Hand dyed fabrics; or why doesn’t the piece in my hand look anything like the picture on my screen?
Hand Dyeing Techniques
Very broadly speaking, there are two main types of techniques used to hand dye fabrics used in cross stitch:
- Immersion – fabric is put in the coloured liquid.
- Painting, including ice dying – coloured liquid is put on the fabric.
Immersion is when you make up a bath of coloured liquid solution and you put the fabric into the solution. Scrunching, wrinkling or tying the fabric produces the mottled colours we love so much.
Painting is when a thicker coloured solution is dripped, sprayed, painted or melted on the fabric. These techniques give the dyer more control over where the colour goes, allowing some detailed scenes to be produced.
Ice dyeing is a version of painting where you cover portions (or the whole) fabric in ice pieces. The dry colourants are put on the ice pieces. As the ice melts, the water wets the dry colourant forming a coloured solution on the fabric.
There are a number of different types of fabric we stitch on, and they are made from of different natural or artificial fibres.
- Aida – 100% cotton
- Hardanger – 100% cotton
- Jazlyn – 52% cotton and 48% rayon
- Jobelan – 51% Cotton & 49% Rayon/Modal blend
- Linen – 100% linen
- Lugana/Brittney – 52% cotton, 48% viscose
- Monaco – 100% cotton
- Murano – 52% cotton 48% modal
Natural fibres such as cotton and linen absorb dyes more readily than artificial fibres, so Aida, Hardanger, Linen and Monaco will come out darker than the other fabrics (given the same conditions).
The below is a set of images of the same fabric:
- the image from the dyers site
- photograph of my fabric outside in full sunlight
- photograph of my fabric outside in full shade
- photograph of my fabric inside
- photograph of my fabric under artificial light at night
In reality, my fabric is none of these; it is similar to the first two but much more vibrant. A bright lime green. So why don’t these reflect what we see?
Very broadly speaking, the cones in eyes that see colour, fall into variations of Red, Greenish Yellow and Blue/Violet based on whether they are short, medium or long wavelengths.
Monitors, digital cameras, mobile phone displays, but use a Red, Green Blue (RGB) display. Each pixel on the screen is built by driving three small and very close red, green and blue light sources. These light sources overlay each other to differing degrees to give the differing colours. Usually these separate sources are so small as to be indistinguishable, which tricks the eye to see the intended solid color. When all RGB are on, we get white.
When printing an image, printers generally use the CMYK colour model. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK. For printers, shades of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are overlayed on top of the paper (and on each other, to given the colour we want. When all CMY are used we get black. In practicality, most printers don’t give a true black, more of a muddy black, which is why blacK is the fourth colour used.
To sum up, eyes use wavelengths to see colours. Digital devices use the subset of colours created by Red Green and Blue lights, heading towards white (full light). Printers use the subset of colours created by Cyan, Yellow and Magenta, heading for black (absence of light).
There is no possible way for either monitors or printers to accurately reflect the full range of colours that our eyes can see.
Descriptions and comparisons
As well as just showing us these fallible pictures, some dyers use words to help us understand the real colours of their fabrics: “this colour is a bright medium Chartreuse“. Don’t underestimate the value of this, I once saw a tiny picture of a fabric on my monitor and it looked to be lovely velvety deep blues morphing into black. When the fabric arrived it was splotchy red and black, like lava and volcanic rock.
Or they compare it to something that we can see in life; as we are stitchers, DMC floss is something we are likely to have at hand: “the approximate DMC colours for this fabric are 437/3827, 3053 and 3859”
Hand Dyed Means Unique
OK, so we’ve seen a big picture of the fabric we love, we’ve read the description and checked the floss colours so it should be perfect right?
There are just some variables in hand dyed fabrics that you can never plan for. The minerals in the water used in the dye bath, the temperature of the water versus the temperature of the ambient air on the day it was dyed, the humidity levels, whether it was line dried or tumble dried, these can subtly change the characteristics of the final piece.
These are three examples of the same fabric, dyed to the same process by the same dyer, each bought months apart:
But you know what, we use hand dyed fabrics because we want something different, we want something unique and we want something that adds that je ne sais quoi to our project. Just remember, when planning to use the same hand dyed fabric on more than one design:
ALWAYS BUY THE WHOLE AMOUNT OF FABRIC AT ONCE.
The same fabric in the same dyelot, dyed at the same time on the same day is the best way to minimise differences in your hand dyed fabrics.
My heartfelt thanks to Tammy Verdon of Colour Cascade Fabrics, Shari & Marilyn from Picture this Plus and Terry Diaz from Youthful Hands Needlecrafts for the use of their images for this article. Thank you also to Tammy Verdun for confirming the technical aspects of the dyeing process and Julie Dollery for confirming the colour vision section. All errors are mine and mine alone.
Places to Buy
Fabric Flair has stores in UK and USA. Some products are also sold by their distributor in Australia, Sewitall. Fabric Flair fabrics are not technically “hand dyed”, they are printed on onre side of the fabric by machine, but I have included them here as they as used the same as hand dyed fabrics.
Wichelt has a range of hand dyed jobelan fabrics that are available in may needlework stores.
Colour Cascade Fabrics Tammy has many hand dyed fabrics that would add a unique element to your stitching. Tammy offers a 15% discount for readers of this site. Use code: CSReview. Offer ends 6 December 2014.
Sewitall supplies some Fabric Flair fabrics but also hand dyes their own colour combinations here in Australia
Stitches and Spice is Australia’s only fabric and thread hand dyer.
Enchanting Lair produce beautiful fabrics many of which can be used with their great charts.
Annick Abrial creates beautiful hand dyed threads and fabric.
Primitive Hare hand dyes linen in a few different “aged” or “parchment” styles that work wonderfully with her patterns or any samplers.
Country Stitch has been a long running supplier of hand dyed fabrics.
Nina’s Threads has expanded into hand dying linen fabrics.
Chromatic Alchemy is a Facebook only company that has a great range of bright fabrics.
Crafty Kitten has two ranges of hand dyed fabrics, pastels and vivids.
Jodyri Designs produces hand dyed floss and fabrics.
Polstitches is one of the UK’s longest running and best known fabric and thread hand dyers with their fabrics being recommended for charts in many UK Cross Stitch publications.
Sparklies has a large range of hand dyed fabrics that would add a such a sparkle to your project.
Garibaldi’s Needle Works is an ebay only store that produces beautiful mottled fabrics and threads.
Hand Dyed Fabrics by Stephanie has a great range of colours to suit all projects.
Lakeside Linens have a range of hand dyed fabric where some can be “double-dipped” and others “vintaged”. Both give a uniqueness to their fabrics.
Picture This Plus is one the US’s longest running and best known fabric hand dyers. Their annual Christmas in July sale is so huge it takes until November to dye and send out all the orders.
R&R Reproductions produce aged and muted tone fabrics for their extensive range of sampler charts.
Sassy’s Fabbys has a great range of colours.
Silkweaver is the other long running and well-known fabric hand dyer from the US. Silkweaver was bought out by Zweigart USA a few years ago and there have been reports of slow customer service. I find I have the best results by ordering from the Needleworkers Delight site.
Sunny*Dyes fabrics by Youthful Hands Needle Crafts include some of the best hand painted fabrics I have seen.
Under the Sea Fabrics has some unique two-toned earth and sky or water and sky fabrics rarely seen elsewhere.
Weeks Dye Works are long time thread dyers who moved into the hand dyed fabric market. The fabric colours mimic their thread colours.
Did I miss any good dyers? Please comment below and I will add them to the list.
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