Experimenting with natural dyes: an old pan, water, lots of onions and an expert teacher

The account of a day of experimentation.

There are a number of reasons why Michela decides to pay me a visit in the Abruzzo: a yearning for the mountains (Campo Imperatore, a mountain grassland, is a stone’s throw away), a desire to get away from her workshop in Rimini for a few days before she throws herself into another course, and – knowing Michela – she is probably also lured by the chance to hunt for leaves and flowers, etc.

Pan with ash

With a shared passion for the infinite variations of natural colours and shapes – even if we have different motives; I want to write about it while Michela’s motives are more artistic and professional – we naturally find a way to compare our experiences and share information and opinions.

Red onions

This time she surprises me: `Do you have a pan that we can use that isn’t for cooking food?’

I look around. `Well, yes! There is the old aluminium pan that I use to put the cinders in when I clean the fireplace – will that do?’

We empty it and check it has no holes.

And now for a second question: `What we can use as a dye?’. We think about it for a moment. There are several possibilities: ancient rusty iron tools, leaves from the downy oaks that grow nearby, or Rosella’s onions, if the harvest has been good.


We opt for the third choice. We catch up with Rosella and her pantry; there are some crates full of boxes of the most beautiful red onions. Carefully, so as not to ruin anything, we remove the skins and collect them in a container.

Mokume in progress

We return home with our booty to carry out Michela’s plan: experimenting with some shibori techniques on different fabrics in preparation for the course she has planned for the weekend.

Mokume in progress

I know what it is, of course, as I have seen textiles dyed using the shibori technique up close, but I have never tried it myself.  The moment has arrived: we have the ingredients, the dye is easily prepared, the expert – armed with everything, scissors, thread, needles, books – gets me involved in her experiments, demonstrating some of the techniques and encouraging me to have a go.

Mokume soaking

Once you pop, you can’t stop, as the saying goes.  And this is just as true of shibori.  Once you get to work with needle and thread on the fabrics to create strings of stitches, knots and French knots, it is difficult to stop. By selecting stitches, knots and ties, arranging them symmetrically or asymmetrically different distances apart and deciding how long each piece of fabric will be emerged in the dye, different designs will be left on the fabric once the process is complete.

Mokume opening

You begin with a small piece and end up, as happened to me today, with a strip of woollen cloth of considerable proportions (the remainder of a previous project), accurately folded into small squares and placed between two tiles (remainders also, from the house renovation).

Mokume opening

We begin to prepare the samples, which one by one end up in the dye bath where we carefully stir them, checking every now and again the effects of the dye on the different textiles.

In the photos you can follow our day of work, from the preparation of the materials, the dye bath and the designs, stitches and tying, up to when the samples are submerged into the dye and, once they have been in the dye for the right amount of time, opened up by cutting and unpicking the threads.

My biggest attempt remains in the dye bath until the next day, when I place the pan on the stove again to check whether the dye has had an effect on a rather heavy piece of cloth.

With the mokume technique, needle and thread play together to patiently compose stitches with remarkable effect, particularly in the so-called wood grain effect – which is the precise meaning of mokume.

It consists of parallel strings of staggered stitches which all start from the same side of the fabric.  In this way, the knots are all on one side, and on the other are the threads, which are left long.

With strings of stitches, many decorative effects can be obtained, and as with everything… the more accurate and fine the work, the better the results!

Mokume opening

Kumo: this is a technique that belongs to the binding subgroup. It is carried out by “pinching” a relatively large section of the fabric and looping it off with thread, which is then wrapped around the base of the loop several times. The trick is to pull the thread tightly enough so that a defined section is created.

Kumo opening

Te-kumo, or “spider’s web” is a striking decorative pattern. It is based on the kumo technique, but here the thread, as well as being wrapped around the base of the “pinched” section of the fabric, is also wrapped around the fabric up to the top of this section before coming back down again. As such, it creates an area with more or less horizontal lines criss- crossed by vertical folds, thus creating the spider’s web effect.

Te-Kumo opening
Te-Kumo opening
Te-Kumo opening

Itajime: this is a classic technique, perhaps one of the best-known in shibori’s immense repertoire.  It is created by folding the fabric in various ways and then compressing it between two wooden boards or rods, which were traditionally made of bamboo.

Itajime and sewing: this is a free interpretation of two traditional techniques, used to create endless new results.

Itajime opening

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