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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Murder & Mayhem, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and Overdyed Linen


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Well, I have a piece of linen that came to me from origin unknown. It’s a Mystery!

I like mysteries. I’m pretty sure this one involves murder and mayhem, based on the piece of linen.

I’m curious about the linen and what people think of it. And apparently, so is the original owner of it.

I have a feeling I’m going to be sticking my neck Way Out and ruffling some feathers here. It’s not my intention.

Let me clarify: I don’t know everything going on in the needlework world. So if this is some big project out there, social media thing, mystery stitch-along, or what-have-you, well… beats me. I don’t know all the details!

But I can give some thoughts that occurred to me about the linen, since that’s what I was asked to do.

And since the question of using overdyed linen comes up a lot in my inbox, I figure I might as well take the opportunity to write about it. I’m going to do that in a meandering way, so bear with me! There’s a point in here somewhere.

Overdyed Linen questions

First of all, overdyed linen. What is it? It’s linen that’s been hand dyed, usually in a way that involves one or more colors on another (base) color, the results of which can range from slightly mottled to downright blotchy. Overdyed linens can be super colorful, they can be calmly subtle and monochromatic – it just depends on the overall process, colors used, outcome desired, and so forth.

Very generally, then, overdyed linen is hand dyed, there’s normally a mottled look to it, and it can add interest and depth, excitement, and variation to needlework, mixed media projects, and the like.

Am I opposed to overdyed linen? No. It has its place, like everything.

Would it matter to you if I were opposed to it? It shouldn’t. If you like it, use it! If you don’t like it, don’t!

But there are some things to consider when using overdyed linen. These points can apply, really, to choosing any ground fabric used for embroidery. So I’ll talk about them below.

Overdyed Linen questions

First of all, consider what you are making and its purpose.

In this case, if you’re involved in some kind of murder mystery stitch along, and the piece that you’re making requires a background that looks like it cleaned up a crime scene, then I don’t think you could find better looking linen for the job! It would be perfect for something like that!

I would imagine that you’re not expecting the piece to be heirloom quality, that you’re not necessarily expecting it to withstand the test of time (I don’t know that people would “get it” 20, 50, or 100 years from now, when trends have changed), and that it’s something you’re doing for the sheer fun of it.

Needlework, after all, is something we pursue because it gives us pleasure.

Point #1: What are you stitching? Does the ground fabric – overdyed or not – contribute to the outcome you want, that will give you pleasure? Is this a Piece for All Time, or a Piece of the Hour? Do you expect the result to be an heirloom quality piece that transcends time?

These are things you have to consider when you choose ground fabric. And then ask yourself, “Will this fabric do it for me?”

Overdyed Linen questions

Point #2: Do you like it?

From what I know about this piece of fabric – which isn’t much – I’m guessing the person doesn’t like it (or at least, not for its intended use).

If your concern is that you’re going to be putting a lot of time (and perhaps money – after all, threads can be expensive, memberships can be expensive, etc.) into this project, that the fabric is going to interfere with your expected or desired outcome, that you are going to lose a lot of pleasure in the stitching of the project because of the ground fabric…

…nix it.

If everyone else is using it, it doesn’t matter.

If the designer is recommending or advocating it, it doesn’t matter.

If everyone else thinks it’s absolutely gorgeous, and you don’t like it, what they think doesn’t matter.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

There’s a tendency in human nature that’s very well illustrated in the tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Do you know that story?

It’s when we go along with something because everyone else is (seemingly) going along with it, too – usually because someone influential, or someone we admire, or someone who is powerful that we fear, is proposing or advocating for it.

We don’t want to be the odd person out, going against the grain. So we just go along to get along.

And this isn’t really helpful for ourselves or for the people around us. It’s generally a recipe for unhappiness, unease, disquiet, and general dissatisfaction in life.

Just because everyone seems to like a thing, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily that great. Or that you have to like it.

You can actually say, “Gosh. I don’t like that.” You can even say (gasp!), “The emperor is naked.”

