Dyeing – by Mike Connor

There are numerous ways of dyeing and staining feathers, and it is a fascinating subject in its own right. Indeed, I have spent many a pleasurable hour poring over old books, and then trying out arcane recipes, most of which actually worked! It can be quite fascinating and enjoyable trying to find out what things like “Copperas”, or “Fustic” equate to in modern terms.

This however is only really for fanatics. It is a terrible mess on really, and there are much easier ways of obtaining satisfactory results. You only need to stick to a few basic rules, to obtain practically whatever results you desire.

The first absolutely iron rule for obtaining pure bright solid colours is to use perfectly pure white material to start with. The material must be thoroughly degreased, free from soap or other substances, and completely and thoroughly wet when it goes into the previously prepared dye bath. Preferably it should also have been rinsed in very hot water, so that it is close to the temperature of the dye bath, prior to immersion. 

I have used many dyes over the years, even, as I already wrote, some complicated and exotic recipes from older books on fly dressing, and various other arcane tomes However, except for certain very specific purposes, I very rarely dye pure white materials a single primary colour, although of course this is required occasionally.

As you will see, if you look at the hare skins in the photos, there is a very large range of shades on such a natural skin, and the skins also vary a lot from animal to animal. One may obtain a lot of pure white fur from the belly, and the tail, and this dyes up beautifully. A single hare skin will supply the fur, when properly prepared, for a very large number of extremely varied and very useful flies. If you have a range of skins, or part skins, dyed in various colours, then you can tie up practically anything you wish.

I now use Veniards special fly dressing dyes almost exclusively. I can get all the colours and shades I want with relatively little expenditure of time, effort, and money. Results are invariably quite excellent, and may be reproduced at will, if a little discipline and method is adhered to when dyeing. These dyes are for hot dyeing in a water bath using a mild acid to “fix” the dye.

There are other methods of dyeing but these are sometimes quite complicated and expensive, photo dyeing is an excellent way of dyeing expensive capes as they are less likely to be damaged than by hot dyeing. In this process the material to be dyed is soaked through with photographic solution, and then developed just like a film. This process is complicated and the chemicals used are very poisonous. Mainly silver salts. It seems to have fallen into disuse anyway, and so I wont go into it here.

Alcohol dyeing also works quite well, but I am not completely au fait with all the ramifications, having only tried it a few times, and it is sometimes difficult to obtain several litres of pure alcohol, quite apart from the cost involved. Water is cheap enough, and freely available. 

While we are on the subject, you might find it better to use distilled water for your dye baths. Some of the stuff in piped “Town” water will also affect the results adversely. If you live in certain places, especially some major cities, of which I have also had the dubious pleasure, where the surface of your tea is always covered in nasty looking bits and “scum” from the tap water, then using distilled water for your dye baths is definitely a very good idea. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea to use it for your tea as well!

By the way, if you are paying thirty or forty pounds, or even more, for a cape or saddle, then I would suggest you buy the colour you require to start with. It is not worth taking any major risks with such materials, they are far too expensive to start with. Once you have a bit of knowledge and experience, you can have a go if you wish, but don’t start with such stuff.

As far as washing goes, I usually wash my material in the bathtub, and then rinse it thoroughly under clean running water. A solution of ordinary washing up liquid like “fairy” etc, works perfectly. The material, especially feathers on the skin, and bushy fur or hair, should be soaked for a while, ten minutes is usually enough, in the warm solution, and then gently swayed back and forth to ensure complete penetration of the soapy water. Avoid bending or squeezing capes and other feathers, it may cause feathers to fall out or be otherwise damaged. Do not leave any materials in water too long, the hair or fur will start to fall out (known as “slip”).

Heavily soiled or extremely oily raw material such as bucktail, or similar hair and fur, (cat fur on the skin is terrible for this!), may need degreasing with something a bit stronger than washing up liquid. For this, I use a solution of so-called “biological” detergent as used in a household washing machine for soiled clothing. One may also use things like ammonia and similar, but I have never found the need.

