Needle In A Haystack
Needle In A Haystack
Hand Dyed Fabrics Primer

The following articles were featured in 3 newsletters I wrote in 2011. We have collected them all into one for your reading pleasure and made some updates. If you wish to reprint any part of this, please contact the shop for permission.

Dyeing & Dyelots
Since we carry so many hand-dyed linens I get questions about them quite often. The most asked question is why dye lots change so much. Even with commercially produced colors like those in the standard Wichelt and Zweigart lines, you'll get variation over time. For those fabrics, the color is part of the base threads that make up the fabric vs. being "applied" once its loomed. When they're producing several hundred yards of fabric it can be a long time before you see a different dyelot. A good example is Zweigart's Platinum. If you have a piece more than about 5 years old the color is a silver/grey. Now days it's more of a green/grey.
There are a huge number of variables that a dyer has to consider and one reason why I'm personally quite willing to pay for someone else to do it :-). First there's the dyes - even they change over time and with different manufacturers. The size of the dye molecules is different between colors and that affects how quickly a color component is absorbed into the fabric as well as how quickly you have to use the dye once it's been mixed. The type of water can affect them especially if it's an area where there are a lot of minerals in the water. Ambient temperature can affect the dyes as well, so you can get a completely different result on a day where it's 40 degrees than on a day where it's 95 degrees. It's one of the reasons the companies doing this, work hard to keep their dyeing environments at a constant temperature and humidity. How well the dyes are mixed is yet another factor.

The base fabric, whether it's linen, cotton or some mix of cotton/rayon is the next biggest factor to the dyes themselves. When Zweigart still had a mill in Switzerland as well as Germany the fabric dyers I've talked to over the years said they could tell what fabric came out of each mill. Not only are there equipment differences but personnel and the base fabric threads differed. Even with only one Zweigart mill in Germany now you can take a piece of Zweigart 28, 32, 36 and 40 count, put them in the same dyes and they won't be the same color when you're done. For Zweigart, 28 and 32 count are usually woven from the same base fabric threads so they tend to be the most similar when dyed, but not always. 36 and 40 count are each from a different base fabric thread, not only from each other but from the 28 & 32 count fabrics. You've got different diameters of the base fabric threads, you have different crops, perhaps a different machine was used to make up the fabric threads, then you've got different get the picture.
Flax in particular, changes color based on how much water it gets during the growing cycle. If you ever look at un-dyed linen you'll see changes in it over time based on growing conditions. It can be much lighter one year and much darker another year. How well it takes the dye affects what the end result looks like. I was discussing this with Pat at Lakeside Linens and she had a piece off a roll where the mill had obviously changed the base fabric threads in the loom - this isn't obvious until you dye it. One half of it looks like a different color from the other. Same fabric, same dye, same water, same everything - but the base flax threads changed the equation with some startling results.
Sizing also plays another role in this - it has to be removed. Most fabric comes sized so dyers have to rinse it to remove the chemicals before they can dye. How well that's done or if there are problems with the sizing can impact the color and how well the dye is absorbed. No two manufacturers use the same sizing or in the same amounts so the dyers have to determine what process works best to remove it and have the dye take effectively.
Even the most technical dyer will never be able to replicate a color exactly with all these variables in the mix. With the exception of the fabric manufacturers (the ones with the mills), those who hand-dye fabrics are small businesses with small staffs - sometimes only 1 or 2 people. Like artisinal food products they're made in small batches. So it's as much about art as it is about science. And it's about juggling all these variables to find a reasonable mid-ground to create a product we'll want to stitch with. If you want to read more about the technical side of hand-dyeing check our Paula Burch's All About Hand Dyeing website - she's got great information.
Lakeside Linens dyes primarily on Zweigart fabrics. The exceptions are as follows:
  • 40 count - older dyelots were Italian linen which was dyed on Graziano, however Graziano no longer makes Ricamo. So 40 count colors after 2012/2013 are Zweigart.
  • 45 count - these are an Italian linen which is dyed on Graziano Florence. This fabric takes the color very differently from the Zweigart fabrics.
  • 50 count & 52/60 count - these counts are a Legacy Linen base. (Access Commodities)
  • We have had Lakeside Linens dye Brussels linen (no longer manufactured) as well as the new Zweigart Bergen (44 count) linen for us.