I’m not saying everything has to be a fight, but if you find you don’t like something and you have good reason not to like it, it’s ok to go against the common grain and do what you know is right, or better, or beautiful, or good, for you.

And when it comes to your needlework, if you know you don’t like something, it’s really ok to change it. Your needlework is yours.

This isn’t to say that you can’t rely on the good advice of folks more experienced, of designers, of knowledgeable people in the industry, and so forth, but you are ultimately the one doing your needlework, so ultimately, it needs to please you.

Overdyed Linen questions

Point #3: Have you tested it?

With overdyed fabrics – just like with overdyed threads – always test!

With ground fabric, it’s more than just testing colorfastness or lightfastness. It’s also testing against your threads, especially when an overdyed fabric is busy.

First, briefly, let’s talk about the question of colorfastness and about the coloring methods.


“Colorfast” is usually associated with the dye being fixed and not releasing, especially when wet. But it can also apply to dry fabric. Even if you never plan to wet the fabric, make sure the dye is fixed, so that, when threads pass in and out of it, they don’t pick up residual dye.

“Colorfast” does not necessarily mean “lightfast” in today’s world of hand-dyed goods. Keep that in mind!

Coloring Methods

There are dyes that are made for textiles and then there are the other things that folks use to bring about, for example, an aged look to fabric. When using tea, coffee, and the like to age fabric, keep in mind that an acid is being introduced to the fabric.

If longevity is your thing, that might not be the best approach. Just sayin’!

The Agéd Fabric Trend

This topic brings up a whole different kettle of fish!

And really, this is totally a matter of opinion, but since we’re here, I’m going to give you mine – which you can take or leave!

I’ve noticed a trend in this aging-fabric look, especially in the world of sampler stitching.

This is The Thing: human nature doesn’t change.

Just as you get really excited about a sumptuous new palette of threads or a beautiful length of gloriously unflawed linen in a fabulous color that makes you drool as you run your hands over it, so did those stitchers of old who made the samplers and other bits we like to recreate today.

It’s true, they may have used fabric they had on hand, perhaps that wasn’t perfect, or perhaps it wasn’t the color of their dreams, but they would have used the best parts of fabric, the parts that were the most unflawed, that were the best they could get for what they were doing.

In most cases, they would have found great pleasure in having a nice piece of fabric and colorful threads to work with.

These historical pieces were new when they were stitched. New and beautiful. Bright and lovely! I almost think we do a disservice to the memory of those who came before, when we make their work, recreated by our hands, look old and stained and tired. That’s not the vision they had for their needlework, anyway.

Just my two-cents’ worth, anyway. I do love to think about how the originals would have looked when that last stitch went in!

Testing Against Your Threads

But back on point here!

Testing threads against the ground fabric is always a good idea when planning out a project. This is an easy proposition with regularly dyed fabric. It’s not so easy with overdyed fabric, especially if it’s not subtly dyed.

In the case of fabrics like our Murder Mystery Fabric above, I’d test the colors and the design layout against the fabric. Darker threads could very easily disappear against the darker blotches in the fabric.

This goes back to the purpose for the fabric. Are you creating something that you want to be visible against the ground fabric?

How do your threads “play” on that fabric? Will you be able to manipulate the placement of your stitching, to overcome any issues with visibility? If you’re doing surface embroidery, there’s more of a chance of placement manipulation but if it’s counted work, not so much.

And There You Have It

Those are some points to consider when using overdyed fabrics, accompanied, as usual, with plenty of opinion.

What it boils down to is this: needlework is a pursuit meant to give pleasure. Does it give you pleasure? Do you like what you’re doing? Do you like the fabric you’re using? The threads your using? Then all is well.

Isn’t it wonderful that we have such an embarrassment of riches in the needlework world today?

When it comes to fabric, we can choose beautiful, unflawed fabric to pour our effort, time, and skills into.

Or we can choose fabric that looks like we literally poured our blood, sweat, and tears into it.

So many options!

So little time!


