Breaking Black

The autumnal weather means that drying freshly dyed skeins is taking ages, so while the weekend’s dye batch is still hanging up, I thought we’d take a look at breaking black…

Aside from just sounding really cool, breaking black dye is actually a really good way to understand the make-up of your colours. Black colouring is usually a combination of other dye colours, with purples and greens being some of the most common constituents. There are techniques which allow you to ‘break’ the dye and separate out these colours. You could break all sorts of colours, but black is usually the one that most people go for, as you get the most dramatic change.

Remembering back to science lessons at school, you may have done the chromatography experiment where you separate the colours out from felt-tip pen ink. You basically draw with the pen on some paper (filter paper is best, but any will work really) and then let the paper rest in a small amount of water. As the water is absorbed, the ink runs and the colours travel across the paper at different rates. Here are few done with the ‘washable’ felt-tips that I stole off my children:

‘Broken’ felt tips L-R: two blacks, green, two purples

Coming from washable pens, the inks are even easier to ‘break’ than normal.

So can you do the same with yarn dye? It’s quite popular with dyers who are using food colourings and certain colourings in particular seem to have the most dramatic results. I went to a local cake decorating shop in search of different types of black food dyes to play around with and manage to thoroughly confuse them when I mentioned that I was going to use the dyes on wool… The Squire’s food colouring broke quite easily, with teal blue and a reddish-purple splitting out quite easily:

Broken black

I’ve read that increasing acidity is often the best way to break colours on yarn and this result was achieved by painting the dye on the yarn and then applying pure distilled vinegar on the spots of dye.

Dr Oetker’s food gel on the other hand was a bit more tricky to break. I managed to break out some red-purple near the end of the process, but the rest of the yarn was a greeny-grey, not really something you would choose to use for a project! Anyway, it was so unimpressive that I forgot to take a photo. The dye was even difficult to split on paper (unlike the Squire’s), so there’s obviously just something about the constituent dye, or possibly the consistency as it was gel and not liquid.

I’ve not heard of many people breaking black acid dyes. It sounds like it’s possible because some people have had colours (such as brown) split on them unintentionally, but I’m guessing that the acid dyes are a lot more stable than food colouring. Black fibre reactive dyes (Procion dyes) can sometimes produce different colours on particular yarn bases (especially protein yarns) – sometimes closer to purple or green – so obviously something similar is going on there. Something to experiment with…

Photos of the pretty new yarn coming very soon – this week it’s all about subtle variegation and overdyeing!

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