Friday, February 1, 2013

Fly Tying --Dyeing feathers with Kool-Aid

So we've all heard about fly tying with materials dyed with Kool-Aid.  I just thought I'd post a bit about a very easy process I use for dyeing feathers.

For the sake of the example I used grizzly cape hackle, with the intention of tying an awesome John Kent pattern, the Pumpkinhead Leech.

1) Select the feathers you want to dye.  For Kool-Aid dyeing, I typically select a bunch of feathers for a specific tie, as I have entire capes or saddles in the colours I use most often (the capes I have dyed I used a commercial dye).  In other words, Kool-Aid dyeing can work for an entire skin of hackle, but I usually do up to a couple dozen feathers at a time.  I attach them at the butt end of the hackle stem by tightly wrapping a twist tie around the hackles, or use an elastic band.  Place them in a solution of warm water and dish soap, and let them soak for a few minutes.  This will soften the feather making it better absorb the colour, and also eliminate any oils that can repel the dye.

A hackle bundle tied together with a twist tie.
Soaking the bundle in a soap solution.

2) Prepare the dyeing solution.  For small bunches of feathers you can use a single packet (that costs about 50-cents and is concentrated enough to make 2-litres of Kool-Aid.  It's also sugar-free) of Kool-Aid, but you'll probably need 4 or 5 packets (minimum) if you're going to dye an entire skin.  NOTE: I haven't dyed a whole skin with Kool-Aid, so I can't give an accurate number.  Maybe a reader can offer some insight.

A selection of Kool-Aid packets.
To prepare the solution, just empty a packet of Kool-Aid into a glass that is microwaveable.  Pour about 1 to 1.5-cups of water into the glass, and stir just a bit.  Don't worry about it too much --the heating process will automatically mix it well.  Put the glass and solution into the microwave and heat for about one minute.  I put a saucer under the glass, in case is boils over a bit.  Optionally, you can cover the top with plastic wrap, just be sure to use a toothpick and poke a few holes in it to it doesn't burst.
Prepared solution.

3) After the solution heats up, you need to add a couple ounces of vinegar (that helps set the colour into the feather) and drop the feather bundle into the glass.  Put it (glass with mixture, vinegar, and feathers) back into the microwave for another minute.

4) Remove the glass from the microwave (careful!  It'll be hot!) and use a fork or something similar to retrieve the feather bundle from the dying mix.  If you want the feathers darker, try putting it in the microwave for another 20 or more seconds.  Once you like the colour, immediately run the feathers under COLD water or immerse them in a bowl of ice-water.  This shock treatment will set the dye. 

5) Once you're pleased with the results, rinse thoroughly in cold water, and allow to dry.  I use paper towel to remove excess water so the feathers dry faster.

Hackles drying on a paper towel --the orange you see was used to wipe up a spill.  The colour won't bleed if you shock it in cold water.
Orange and blue hackles dyed using nothing but Kool-Aid, vinegar and water.
Finished Punkinhead Leech.
There you go.  For large materials you can replicate this pretty well on a stove.  Mix and match a bit to get some interesting colours, or use this tip for the 20 flies you'll need blue hackle to tie...  It's a great way to save a bit of money, because you can buy regular grizzly hackle, white hackle, or whatever, and get any amount of colours you need out of the single cape.



  1. I've only heard of stories of partial success with this process but have never tried it myself...but I will. Those feathers look great. Thanks Nick. I'll let you know how it works.

  2. I've tried to dye an entire skin. Used seven packs but the color wasn't bold enough. Haven't found the perfect amount yet. Seems like common sense, but it is much easier to get better results with bold colors with less Kool-Aid when you pick out and dye individual feathers.

  3. Thanks for sharing this simple solution!

  4. Are the colours true to the packet colours, any produce olive?

  5. Peter, I haven't found an olive, but then I haven't tried mixing different Kool-Aid colours to see if I could produce a nice olive. I happen to own a couple commercial dyes, as I said, which I used on entire capes (because I actually do use a fair amount of olive cape-hackle for dries, streamers, etc), and olive is one of those colours. Maybe mixing orange/greens/blues would give some sort of brownish/greenish colour, but I'd try using just a bit of powder at a time to see what you could do. I basically use this technique for a bundle of feathers that I need for a few select patterns, rather than a "staple" colour I'll want to use really often.

    Nick, I haven't ever done a whole skin with this. I've read that people use over 8 packs for a whole skin, but if I was to put that much investment into it (like paying $40+ for a decent cape or half cape, I'd just splurge and buy the 8 dollar dye that was made for the job, and is colour specific. In Edmonton, I usually just buy Superfly powder dye. I'd give it at least a 75% probability that it is basically just powder Rit dye you can get from any craft store like Michael's.

    Happy dyeing!


    1. Here is a link to a website that gives various Kool-Aid dye formulas.