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In Search of Supplies: Overdyeing Wool

Do you ever find a piece of wool in your stash that’s just too bright? Or maybe you are looking for that perfect color, and you can only find a light shade of it. For those of us who like a more muted look, it can be hard to find just the right hue. “If only this were darker…” we think as we pick up a wool that speaks to us, but maybe a little too loudly. But not to worry! I have some simple tips to share with you from myself and some friends about how to tinker with your wool colors.

Though stitchers often buy wool already dyed a color, nothing is set in stone. You can actually dye over that color for a different look. There are several ways to do this. I’m going over four techniques you can use to overdye your wool and get that perfect color.

Marrying Wools

I asked Betsy and Erica Reed of Heavens to Betsy to give us some tips on overdyeing and playing with color. They shared some easy ways to manipulate the colors of your wool, one of which is called marrying.

“Seriously, do not let Erica near ugly or very bright wools,” Betsy told us. “She will immediately grab a pot of water, add a bit of dish soap and simmer them together.” They suggest that setting two or three contrasting colors in the same pot can produce a dyed, mottled look. For example, you can put a yellow and a red together to make an orange. For more variety in texture, try using rubber bands and PVC pipes, wooden blocks, cottons, and wrap your wools around to get all kinds of different effects. These kinds of variations can add a depth to your wool colors. This is possibly the easiest way to adjust your wool colors, because all you need are a pot, some dish soap, and your wools!

Coffee & Tea Staining

“Two of the best things in your kitchen right now: coffee and tea,” Betsy and Erica told me. “Because they have caffeine and taste great and can instantly change your mood but also because they can instantly change your project. If you finish piece and it is bothering you that one part is too bright or you want an overall vintage look: grab a cuppa and start dabbing, brushing, blotting or spraying with tea or coffee.” It’s great to be able to fix things even after you have stitched them on!

If you want to adjust before your start, you can dull down a wool that’s too bright with instant coffee. Heat up water in a large pot. Add ½ cup of coffee per gallon of water, mix, then put your wools in. You can add more coffee depending on how dark you want your color to get.

The colors pictured were made by dying over plain natural wool, but can add beautiful overtones to your colored wool fabrics as well.


It’s walnut season as we speak! This might be my favorite way to adjust the colors of wool and other fabrics (cotton, linen, etc.) You can use actual walnuts straight off the ground to add a brown overtone to your wool pieces.

I like the walnuts that have just fallen off the tree, and are green or yellow. They can have some brown spots, but they should not be completely brown. The brown walnuts will darken your fabrics, but the color can be muddy. Once you have collected about 2 dozen, you have enough for a 3-gallon pot. I suggest having a dedicated pot for this activity. Put the walnuts in and fill the pot with water, leaving some room for wool. Cook it on medium heat for at least half an hour. Once the water begins to turn brown, go ahead and put your first yard in. I do most of my dying outside over a fire with my little cauldron, but you can easily do this on a stove-top. Unfortunately, dying with walnuts is not as aromatic as dying with coffee, but the color is worth it!

  • If you want an even dye (not mottled or splotchy) cook for an hour or until the desired color is reached in the water, strain the walnuts out, and then put your wool in.

  • If you want it mottled (which is what I usually do), leave the walnuts in. You will get random dark splotches which can be fun, and add a more aged look.

In a 3-gallon pot you can overdye 1 yard of wool at a time. You can get quite a few yards done until the color runs out. It depends on the strength of the walnuts, which is always variable. Leave the fabric in on medium heat until you have reached the desired color. If you have smaller pieces that you want to overdye, just put in what equals about a yard. If you have any reds, however, do not put them with other colors. The reds will always turn the dye pot pink. Do these last or have a dedicated red dye bath.

If you don’t have time to overdye, or you want to save some for later, boil down the walnut bath until it is very dark. This will take several hours. Let the liquid cool completely, strain the walnuts out, and pour the liquid into empty plastic jugs (juice or milk containers work well) and freeze it. You can then thaw it, heat it up with more water, and overdye at any time of year.

Chemical Dyes

If you are looking for less of a brown overtone, you can use chemical dyes to overdye your wool. I talked to Trish Harriman of Attic Heirlooms about how she adjusts her colors. She gave us some advice for those a little more adventurous. If you want to try chemical dyes, or already use them, here are some tips for using them to manipulate existing colors.

“Changing the color, shade or depth of your wool can be done by adding a complimentary color to the dye pot. This is the color opposite the one you are working with on the color wheel. You will need to have dedicated utensils and pots as chemical dyes should not be used in your everyday cookware. In addition, you would need a basic color wheel palette of chemical dyes. Adding a very small amount of dye at a time (wet the tip of a toothpick and dip into the dye) will change the original. A small amount of white vinegar will help to draw the color in and fix it. Black or grey in the same manner will change the shade (add black) and tone (add grey) of a color. Warning!! These are acid dyes and should be used very carefully using plastic gloves and painters mask for safety [Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using these types of products]. This method can result in beautiful colors for your project.”

It's Your Turn

So don’t give up on any colors you don’t like in your stash! Try one of these methods to create some beautiful variations on your current wool fabrics. Let me know how they turn out!

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