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(33) Comments

  1. Re: Aged Fabric,
    Thank you, Mary. It needed to be said. Not only were very old pieces more colorfull when they were originally stitched, but all sorts of things went on when the underside of these pieces is revealed – knots, knots, knots, traveling threads, crazy tangles of threads under a wonderful executed figure, its enough to make you cluch your pearls!
    Here’s to stitching for pure pleasure – your own.

  2. Thank you Mary for this post. It got me thinking about some of the fabrics I see out there and some in my stash. I love color, but need the occasional reminder that we all have different tastes.

    I really like the murder fabric, but it would definitely need the ‘right’ project. If I had gotten it and didn’t like the extreme contrast in light and dark, I might have tried washing/rinsing it to see if some of the color would bleed out.

    Thank you for giving me new questions to think about with my stitching. Teresa

    1. I think the fabric would be perfect for some free-form stitching on the tree/bark/earth/rock-type theme. Perhaps with some raw edge applique incorporated somehow…making my brain fire off with lots of ideas…but that’s just me!
      As you say, Mary, it’s all in what works for “me” (or “you”).

  3. Thank you for discussing this topic. I have been pondering this “fad” of making new stitching look old. I don’t understand it. I hope that my stitching is around for people to admire until it looks old and well loved – just like those pieces that I have from my ancestors.

  4. Hi Mary. I’m sorry, I just don’t like fabrics that look that they have had a nasty accident and that I will have to consign them to mopping up other messes!
    I would probably be getting out the bleach bottle if you gave me a piece of fabric like that.
    I have occasionally dyed a piece of fabric to get the background colour I desire. Sometimes dye gathers a little in an old crease that you thought you had ironed out. I then spend a lot of time working out how I can manipulate the fabric to cover the offending, slightly darker bit, under the stitching. I certainly do NOT consider it a desirable feature
    So, I like my fabrics to look uniformly pristine when I start to stitch. After that …..!

  5. Wonderful article today and I agree so much with everything you said. I’ve always been one to march to my own drummer. Maybe 20 years ago I was in a group and our kit included overdyed linen. I disliked it so much, I came home and used a mild bleach to “clean it up”. I have seen some interesting and really nice pieces done on overdyed linen but no, it’s really not for me. I do however like many of the colored linens and I almost never stitch on white canvas-always colored canvas but not overdyed. To each his own.

  6. Mary, thank you for voicing your opinion about the aged fabric and threads. I very much agree and have found the trend frustrating! I think if the people who originally stitched those samplers saw what is popular to reproduce them today, they would be mystified. Having spent many years in the art world, I fully appreciate the goal to be true to the original intent of the artist when cleaning and repairing various pieces. If you make intentional alterations, however, then isn’t it a reinterpretation rather than a reproduction. It is certainly fine to unframe a sampler and find the original bright colors on the back in tack and reject those colors to choose alternatives reflecting its current condition. But is it a reproduction or a personal preference? What are they teaching us about the lives of these stitchers and the materials available to them? Great topic for discussion. Would love to hear more views on this subject. Thank you!

  7. I agree, while there are some lovely subtle dyed fabrics, there are many more that resemble clown puke. And some people are strangely attracted to using clown puke fabric just because they see people in their Facebook groups raving about it.

    So, next, how about a post about the subversive cross stitch trend? I have a very hard time trying to understand why some people seem to think it is hilariously witty a stitch a border of sampler style flowers along with a crass sayings like “Eat a Bag of Dicks”, and then hang it proudly in the powder room for the enjoyment of guests.


    1. LOL! I don’t disagree with you! But I don’t think I could actually publish any of those sayings on my blog as examples and feel good about it. And my newsletters would end up in most people’s spam filters or blocked for… well… it rhymes with morn…

  8. I chuckled as I read your message, because I think I have in my hands the very linen you are describing! It is creme brûlée and is being used for a SAL on the Facebook group ‘our sampler years’. The pattern is Florence Mary Dickinson by ‘Hands Across the Sea’. I love mottled fabrics, but this one, I admit, was a little too much, until I washed it and toned it down. I love it now! No , it won’t be an heirloom. I suspect it will end up like Rosebud, in a huge incinerator! But I’m enjoying it now, and yes, that’s all that matters!

