Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Needlework Threads: On Natural Dyeing, part 1


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Yuki Sugashima lives in Japan and is author of the blog Barefoot Shepherdess. Yuki started out as a knitter and spinner, but has recently moved into embroidery and natural-dyed threads. In the Barefoot Shepherdess’s Etsy shop, you’ll find naturally dyed embroidery threads of amazing color! The natural dyeing process is fascinating and Yuki writes about it beautifully – I hope you enjoy reading a little bit about Yuki’s adventures with naturally dyed threads.

Roadside Yomogi for Natural Dyed Embroidery Threads

Those weeds along the roadside; the marigolds in the garden. The alder cones in the park; the colorful fall foliage on the ground. Walnut husks, chestnut burs, and even the onion skins in your garbage bin. From forests and fields to riversides and roadsides or as immediate as the local park or the corner grocery store, all around resources abound for natural dyeing. For hidden within many of these natural materials, are colors as richly varied as the sources themselves. Though many of these are often given nothing more than a glance, to me, they are sources of vast potential, each one a valuable treasure.

My name is Yuki Sugashima. I’m the author behind the blog, Barefoot Shepherdess where I write about my various craft projects and natural dyeing experiences with occasional bits about life in Japan. Though originally a knitter, my interests have expanded over the years to include spinning, natural dyeing and most recently, sewing and embroidery. I also run an Etsy shop by the same name offering naturally dyed embroidery threads, spinning fibers and yarns.

Marigold Blooms for Natural Dyed Embroidery Threads

Why natural dyes? Natural dyes allow me to make use of local natural resources, live with the seasons, and enjoy the colors nature has to offer. I love the fact that even with the same dye plant, the color can vary from one batch to the next, depending on factors like the growing environment of the plant and the time of the season it was harvested. It makes each item singular and unique and the dyeing process fun and full of surprise.

Homegrown Japanese Indigo for Natural Dyed Embroidery Threads

Though I hope to someday be able to grow or gather all of the dyes I use myself, for now, I use a combination of commercially purchased, locally gathered and homegrown dyestuffs. There is a great variety of dye plants, so I’m exploring different dyes all the time. Though I live in an urban environment, there are still many local resources available, if you only pause to look.

Sakura Leaves for Natural Dyed Embroidery Threads

While natural dyeing is not difficult, it can be a lengthy and labor-intensive process that requires a lot of patience and I think, a dash of instinct. For me, the process begins with fiber preparation, which typically includes washing or at least, rinsing the fibers and mordanting for better dye absorption and color fastness. In case of plant fibers, an additional step of pre-mordanting is often necessary, as they don’t take the dye as readily as animal fibers. Once the fibers are ready, I gather or harvest the dyestuff, extract the dye and add the fibers to the dye pot. After they have reached the desired color, they are rinsed to remove the excess dye, soaked in a dye-fixing solution, and then dried.

Safflower Petals for Natural Dyed Embroidery Threads

But that’s just the general summary of the process– in reality, different dyestuffs often require different treatment. Some rely on methods unique to that particular dyestuff. Others follow the dye process in a different order. Each dyestuff also has its own set of possibilities and limitations. With so much variation in both the process and the results, there are very few absolute statements to be made. Still, one thing can be said for certain– natural dyeing is never boring!

Thanks, Yuki! In a couple days, we’ll take a closer look at the types of natural dyes that Yuki uses for her threads. Keep an eye out!


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(6) Comments

  1. My mom always put a yellow onion (or 2) into chicken soup … with the onion skin left on — it made the soup a beautiful color! I continue to do this, too.

    I look forward to seeing Yuki’s other natural dyes.

    Tea and Saffron are other foods that I’ve used as dyes (Aida and soup, respectively)

  2. I always put a yellow onion in chicken soup as well, but I never associated it with the lovely color. I’ve looked at Yuki’s blog, sigh, another one I just have to follow!

    I’ve used coffee as a dye on white linen and cotton fabrics, and on white silk ribbon. The color comes out matching DMC ecru floss perfectly,

  3. Hello Yuki-san

    about two weeks ago at our Embroiderer’s Guild meeting we heard a talk on ‘Colours from Nature’. It was totally fascinated. There was so much information to talk in. I was delighted to see your beautifully written post on the same subject and to be able to read (and reread) at leisure. I am really looking forward to your next post and will be visiting your blog soon (and probably often). Thank you for being a guest writer while Mary is on her road trip.

  4. hola Yuki, que buen tema ,fundametal para cualquier bordadora,,me encanta dar un toque personal a mis trabajos,,y este tema,,nunca lo e practicado y tengo mucha naturaleza a mi alrededor”seria genial aprender un poco
    y gracias estare pendiente

  5. G’day there Mary and Yuki,

    Thanks for the interesting start to natural dyes. Looking forward to more.

    Went into your blog and Etsy shop Yuki. Yummy colours you have there. Will visit again.

    Hope you are all keeping well and energetic Mary.

    Cheers, Kath.

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