Thursday, May 30, 2002

Dyeing Cotton with Kool-Aid

Many people have documented methods of dyeing animal fibers (ie, wool) with Kool-Aid (see References below). Cotton is much harder to dye using these methods because it is derived from plants. I'm doing a series of experiments in order to find a method that will give the most color to cotton. I will vary solution pH, solution temperature, fiber wetting, and concentration of dye solution (after four years of chem lab, I can't escape the scientific method!). Oh yeah, Kool-Aid is a registered trademark of Kraft.

Purpose: Find conditions that give the most intense results when dyeing 100% cotton yarn with Kool-Aid.

Background: Cotton is a plant fiber and is made of cellulose, a polymeric sugar. It is hydrophilic (water loving), which is why cotton towels are so absorbent. Dyes tend to be water-soluble but also have substantial organic components (this is what imparts color in the visible range). The Kool-Aid I will use in this experiment contains Red #40, which is an azo dye. Its chemical structure can be found here.


  • Lion Brand Kitchen Cotton (100% cotton)
  • Kool-Aid unsweetened drink mix, Tropical Punch
  • White vinegar (to lower pH)
  • Baking soda (to raise pH)
  • Dishwashing liquid (to prepare fiber for dyeing)


The general procedure I will use in dyeing my cotton has been adapted from the references listed below. Because I am running multiple trials, I will use small amounts of cotton and kool-aid solution; instructions should be modified accordingly based on how much yarn is to be dyed.

pH/Temperature Trials:

  1. Soak 12" lengths of cotton in hot water with a little dishwashing liquid for 30 minutes to wet the yarn. Do the next two steps while the yarn is soaking.
  2. Create master dye solution using 1 packet of Kool-Aid and 3/4 cup of water. Depending on the pH you would like to achieve, add (a) 1/4 cup white vinegar (low pH), (b) 1/4 cup water (medium pH), or (c) 1/4 cup water and 2 tbsp baking soda (high pH - be prepared, it'll fizz!).
  3. Measure 1/3 cup of dye solution into an appropriate container (a non-aluminum pot for the high-temperature trial, anything you please for the other trials). For the high-temperature trial, heat the solution until it almost boils. For the low-temperature trial, refrigerate the solution for 30 minutes. For the room-temperature trial, do nothing yet.
  4. Squeeze out excess water from yarn. For each container of solution, add one 12" piece of yarn, making sure it's submerged.
  5. Allow yarn to soak while keeping solution temperature constant (stove for hot, fridge for cold, countertop for room-temp) for 1.5 hours. For the high-temp trials, you may have to add more water as existing water evaporates. That should be okay since we only care about the absolute amount of dye present.
  6. Let yarn come to room temperature, then remove from solution and rinse thoroughly. Let dry.

results of temperature/pH study

It appears that we get roughly the same color intensity at a range of pHs and temperatures. Based on this information, future trials will be done at room temperature (much easier than monitoring a stove for hours!).

Concentration/Wetting Trials:

  1. For the wetting trial, I soaked the yarn in a warm water/dish soap solution for 30 minutes. For the non-wetting trial, I did nothing to the yarn.
  2. For both wetting and non-wetting trials, I created a master solution out of 1 packet of Tropical Punch Kool-Aid and 6.25 tsp of water.
  3. I doled this master solution out into five cups, divided as follows: .25 tsp, .5 tsp, 1 tsp, 1.5 tsp (1/2 tbsp), 3 tsp (1 tbsp) of master solution. I then filled each cup half full with water (all cups were filled to the same level to control for solution volume, which people claim does not affect results). I then added 1/4 cup of white vinegar to each solution, even though I found previously that it doesn't make a difference.
  4. I put yard-long pieces of yarn in each solution and let them sit for 1.5 hours at room temperature.

    the solutions with yarn in them

  5. I rinsed each piece with soapy water, then clean water, and let them dry.

results of wetting/concentration trials

As you can see in the pictures (which look a little more orange than the yarn actually is), wetting with warm soapy water for 30 minutes definitely increases the intensity of the dye. Not wetting gives a paler and more vareigated effect. Also, the more dye present in solution, the stronger the color. Not much of a surprise, but good to verify it.

Since the teaspoon measurements aren't very intuitive, here are their equivalent amounts in yards of yarn per packet of Kool-Aid:

Amount of master soln. used 1/4 tsp 1/2 tsp 1 tsp 1/2 tbsp 1 tbsp
Yards of yarn per packet of Kool-Aid 25 12.5 6 4 2

Conclusions: From these limited experiments, we can conclude that when dyeing cotton yarn, the most color is obtained by using large amounts of Kool-Aid and pre-wetting the yarn. Adding vinegar and heating are less important to the intensity of the color.


  1. Burch, Paula. FAQ: Is Kool-Aid really colored with Procion MX dye? (No!) (explains why Kool-Aid dyes do not work on cotton)
  2. Harris-Pruitt, Barbara. Dyeing Protein Fibers with Kool-Aid: Basic Howto (includes microwave and stovetop methods for dyeing wool)
  3. Hergert, Anna. Dyeing to Win, (mentions that cotton dyes better in cold solutions)
  4. Hiott, Nicolette. Hey! Kool-Aid! Fun and Funky Kool-Aid Dyeing (three different techniques for dyeing wool with Kool-Aid)
  5. Knitter's Review. Quick, Fun Dyeing for Beginners (lots of pictures of dyed yarns)
  6. McMillan, Caroline ed. Wool Works: dyeing fibers (a compilation of emails with advice on dyeing with Kool-Aid)
  7. Veni Vidi ViDYE (lots of good pictures accompanying instructions on dyeing both wool and cotton)
  8. Squeo, Melissa. What is FD&C Red Dye #40 and why is it used? (background information about Red #40)

Other Results:

I tried doing more non-scientific tests with the rest of my cotton (~220 yards) with less-than-stellar results. First, I tried to dye it orange using 1 packet Orange, 1 packet Mandarina Tangerina, and 2 packets Lemonade. It came out faintly yellow, but nothing noticeable. Probably a combination of low concentration and the faintness of the orange compared to red.

Then I dyed half of the skein in 1 packet Tropical Punch, 1 Orange, and 1 Strawberry, which gave a light pink. Then I decided to try to overdye it blue. Unfortunately, when I re-wetted the yarn, most of the pink washed out (guess I didn't rinse well enough after dyeing the first time around). The blue (6 packets of Raspberry Ice Blue) didn't take very well, though more of it showed up after drying for some reason. I think the problem was that I didn't wash off the soap after wetting the yarn, and it kept the dye molecules from entering the fiber. Oh well!

failed attempt at dyeing cotton blue

In the future, it would also be better to use Blue Moon Berry instead of Raspberry Ice Blue because the raspberry was a pretty light blue, even in solution.

Then I knitted up a small swatch in garter stitch and dyed this in a packet of Strawberry. It turned a nice pink, and when I unravelled it, it was a variegated pink. Pretty cool, but impractical for large projects.

pink variegated cotton pink
variegated cotton again