I have also never found the need to use anything else, although some special products are offered for this purpose, notably Veniards “Venpol”. Indeed, it is considered so pure, that Mr Veniard says it does not even need rinsing off. I prefer to give a thorough rinse off here. It costs nothing, and why take a chance?

Tanned skins just need a quick but thorough wash in a light solution of washing up liquid, and then thorough rinsing, mainly to wet them thoroughly, before placing them in the dye bath. DO NOT USE POWDER DETERGENTS THAT WASH “WHITER THAN WHITE” they contain varying amounts of fluorescent dye, (which is what makes “white” shirts glow blue under “black” disco lights etc), and the results may affect your experiments adversely. 

Of course, if you fancy some “fluorescent” hare fur, just soak some white fur in a very hot solution of this powder, add a bit of vinegar, and “Bob’s your ferkin!”. This stuff will fluoresce like a firework display under the right light. I am not sure whether it impresses the fish much, but some shrimps I tied using a blend of it seemed to be a lot more effective than those without. Might just be coincidence though.

At the risk of repeating myself, do not start your dyeing experiments using very expensive capes. In fact it is better to start dyeing fur and cheap hen capes etc, until you get the hang of it. It really is very simple indeed and the results can be magnificent. One can achieve remarkable effects with even very cheap materials, some very rare combination dun colours can be achieved, using certain necks as a base, and insect colours matched very closely indeed. 

For dyeing small amounts of fur and feathers you will need the following equipment. 

A large enamel pan. Do not use aluminium saucepans or other naked metal equipment. It can affect the dye bath, and the acid used in the process will attack aluminium and some other metals. Stainless steel is usually OK, but enamel is definitely best. 

A metal sieve or colander, preferably stainless steel, but chromed steel will do, which fits the pan fairly well. An excellent piece of equipment is an old chip pan! (Mine is shown in the photo). Some plastic (heat resistant!) or stainless steel tongs for handling material, rubber gloves, a measuring jug, and plenty of old newspaper. 

dyeing equipment

The dye in the colours you wish to dye, and a bottle of vinegar. Either malt vinegar or wine vinegar is ok. This is a relatively mild acetic acid necessary to the dyeing process. It helps the dye to “bite” and fixes the colour as well. For some processes other acids are used, but vinegar works well for most things. One may of course obtain stale asses urine, if you can find a stale ass, or a variety of other things, and for some things they will work very well indeed, but this of course involves a lot more pissing about! 🙂

When dyeing Arctic Fox, the best acid to use is formic acid. This is the same acid ants use to paralyse their prey! It is quite difficult to obtain, although I suppose you could crush a lot of soldier ants if needed. It definitely works a very great deal better than most other acids. Giving bright vibrant colours. I don’t know why this is so, but it is a fact. One may in fact use almost anything from sulphuric acid to maiden’s water, but vinegar is by far the easiest to obtain. There are in any case not many asses, and precious few maidens of my acquaintance, whom I might reasonably ask to provide the necessary, without getting a black eye, or locked up!

Your tools and equipment should be plastic or stainless steel. Wooden tongs and spoons must not be used, they will soak up dye and are impossible to clean properly, and may contaminate your bath. A few small plastic spoons for measuring the dye powder will also be required. 

I use a camping stove with a gas cartridge for heating my dye bath. I usually do all my dyeing in the garage. I have done some in the kitchen on occasion, but this is really asking for trouble, and I would not normally do so. An electric heating ring may also be used, but I prefer the gas as it gives more immediate control. If you wish, you may use a cooking thermometer to control the temperature of your dye bath. I have never bothered doing so. The cardinal rule is, as hot as possible without actually boiling. This can easily be determined without a thermometer.

The procedure is quite simple, a measured quantity of water (I invariably use exactly one litre or multiples thereof), is poured into the pan, brought to the boil and the measured amount of dye is added (this depends on the colour you are dyeing and the results you wish to obtain, instructions are included with Veniard dyes) and then well stirred. 