Linens By Design (aka Birds of a Feather) and Picture This Plus use Zweigart for their fabrics. Wichelt, who have fabric made for them has both their linen, Jobelan and Jobelan Aida hand-dyed. Weeks Dye Works uses Northern Cross (30 & 35 count), Zweigart (28 & 32 count) and for their 40 count they used Graziano for a couple of years, switching to a French linen. R & R uses both Zweigart and Northern Cross. Silkweaver, which is owned by Needleworker's Delight (aka Zweigart US) uses primarily Zweigart.

In most cases the hand-dyed fabric company will tell you what base fabric they dye on, but not always. If it matters to you, ask your local shop if they know what the base is or send a note to the fabric dyer if you are purchasing directly (many hand-dyed fabric companies do not sell to shops and sell only direct to the stitcher).

The bottom line - dyeing is a labor intensive job with more variables in play than most of us would ever want to wrap our heads around. If you find a dyelot of a fabric you've fallen in love with, buy it. The chances of you seeing that exact dyelot again are slim. You're creating your own art work so don't stress out about it not looking exactly like the designer's photo or like someone else's. Hand-dyed fabrics offer a wonderful way to make your piece unique - just like snowflakes, no two are alike :-).

After the previous section about hand-dyed fabrics I thought I'd write a bit about the second most asked question - can I wash it? Unfortunately there are no simple answers since it really depends on the type of fabric or thread, what it was dyed with and what those dyes were set with. A good number of hand-dyed fabrics as well as most commercially dyed fabrics can be hand-washed, but that's not the case for all of them. And washing fabric in a machine is a whole other concern. Washing threads is always something you want to test first if you're not sure especially since many will say they should be dry-cleaned but not necessarily washed.
Fabrics like Zweigart's afghans are made of poly-acrylic and can withstand some regular machine washing if you put it in a bag. For any fabric you can machine wash the concern isn't so much about the fabric but about the threads and how abrasive a washing machine can be to them. Stick with threads like DMC Perle cotton or DMC cotton floss and know you might need to pre-rinse the thread to get the excess dye out.
There are three main things to consider.
  • 1) Will the color bleed/run?
  • 2) Will the color fade or change color?
  • 3) Will the color fade over time, whether I wash it or not?
1) Will the color bleed/run? Even dyes that are set permanently can bleed or run. This is caused by the excess dye molecules needing to find a new home. They didn't bind to the thread or fabric and when washed they un-attach. Darker colors tend to do this the most. I made a Hardanger doily years ago that I stitched on white linen with Watercolors Black Cherry. I had to rinse the piece for almost 30 minutes to get the excess dye to disappear (fortunately this was not during a drought year in CA). I've had it happen with fabrics as well. I'm sure you've all known someone who's thrown a red t-shirt in with the whites and gotten pink underwear so you'll understand about the free floating dye molecules. Granted there are things on the market now to prevent that but I don't know how well they work with needlework so don't assume they will work for you without experimentation (on something that you don't care about).
2) Will the color fade or change color? If the dyes were set permanently you might get some bleeding when it's washed but it shouldn't change color. The ability to be washed or cleaned and not change color means it's colorfast. Some threads and fabrics are not set permanently so can't get wet at all. Most these days are colorfast so can be rinsed and not change color. Be sure to check the label or ask at your LNS if you are not sure.
If a fabric or thread does not indicate that it is colorfast, rinsing it could potentially change its color, either by a small amount or significantly. If you're not sure, take a small piece and wet it then dry it between two sheets of a white paper towel. If it's going to bleed you'll see color on the paper towel. If it's going to change color or become lighter, you should see it - be sure to compare it to the original.
3) Will the color fade over time? This not only depends on the dyes and how they were set but the lighting conditions. Even colorfast items can fade over time if the lighting conditions promote that. UV rays are hard on colors. UV occurs naturally as part of sunlight but you get some UV exposure with lighting - how much depends on the type of bulb. We have seen the effect of light fade from having things by the windows in our previous locations as well as the halogen lights we had in our first location. In a home environment this isn't as much of an issue but in a retail space where the lights are on for 8-12 hours a day this is a serious concern. We use non-UV lights in the shop for that reason - along with them being color-corrected so you get good color rendition. But even then we still can see some light fade on certain projects over a long period of time.
