Learning to Dye at the CTC

Dye liquors

I’ve dabbled in dyeing before, but never quite like this. As part of my MPhil in Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Textile Conservation, (CTC), I learned all about dyeing support fabric along with my fellow first year students. For those of you who are not particularly familiar with textile conservation, one fairly common technique is to carefully stitch a fragile fabric to a sturdier fabric backing. This aids in display and handling, preventing further destruction and increasing visual congruity. To make support fabric less aesthetically distracting, it is common practice to dye it a sympathetic colour, although not always identical to the original in order to maintain a level of disclosure about the performed conservation work.

Who's that goof stirring the samples in the dye bath?  Dyeing evenly involves the use of additives, careful temperature control, and constant stirring and prodding.

Who’s that goof stirring the samples in the dye bath? Dyeing evenly involves the use of additives, careful temperature control, and frequent stirring and prodding.

Achieving the proper shade is part art, science, and probably alchemy. As anyone who has done much sewing or mending has probably experienced, finding an “off the rack” colour match to anything is very rare! As with painting, colours must be mixed to order, a process that can involve several different colours.

Shades of Lanaset Bordeaux B on wool delaine samples.  A higher ratio of dye to water increases the more concentrated shades.

Shades of Lanaset Bordeaux B on wool delaine samples. A higher ratio of dye to water increases the concentration of the shade.

Our assignment was an exercise in increasing complexity. First, we were to each dye 6 wool samples in increasingly dark shades of a single dye (the CTC uses Lanaset dyes on protein fibres like wool and silk). Next was to join up with a partner to create a gradient of your two dye colours on silk and nylon. Finally, we created a triangular gradient of three colours on cotton, using a dye called Novacron. This last project was as much for the CTC as our own knowledge, as the relatively new adoption of the dye means that there is a limited library of colour recipes. At the end of the week, our samples entered the recipe book to be used for future conservation work.

Tri-colour cotton dyeing with Novacron.  Samples contain between one and three colours, and will contribute to the recipe book at the CTC for future dye projects.

Tri-colour cotton dyeing with Novacron. Samples contain between one and three colours, and will contribute to the recipe book at the CTC for future dye projects.

Like many things in conservation, dyeing requires patience, attention, knowledge, and the ability to adjust when things don’t go quite right. Conservators are probably by their nature obsessive and perfectionist, but knowing that sometimes things happen outside of your control is an important lesson to remember. The most we can do when a sample comes out blotchy is to reflect on our process, and accept that we must either try again or let it be. Life lessons, really!

After all the fun, with the room full of so many delicious colour gradients, the overwhelming feeling is one of satisfaction. Even if not everything was perfect, being able to look upon so many hues, arranged in order is an incredibly soothing experience. I look forward to learning more about dyeing for conservation, as well as applying my new skills to my own personal projects.

My and my lab partner's shade samples side-by side.  We would later take a middle shade and make a gradient from orange to red.

My and my lab partner’s shade samples side-by-side. We would later take a middle shade and make a gradient from orange to red.

I have a large scarf/shawl that is just waiting for some ombre action, and I’ll be sure to draw on what I’ve learned in these two weeks.

For more information and updates from the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Textile Conservation, check out their blog! http://textileconservation.academicblogs.co.uk/

Designing Garments: Tips, Techniques, and Personal Experiences


I have finally designed and knit something that turned out exactly how I wanted it to. How novel.

Designing my own knit garments has been an evolving process. The challenge for me is twofold- first creating a specific enough plan and design, down to all the details and measurements, and then following through by properly carrying out my own design. This may seem obvious, but it is more difficult to master than I thought! Often I draw a loose sketch of what I want and spend too little time planning my gage, measurements, where and when to increase or decrease, and how things will ultimately fit together. This results in a waste of time and materials when I either have to repeatedly undo a section as I revert trial and error as my main technique or end up with a product that I am unhappy with.