The vinegar is added (one or two teaspoonfuls is usually sufficient, for dark colours and deep shades you may use more) and also well stirred, the bath left to cool for a moment (it must not be boiling!) check the temperature, and then the clean, thoroughly wet and preferably very warm material is then added to the bath. Results can be checked by using a small piece of the same material as a monitor, removing this from the bath from time to time, and rinsing it under cold running water. It will show you exactly how things are progressing, and when your desired shade has been reached.

Some shades are achieved almost immediately, others require quite some time. If the shade is not deep enough, even after a while in the bath, then you may add more dye and vinegar, but only after first removing the material from the bath. 

Do not add dye to the bath while material is in it. The results can be disastrous as far as the final colour is concerned, and streaking or spotting may also occur. Do not be tempted to put more dye than necessary in the bath; this is wasteful, and unnecessary. The material will only take up a certain amount of dye in any case, and using more is simply a waste. A really good dye bath “exhaust” is almost clear water, as most of the dye is taken up. If you are trying for lighter shades or “special” overdyed colours, then of course use less dye, and “sneak up” on your required result by adding small amounts to the dye bath. Always remove the material first, and give it a good stir.

A set of instructions comes with each pot of Veniards dyes. Mr. Veniard also produced a very good pamphlet on dyeing some years ago, and most Veniards stockists should have it or be able to obtain it. The instructions here should suffice though.

You should do your dyeing in the garage or an outhouse if possible. These special powder dyes are extremely powerful and will colour anything with which they come into contact. The result may be quite impossible to remove. Your family harmony may be severely strained if you colour your new fitted kitchen work surfaces in all the colours of the rainbow, in fact one colour will usually more than suffice! A spilled dye bath or a few coloured patches in the garage is a nuisance, although also an interesting talking point, most people simply have oil and stuff, but if it happens in the kitchen it is a major catastrophe! Basically the same applies to the bathroom. These dyes will colour grouting cement and other stuff immediately. Bright purple grouting does not go well with pale green tiling, believe me!

When dyeing feathers and other delicate materials you must not boil the dye bath while the material is in it. The material will be damaged. It is also best to prevent the material touching the sides of the bath if possible, in a very hot bath this will cause feathers to curl or singe, which makes them useless for tying purposes. 

Some materials will only take up the dye properly, when the bath is very close to boiling. This is especially true of many furs and hairs. If the dye is not “taking”, then increase the temperature, but don’t boil the bath with material in it. Sometimes, the effect when the dye “takes” is quite sudden and dramatic, variations of one or two degrees Celsius can make all the difference here. The bath suddenly “clears”, and the material is almost magically coloured. It is quite fascinating to watch. If you can get it, a white enamel pan is a great help here, as it is easier to observe such changes. If you use a dark coloured pan, then place a piece of white hard glazed tile or similar in the bottom as an aid.

These aniline (Veniard) dyes are combination dyes, this means several dye colours are combined by the manufacturer to produce a certain colour, just as an artist mixes primary colours to achieve various tones and shades, dyes are also blended to achieve the desired effect. The principle is the same, but with one slight but very important in fact absolutely major!!! difference. 

Different dye colours penetrate at different rates!!! Also, some materials may have more affinity for a particular component of the dye, or vice versa. If you remove your material from the bath too soon, it may well be a completely different colour than the one you were trying to obtain, the material must remain in the bath long enough to absorb all the colours present. 

Dark colours are much easier to dye than light colours. You can dye practically anything darker than it already is, but you cannot dye a dark colour lighter. Deep shades of light colours are difficult to achieve as well, especially fluorescent dyes sometimes produce only light pastel shades of the required colour, although the material may fluoresce like a firework display when viewed under the correct light. 

Theoretically you can dye anything black, in practice this is often really quite difficult as a large amount of dye is often needed, and the material may have to stay in the bath a long time at the hottest possible temperature, without actually boiling, to achieve a really deep black. Other materials may only need a short time.

One trick here to achieve a good black, is to dye the material orange first, and then overdye it. This works very well.