Color can fade with time if the dyes were not properly set. Most of the dyes start out as powder and if not properly set and rinsed will return to that form. Some dye colors are notorious for being "difficult" and many dyers avoid them. I can tell you we've got items with fade lines in them and they aren't all hand-dyed fabrics or threads. We've seen it in particular with very bright blue/greens, which might mean the dye incorporated is one of the turquoise dyes that's hard to deal with. If the dyes aren't completely set it returns to powder form and settles out of the fabric from gravity. Or you see color changes from light fade. We have a couple of models where we've seen significant fading due to the fabric not being colorfast or light-fast. One was a bright purple and now looks grey after hanging on the wall for more than 13 years.
If you're storing fabrics for an extended period put them someplace where they're not going to get a lot of direct light of any kind. Ideally wrap them up in acid free tissue and roll them vs. fold them. It's especially important to roll them without fold lines if you know the fabric isn't colorfast. I store mine on a wrapping paper roll I've wrapped with acid-free tissue paper first. I put several layers of fabric on the roll then wrap the outside with another layer of acid-free tissue and tie it with some ribbon.
Hand-dyed fabrics I know you can hand-wash are Lakeside Linens, Linens By Design, Picture This Plus, Silkweaver and Weeks Dye Works although they all recommend rinsing the fabric before stitching to remove any excess dye especially on darker colors. Wichelt and R&R hand-dyed fabrics are not colorfast and they do not recommend washing them, only dry-cleaning. 
For threads the various thread vendors usually put care instructions on their threads as to wash-ability or on their websites. Generally if washable, you want to do it in cold water and use very little agitation. While many silk threads can be hand-washed they are not good candidates for a project that's going into a washing machine. Use a commercially dyed cotton or wool for those projects.
If you do wash your project for the first time don't let it dry when you're not there to see the final stage. I personally recommend you iron it dry into a terry cloth towel (your project is wrong side up) on the appropriate setting and keep a close watch on it. If the threads are going to bleed it will happen when the fabric is almost completely dry but the threads aren't. Essentially the fabric wicks the moisture out of the threads and the excess dye will come with it. If you see that happen, put down the iron and walk back to the sink. Rinse, rinse, rinse is all you can do. On the Hardanger piece I mentioned earlier I ended up ironing it almost dry twice and rinsing it 3 times before all the excess dye was gone. Took more than 30 minutes all together - but it was a deep red/purple on white fabric so I wasn't surprised. You can also pre-rinse your fabric and threads if you know you're going to need to launder the final project. When I do that with thread I take the tags off and if it's a thread that wants to un-wind I use a little thread or even yarn to keep the ends from tangling. Rinse until the water runs clear then dry it on something white so you can see if any more dyes comes off. Rinse again if that happens.
Now, what do you wash needlework with?. My first choice is Ivory Snow - which can be hard to find in many parts of the US. A tiny bit of the flakes go a long way and they do make a liquid form now as well. Second & third choices are Ivory dish washing soap or the suds from an Ivory bar. Why Ivory? It's 99.44% detergent - no additives to deal with and it's a very gentle detergent. I tried Woolite once many years ago and it was not a good choice. It was hard to rinse completely out and over time seemed to attract dust to my piece. I rarely use glass so this is really important to me if I actualy launder a piece. You should be able to use another kind of very mild soap/detergent (like Orvus) but make sure it's recommended for fine hand-washing and there aren't any additives. Only a tiny bit is needed - remember, you're not washing out the soccer clothes :-).
If you're not sure how to launder something or even if it can be, ask your LNS or contact the dyer. Most shops have a good idea about what's washable and what isn't based on practical experience. Most of the time washing is not needed but if you think you're going to wash it when you're done prepare the fabric and threads before stitching to eliminate as many potential problems as possible. If I'd done that with my Hardanger piece and rinsed the thread ahead of time I wouldn't have run into the same problems at the end.
Remember to pick your fabric and thread based on what you need to use the project for when you're done, do any necessary prep work and you'll be much happier in the long run.