    1. I went to the facebook group you mentioned and saw the stitched sample. It’s beautifully stitched, for sure! But it’s just too bad (to my taste) that the fabric looks like it went through the battle of Waterloo. That sampler would have been so much nicer on a crisp, clean fabric. Of course, that’s just my opinion: de gustibus non disputandem…

    2. I was so curious about the crime brûlée fabric that I had to look it up. Yeah, my car wash rags look cleaner than that after a thorough wash including the wheels. The sampler is a very pretty piece but a plainer fabric would do it better justice. I might have to get that chart though.

      I have three times bought a piece of fabric with mottling on it. Once was to enhance a small design where the spots would be a part of the final effect. The other time was by accident—well, I bought thinking it was an entirely different thing than it turned out to be in real life. I was vastly disappointed with it, but decided to hunt for a chart where the design would be enhanced by the fabric’s murky, muddy mess. That took a while but I found an Ink Circles design that could be stitched in one color that would contrast well with that muddy fabric. The third time it had an awful scent not apparent when in the shop. It’s been over two years and finally the cat isn’t doing burying motions over it. It’s probably safe to use now—I hope.

      All that is to say I find overdyed fabrics—and floss—to be more work than they are worth.

      Yes, I am definitely in the make in beautiful camp. Ther’s never too much beauty in the world.

  9. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for a truly useful post. As I have aged (sort of like wine or cheese, getting better all the time!) I have come to ask myself similar questions and come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible to not like something needlework related and the Needlework Police will not take me away if I don’t do something or use that particular material.
    I should think that between moving the shop and the household you have been dealing with many of these questions – keep plugging along, as will we, and know you have lots of good thoughts coming along.

  10. Yep, I personally hate it and every time I see it I think “oxyclean can take care of that”. In addition, I agree with your comments about the recreation of older samplers. The odd thing to me has been using the thread colors from the back, that are bright and unfaded, and using the mottled, “old” linens. However, I know that is my opinion, and others may vary. It does seem that this is the fad right now, however. I’ll stick with my recreations….even if I decide I want to use the more softer, faded colors from the front, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen originals with as much mottling on the linen as the current trend seems to be.

  11. I agree with you, Mary, and was mystified to hear a woman raving about a piece of white linen so mottled with black splotches that it looked (to me) like one of the rags my dad used to wipe his hands with in the garage after changing the oil in the car…to each his own, but I’ll go one further and say I don’t understand the craze for overdyed threads. If I wanted to make stripes on a bird or a roof I could just use two or three different colors of DMC. The skeins of the same color by the same company vary widely. I purchased one “Colonial Copper” that was medium orange, with occasional darker orange parts, then purchased another online from a different vendor that varies from rusty brown to gold, and can’t be blended to the previous stitching, so I’ll use it in something else. And I paid four times the price of a skein of DMC for this? What am I missing?

    1. …to finish my thought…. However, after working on a Dimensions kit and a Lavender and Lace angel that use blended threads, I find there are many more pleasing ways to add interest or shading to a piece. I just don’t like that stripey look. I would like to love my work in 10 years so I don’t buy trendy designs in charts either.

  12. Here’s two (tarnished) cents from one who likes some new needlework looking aged. For a replica piece, I want the equivalent of a print of existing artwork. I’d like to have the original on my wall and appreciate all of the stories it’s picked up over the centuries, but for a variety of reasons I can’t, so I stitch the replica and appreciate the original that way. The aged look of a new piece, whether replica or novel design, suggests the presence of those real or fictional stories.

    That said, I also have some vintage pewter that I’d like to polish up sometime because, having read about the artist who made the pieces, I think he’d like them that way. I’d also be on board for stitching up a replica sampler piece with like-new colors, because that tells a whole other story!