The difficulty in obtaining extremely dense colours is not really such a problem as at first might appear. We are attempting to colour materials so that we can more closely match insects with the result, most insects are translucent and made up of several colours as well, so a “light black”, really a dark grey with a bit of brown or blue or orange shining through, may not be a bad thing at all. Depends on what you are trying to achieve. The Orange/Black dyed material also behaves like many insect carapaces when held up to the light. The orange tint shows through the black, and some beetle imitations tied with this stuff are particularly effective. Much more so than dense black material.

If you want to experiment with mixing dyes then I would suggest buying a “colour wheel” at an artists supply store, this helps a lot when wanting to know what colours to mix to achieve a certain shade or colour. Try the “single” colours first though. Most of my pupils start with “Blue dun” dye and a couple of hen capes just to get the hang of things. Remember, the mixing principles are basically the same as with paint, but the dyes do not behave like paint!

After dyeing, the materials should be thoroughly rinsed under cold running water until no more dye comes out, and then laid out skin side down on a few old newspapers until almost dry, and then blown dry to fluff them up. If large amounts of dye wash out, then this is often a sign that the dye has not “taken” properly. Usually due to the bath not being hot enough, but it can have other causes.

You will hear and read all sorts of things about bath temperatures; people often get quite heated about it! 🙂 The methods described here work very well indeed, I have been using them for a very long time, and they are the result of considerable experimentation and application. Others may work, or they may not. However this may be, the single most common reason for dye not taking properly is that the dye bath is not hot enough.

Remember that wet materials will also look a lot darker than when they are dry. Take this into account when dyeing materials for either wet or dry flies. 

Some materials cannot be dyed; very many synthetics for instance, if you want to dye things like this, try a small amount first to see if it works. You may also get “patchy” or indifferent results with some feathers and furs. This is usually a result of improper or insufficient degreasing, or wetting, but not always. Some materials simply take dye much more readily than others. Simply wetting feathers with water before dyeing is not enough, you must wash them in warm soapy water, the soap is in this case mainly a “wetting agent”, which ensures that all the feathers are completely wet, right down to the roots. The fluffier the material, the more care required.

Arctic fox is especially difficult to dye, even the slightest tinge of grey or blue in the fur, will prevent it dyeing up bright. It must be pure white to start with. Of course you can dye colours like olive etc, on slightly grey hair. But the results may not be exactly as you require. Remember for bright solid colours, you MUST!!! use pure white material to start with.

With a little experience, you may easily mix dyes to achieve the effects you require, but be careful here. It is easy to overdo things, and more or less impossible to remedy the mistake. As long as the material is not too dark, it is possible to overdye to the correct shade. Or even overdye it a completely different colour. This will only work to a certain degree however, when the basic colour is already dark then this is no longer a viable option. 

I like to dye natural hare body fur in a few shades of olive, and claret and one or two other colours, I use this fur by itself and for blending with other dubbing and achieve some excellent results with it. A Blue dun dye on rabbit or hare fur also gives excellent results, for imitating some insects accurately. Not least because the fur already has a very large number of natural tints and variations. The same applies to olive, claret, and a few other colours.

The natural colour variations in the fur are complemented and enhanced by the dyed colour, and the result does not look quite so artificial as a solid dyed colour in my opinion. The flies tied with such material are in any case much more effective.

For wings etc on “gaudy” flies, which require solid colours, I have had excellent results dying goat hair, which is readily and cheaply available as whole skins. I have dyed a complete range of this hair since it is so useful for all sorts of things. Especially as hair wings for small streamers and tube flies of which I use a lot for sea-trout fishing, and some perch and pike flies. I also dyed a whole range of Icelandic Sheep, but I gave it all away in the end, as I did not like it at all. 

The flies looked great on the bench, and the stuff was easy to work with, but it knots up terribly in saltwater, and is rendered useless quite quickly. Many of the flies I tie are for use in saltwater, and material which does not work well there is pretty useless to me. I have a fair range of dyed bucktail as well, but I don’t really use much of it now, I prefer the fox hair, or goat, as it is far more mobile in the water.