Fabric Types & Fiber Content
I thought I'd finish up writing about fabric for now with some information on the various fabric types and their fiber content. First off some terms:
  • Aida Weave - a block weave that looks like little squares. Some common fabrics are Aida, Klostern & Tula. Huck fabrics are a variant of this weave with the addition of a "float" for running the embroidery thread under.
  • Plain Weave - in contrast to the block weave of Aida most counted fabrics are Plain Weave, meaning their warp and weft threads create the usual over/under weave we're used to seeing in counted fabrics.
  • Evenweave - (Plain Weave) technically any of the fabrics where the warp and weft threads have the same count are Evenweaves ("even" in both directions). So 99% of counted fabrics that are on the market these days are Evenweaves. But most stitchers and designers use this term to mean a counted fabric where the fabric threads are the same diameter. Unlike linen which has thick and thin threads "Evenweaves" are generally made from cotton or a cotton blend and the base threads have a uniform diameter. The most common brand names are Jobelan (Wichelt), Floba, Jazylyn and Lugana (Zweigart) although several others are made (e.g. Fabric Flair).
  • Linen - (Plain Weave) most linen fabrics are true "even" weaves where the warp & weft count is the same although there are a very limited number of un-evenweave linens. As of 2015 there is a new un-evenweave on the market from Access Commoidities, which Lakeside Linens hand-dyes. It's ~52/60 count although technically, it's not a counted fabric at all. It's marketed as an embroidery linen but stitchers are good at using what's available. It is being primarily used for reproduction sampler work to resemble fine antique linens. Northern Cross and Glenshee both made several un-evenweave linens (e.g. 32/36, 40/50) which are extremely difficult to find now.