    1. Thank you so much for this explanation, Heather! I see so many kits to reproduce old samplers and the appeal had baffled me but now I understand why someone would like to stitch it. Now when I see something like this, I’ll think of the stories behind them.

  13. That would be a fabulous background to reproduce an ancient map in stitches…running, back, chain, stem………in blues and greens and rusts! Add some texture stitches in green over the light brown smudged areas to indicate forests and hills.

  14. What fun reading through your newsletter and the comments. I’m afraid I like things visually clear. That could just be my poor eyesight, but I’ve never understood shabby chic furniture either. Slightly mottled maybe, but distressed to the point of literal shabbiness is not my idea of chic. I want any embroidery stitches to be seen and not necessarily disappear into overdyed areas that could mar the piece.
    Thanks for the fun.

  15. Sing it sister! 🙂

    And there’s another thing or two to consider –
    Variability between dye batches. What you bought and loved on one order will be different on the next order. And what’s shown on web sites is often not what you get. And it’s not only the amount of splotchiness changes, so do the colors. That lovely neutral taupe on one batch has a pink cast on the next batch, etc.
    Also it seems like the dye process changes thread count?? I have a piece of 40-count hand dye, but when I did my counting grids, it was smaller than I expected. After re-counting several times, I got out a magnifier and found the linen was about 42 count. Not a problem on a small project, but on one that’s several hundred stitches in each direction, it adds up.

  16. I confess to rather liking the splotchy color, but probably wouldn’t use something like this as a whole cloth … and the cloth itself does look rather too freshly new compared to the staining (which seems an apt way to describe this particular form of overdye) … so I’d probably launder the heck out of it to see what is left … then use it in a patchwork of some kind, where the variations in color might do well contrasted with more solidly colored pieces of cloth

  17. You are right I think in your Aged Fabric Trend comments. If samplers were made to show off a girl’s ability read write and sew then as you say, they would use the best they could find. Having said that, I do think over dyed linen has its place in modern stitching depending on what it looks like and what it is dyed with and of course one’s taste in these things.

  18. As a stitcher interested in historical textiles, I see the pleasure in stitching reproduction Samplers in either the original color pallet or the current, aged color condition. I often find Sampler reproductions charted in the “original” colors – taken from the reverse of the piece.
    Yes, the original Stitcher used the best she had, but there is appreciation in the life the textile has experienced – stains, holes and all. What stories of long sea journeys, a damp attic or careful, loving preservation can these textiles reveal? Like their makers the Samplers aged imperfectly and that experience can also be stitched.
    As for the new trend in stitching – hopefully the embroiderer will continue their art journey and mature along the way. Encourage the young.

  19. Thank you, Mary! I would not have thought dye on the fabric might come off on the thread I was using for stitching. Yes, I agree we are being shown pictures that are ugly! Home designs that are ugly. Models who are ugly. And people who get dressed with a funnel — and proud of it! Poochy lips doctored to get more modeling jobs. . . . As I was reading and wondering where you were going, on studying your third picture, suddenly I thought . . . IT’S THE SHROUD OF TURIN! Oh, dear, don’t share that cloth with anybody from Tiny Pricks! They might improve on it!

  20. “In this case, if you’re involved in some kind of murder mystery stitch along, and the piece that you’re making requires a background that looks like it cleaned up a crime scene…” I haven’t had a good belly laugh in a long time! This is perfect! Thanks Mary

  21. Dear Mary

    The murder fabric looks interesting and as you say in the right setting it would make an interesting embroidery piece. Thank you for your advice and comments on overdyed fabric, I heard you say before to test fabrics and threads before a project, very good advice. Thank you for what you wrote about using what you like as opposed to the requirements of the instructions on kits etc. Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts and advice on fabric and threads very useful for future reference.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  22. Gosh, I REALLY appreciate this article, Mary, thank you! You have put into words what I could not articulate myself – especially the comments you made on the trend to make fabric look ‘aged’, and the original stitcher’s intention. I also appreciate you mentioning the acidic nature of coffee and tea dyes and the possible effect they will have on the fabrics long-term.

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