Mohair “knitting wool” is an excellent cheap source of first class dubbing material (it must be mohair, not sheeps wool) you can buy it at practically any wool shop, in white, (and other colours as well of course), and dye it to the shades you require, it takes dye extremely well, you can of course use ordinary wool for this too, but this is nowhere near as good, and is in any case usually available in the shade you require if you look long enough. This can be used for blending or on its own. As ever, I use it for blending.

One decided disadvantage of the hot dyeing method described, is the fact that the skin of the materials so treated becomes brittle and stiff as a result of it. There are one or two tricks to alleviate this problem. Rubbing glycerine or a good hand cream into the skin of dyed capes will make them a little more supple and easier to handle, and will prevent them cracking up.

Hair on the skin should be cut into fairly thin strips or smaller patches, before dyeing it; this makes it easier to select the hair later when tying. This is especially important for things like deer hair etc. The raw skin may be cut by using a scalpel or very sharp craft knife from the skin side and holding the material taut. There is very slight wastage sometimes as one or two hairs may be cut, but this is negligible. You need someone to hold the skin for you while cutting. 

Thick bushy tails from arctic fox or similar animals should be pulled into pieces before dyeing. This is quite easy to do usually, just grip the tail firmly where you want to divide it and pull hard. This also aids the dyeing process as the dye can penetrate small pieces better than large bushy ones. Before you dye a whole tail in some unusual colour, think carefully, and if you don’t need much material in that colour, just dye a piece.

It is better to dye small amounts at first, and try to gauge how much material of a certain type or colour you will use in the course of the next few months or years. I remember a pupil from one of my classes coming in with a whole Icelandic sheepskin which he had dyed a lovely bright shade of hot orange. I have no idea where he got a suitable chip pan! 🙂

He was very proud of it, as it was one of his first attempts, and the whole class was very impressed, I remember how crestfallen he was when I asked him during the coffee break what he was going to use it for, he had become so fascinated and carried away with the successful dyeing that he had somehow lost touch with the purpose of it. 

Remember, you can dye half capes or even a few dozen selected feathers if you wish, or small patches of fur, it is not necessary to dye whole animals, even if your chip pan is big enough! Sounds like yet another minus point for elephants!

I have tried on quite a number of occasions to bleach various materials using various methods, but have now ceased experimenting in this direction as the results were all fairly lousy, or too much of a clart on, and I don’t like to ruin good material. I will leave this to the commercial suppliers in future. There is some literature available on bleaching, if you want to try it. However, I simply found it too much of a mess about, and with very uncertain results. My best results were obtained by using some hairdressing products, but these are not cheap, and still quite “iffy”, depending on how you use them. Most methods I tried damaged the materials to such an extent that they were barely usable.

My best “Fiery brown” dye is however a ladies hair dye. There is no other that even comes close to it. I have forgotten the name of the product for the moment. I will look it up and post it to the board if anybody is interested.

Be careful when you find apparently cheap sources of ready dyed feathers and furs. It is by no means certain that these will be colour fast, one of my pupils came to a class with a large quantity of feathers in all the colours of the rainbow, which he had bought very cheaply at a shop which was selling “Genuine Red Indian” headdresses for children. These feathers looked great, but the dye was not fast, and actually came off on your fingers when tying. Soaking the feathers for a while in water reduced the colour to almost zero! Not much use for fly dressing. 

You can test this quite simply usually, spit on your thumb and forefinger, and rub the material. If the colour comes off on your fingers, leave it.

There are numerous methods of dyeing, and types of dye. In America, some people use things like soft drink powders (“kool aid” and the like. The consumers of such must have cast iron stomachs!), and there are dyes like “Rit”, “Dylon” and many others. For quite a while I experimented with various plant extracts, and a host of other things, and it was a lot of fun. Of course, I have not tried them all. Some may work, many will not, or not reliably. If you want consistent results, and purely as a means of making your materials more useful and valuable, then I would personally advise you sticking to Veniards dyes.

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