This jumper is one of my success stories! I do confess to re-doing a few sections and altering my plan, but I am also happy with myself for doing so. Instead of just hoping that things would turn out in the end, I was a little more critical along the way and kept checking my measurements against my plan, my body, and a sweater of similar shape that I already owned.

I tried to draw upon what I already knew as a knitter, as well as incorporate details into the piece that would elevate it to something special. The sleeves are set-in cap sleeves with a picot edge, which is a technique I had used in the past. However, when faced with making a collar, I decided to try double-knitting, which I had never applied to that use before.   I think that it worked very successfully, as it reduced curling from stockinette stitch while providing a thicker fabric so that the collar had more substance and lay better against the body.

Double knit collar, showing underside in green

Double knit collar, showing underside in green

I cannot provide a full pattern to share, as my notes are a bit haphazard and I enjoy having an unique item, but I am happy to share my experiences and some tips and tricks if you embark on your own attempt at design.  For reference, this was knit in Rowan Sienna 4-ply, a discontinued mercerised cotton yarn.  Also, as a bonus I will be happy to give you the colourwork chart that I designed for this jumper for use in your own projects!

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First off, make sure that your initial design is specific, down to the various measurements. It is certainly possible to make some changes along the way, but it if you want a garment that has a cohesive feel to it, start with a real plan. If you are going to make picot edge sleeves, do you want to picot the bottom or your jumper? It will be more difficult to make this happen later. What is the neckline or collar, and how does it relate to the overall design of the garment? Should sleeves be set in or raglan? Are you willing to spend the time doing some trigonometry to properly calculate your sleeve hole (armscye)? What ways does construction best enhance your design – top up or down, knit in round, pieces, darts, etc.?

I know it may seem like too much time spent doing the part that isn’t knitting, but it is really crucial! If all this is too much, perhaps start with a pattern that you know and modify it with colourwork or stitch, or try changing a detail like the sleeves or collar.


Choose your materials carefully, taking into consideration the fibre, spin, and weight and how it will enhance your design. Different fibres and spins have varying levels of sheen, elasticity, weight, warmth, and drape. If you choose poorly, or try to pick an option only because it is affordable, you may end up not even using the end product that you spent so much time on!

Check your gauge. No really, check your gauge. If you have any colourwork or different stitches, make sure to do a generous swatch up. I had to redo almost the entire back of this jumper because I failed to appreciate the amount that knit fabric tends to draw in during colourwork.

Techniques and Structure:

Decide before you start how exactly you will construct it. How many pieces do you need, and where do they connect? Should any stitches be left “live” and kitchener stitched or spliced, or should all edges be bound on and off? In colourwork, does intarsia or stranded fair-isle make more sense? If your design motifs are farther apart than an inch or two, I recommend intarsia, even if it may seem a little extra work. It will save you in the end!

Keep in mind as you go:

As you are making your garment, keep checking to ensure that your measurements match up. If possible, try it on at various stages. This can be done by loosely basting pieces together to give a true sense of how it will fit. If you have similarly shaped garments, try laying your knitting on top of it to see how it relates to that shape.

Be critical of your design and process. If you begin to encounter a problem, or foresee an element becoming an issue in the future, stop and think! Don’t waste your time working on something you’ll have to take out later just because you can’t be bothered to reconsider your design. If you do make changes, think those through as well, and don’t fail to take the proper time to work out all your calculations properly.  Remember to stay flexible with your project, be critical of your initial ideas, and be proud of your final product.

Good luck!

Good luck!

Want to go further? Here are some tools that will help you realise your design!


Armscye Calculator

The Knitting Fiend/Diet Diary: How to Design a Sleeve Cap

Helpful Books:

Vogue Knitting Stitchionary Volume One: Knit & Purl

Vogue Knitting Stitchionary Volume Two: Cables

Vogue Knitting Stitchionary Volume Three: Color Knitting

Knitwear Design Workshop: A Comprehensive Guide to Handknits

Disclaimer: I am an Amazon affiliate.  I recommend these books, but I do get a small fee if you buy them on Amazon.  Feel free to check out your library, independent, or used bookstore!