    The linens produced by Zweigart, Wichelt, Graziano, Legacy, Northern Cross and Fabric Flair almost exclusively "even" weaves. Those who hand-dye fabrics use one of these brands as the base fabric so they inherit those properties.
  • Linen Band & Aida Band - these are fabrics with a woven edge suitable for banners, bookmarks, wall hangings, etc. The selvage is pre-finished in a variety of ways (plain, hemstitched, jacquard, crocheted, etc.) so you only need to deal with the top and bottom of the banding. Most often hung from dowels or rod hardware.
  • Canvas - There are 3 different types of canvas:
    • Mono - this canvas is a Plain Weave. It's the most common canvas available and is used most frequently in hand-painted needlepoint and counted-canvas designs.
    • Interlock - this canvas is lightweight and instead of the over/under Plain Weave, two thin fabric threads are twisted together and when they intersect with the perpendicular thread they wrap around each other - interlocking. So unlike mono canvas where you can move fabric threads at their intersection, you can't budge Interlock. If you've ever stitched a Stitch 'n Zip kit, Interlock is the canvas used in them.
    • Penelope - also called Petit Point or Double-Mesh canvas it's woven like Mono canvas but with two parallel fabric threads. So at the intersection you have 2 sets fabric threads. A 10 count Penelope can be stitched either as 10 count or as 20 count (Petit Point). It's used quite often in printed canvases from Europe and in pre-stitched canvases.
      Mono Canvas
      Silk Gauze
  • Silk Gauze - technically a form of canvas this fabric is woven like Interlock canvas. The silk fabric threads are very thin so you have fairly large holes, making it easier to see than the same count in linen.
  • Embroidery Fabrics - there are number used in needlework although for some forms of needlework any dense fabric is usable:
    • Twill - Linen Twill is used primarily for Crewel Work. Its weave is on the diagonal and it holds up extremely well over time because of this diagonal weave. It's a common fabric outside of the needlework industry for draperies and clothing.
    • Shadow Work Linen, Ecclesiastical Linen, Schwalm Embroidery Linen, Normandie & Batiste are all Plain Weave linens used in needlework but they are not counted fabrics and are generally quite dense. They vary in weight so you want to choose one that works with your technique.
    • Kingston (Zweigart) - I'm listing this separately since it's almost a counted linen, but not quite. Zweigart says it's a 50 count but in my personal experience it's anywhere from 45-50 and not necessarily a true "even" weave. I treat it more like an embroidery linen than a counted linen.
    • Weaver's Cloth - used for Punchneedle Embroidery it's a cotton/poly blend that has some stretch to it, which is important for Punchneedle.
  • Specialty Fabrics - there are a plethora of specialty fabrics on the market, most of them having some kind of pattern woven into them. Afghan fabrics are generally a plainweave fabric you stitch on coupled with a woven pattern.
Aida fabrics are generally cotton based but occasionally you'll find one that is either linen (Zweigart makes a Linen Aida) or has something like Modal/Rayon in it (as is the case for Jobelan Aida). Aida is most commonly found in kits since it's easier for many stitchers to count the blocks. The sizing in most Aida fabrics makes it stiff although Jobelan Aida and Wichelt's Country French Aida fabrics are quite soft. Aida can be found in counts from 6 (Herta) to 22 (Hardanger). The other fabrics using an Aida Weave (e.g. Tula) have different fiber contents and are most often some kind of blend.
Evenweaves are usually cotton or a cotton blend, as cotton lends itself much better to making it a uniform thickness for creating the fabric. Rayon is made from reconstituted cellulose fiber and Modal is the brand name of a Rayon made from Beech trees. This is the most often used component of evenweaves that are a cotton blend as Modal/Rayon dyes like cotton and gives it a softer hand. Evenweaves come in a variety of counts, the most common being 20, 25, 28 and 32 (although Fabric Flair makes a 36 count and you can find some below 20 count from various vendors).
Linen fabrics are generally 100% linen although you will find some, like Zweigart's Pearl Linen which is a linen blend (linen & Polyester). 100% linens are most noted for their thick/think fabric threads since the base thread is spun vs. extruded like cotton can be. You'll find their hand to be everything from very soft to very stiff. Zweigart linens are generally soft, Wichelt and Northern Cross have more sizing and are stiffer, with Graziano in the middle. Wichelt's Country French Linens are soft as they have limited sizing in them. How translucent (see-through) a linen is depends on how thick the base fabric threads are. No two vendors make linens the same. For example, a 28 count Wichelt linen is fairly transparent because the fabric threads are thin, while Zweigart's 28 count Cashel has somewhat plump fabric threads. Both are 28 count linens, but when you compare them they look very different. Each brand has its unique qualities and its devotees. Counts range from 18 to 50 with 28 and 32 being the most commonly used.
Linen Band and Aida Band are generally made from 100% linen, cotton or a blend of the two. Linen Band ranges from 24 to 30 count with 28 the most common (Vaupel & Heilenbeck). Aida Band comes in variety of counts. Both come in a variety of widths and colors.
Canvas is almost always 100% cotton. Zweigart made a 100% linen canvas once upon a time but it's no longer in production and hard to find. Canvas has quite a bit of sizing in it which helps make it stiff. Congress Cloth - the name given to 24 count mono canvas is stiff, while Congressa is the same canvas without the sizing so it's softer. Hand-dyed canvas is soft because the dyers have to soak the sizing out of it so it will take the dye. Commercially dyed canvas is usually made from fabric threads that were dyed before weaving/looming so the sizing is intact. Penelope has sizing so is stiff. Interlock has some sizing but because the individual fabric threads are thin and twisted together it's much softer than the other types. Less surface area means less actual sizing. Zweigart has cut the number of colors/counts it produces in both Mono and Penelope canvas. So while all the counts are represented you might only be able to find it in say white vs. brown.
Silk Gauze is made from 100% silk and ranges in count from 18 to above 100 count, the most common being in the 30-40 count range. Usually it's beige, although some counts come in black. Kreinik also makes a version called Polysil™ which is a 100% Polyester version and useful for clothing embellishment.
Embroidery Fabrics and the Specialty Fabrics on the market have a wide range of fiber content. The Embroidery fabrics we carry are generally 100% linen, linen/cotton blend (Normandie) or 100% cotton (Batiste). The Specialty Fabrics range from 100% Poly-acrylic to 100% cotton and pretty much everything in-between.
I created a Fabric Fiber Content list many years ago, which I updated in 2011, that gives you the fiber content of most fabrics made for needlework. I've also listed what brands the most common hand-dyers use. You can find it on our Fabric page. There are 3 versions, based on when I created the list since many fabrics that were on the previous versions are long since gone. I'm sure I've missed a few but I think I managed to document most of what's on the market these days. The file is in PDF format so you can easily print a copy for yourself.
I hope you've enjoyed our fabric adventure. When I started doing embroidery as a youngster back in the 60's there was very limited choice in what you stitched on, much less what you stitched with. Even when I started doing needlepoint (mid 70's) and counted cross-stitch (late 70's) there weren't many options available in shops. Now there's such a huge fabric selection available that the choices can be daunting to stitchers. We're here to help you make informed choices, whether it's the type of fabric, the count or the color.

Hopefully this information helps you know more about what's on the market and why sometimes, we ask you way more questions about what you want to stitch on than you might think is needed :-).

Happy Stitching,


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Last updated January 14, 2016