn.


1. Pop on those rubber gloves. Fill a pot with enough water to cover your hank of yarn. The yarn should be able to swish around in the pot and still be covered by water.

2. Heat water until it simmers. Do not let the water heat to a boil.

3. Add dye to the water. Check your dye’s instructions to see how much dye is recommended. Remember that using too little dye will result in a lighter color and vice versa. Sometimes you may want to purposely alter the amount of dye to achieve a certain color.

4. Add up to a cup of salt to the water. This will keep the color from fading.

5. Add the yarn to the water. (It should be slightly wet at this point after its washing.) Using a metal spoon, move the yarn around in the pot for about half an hour. Moving the yarn ensures the dye saturates the fiber evenly.

6. Remove the yarn from the water. Rinse the yarn in warm water, gradually making the water temperature colder as the water starts to run clear.

Easy, yeah? Don’t forget to experiment with different dye and dyeing methods to figure out which one works best for you. Experiment with different types of cotton, too! I bet you’ll be totally addicted to dyeing after a few rounds.

Have you ever tried to dye cotton yarn? Were you successful?



I’m going to try overdyeing some slightly-too-bright-green yarn with black Rit dye this weekend. I will report back!

mavis bian

Do you need textile dye ??

Paula Linn

I know you posted in March 2015, but I’d be interested to know how the project turned out. I plan to die an already knit shawl that is too-bright yellow and green. I don’t want black, which I assume covers any other color well. I want to dye the bright yellow and green to a varying or not shade of peach. Will that happen? I’d like to hear if the black completely covered your bright green. Thanks,

mavis bian

Do you need textile dye ???

mavis bian

Do you need textile dye ??


Does this work with food colours or do they wash out of cotton?


Food colors are acid dyes like kool aid, so they won’t work on cotton


That is not accurate. Koolaid is not an acid dye. You add vinegar as your acid and food coloring does work on cotton. I do it all the time


Koolaid is an acid dye – it contains a lot of citric acid which is why you don’t need vinegar with it. (food coloring and wilton colors do not have the citric acid)

Mrs. Agnes Dix-De Hert

Have you dyed mercerised cotton with food colouring? How? I’ve just tried to dye a sample of white mercerised cotton with blue food dye, and it came out a very pale brownish pink (possibly bled from the ties).


Hello Agnes, How do you prepare mercerized cotton yarn for dyeing? Do I still need to scour and bleach the yarn?
I did not mine but the result was disappointing as it came out uneven dye.
Thanks in advance for your reply,

Elizabeth De Rue

Can I reuse the water in the pot after the first dye has been exhausted ?


Yes you can reuse it but you won’t get much coverage the 2nd time round. I’ve reused black dye on multiple occasions and the second time will only dye the item a light gray/ purple, depending on the weight of the second item. Had better result re-using a navy dye but I wasn’t trying to dye the second item navy, I only wanted to overdye a green crochet shawl with a slight blue tone and I used quite a bit of dye so there seemed to be a lot of dye left in the water.

In summary, it will depend on how much dye you use and how heavy the first item was. If you used a lot of dye in comparison to the item weight then you’ll get more uptake of dye the 2nd time round. If the first item absorbs most of the dye then there’ll only be a small amount of dye left.


Can you do gradients or hand paint yarn coloring for cotton?
I’ve been searching for a way to do long gradual shifts into different colors for my cotton yarns just like the Chroma wool yarn. I’d just use Chroma, but most of my family is allergic to wool so gifts have to be in cotton.


I just tried dyeing my first skein of 100% cotton yarn! I think it came out wonderfully, thanks to your article! It is currently drying and I am wondering what the average dry time is for cotton? I’m prepared to wait at least until morning, but was hoping some experienced dyers could give me a reference point on this. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!


Very interesting artikle. Thank you.
My experiment is to overdye new brown cotton yarn into dark grey cq anthracite.
Which color do i have to take? Is it blue or black? Dylon or ?


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