Ewes Raising Ewes - Interview with Fatima Showkatian



"My name is Fatima and I am the dyer behind Abuelita Fiber Company. My love of fiber and knitting stems from my abuela (grandmother in Spanish), who taught me how to embroider, cross stitch, sew, and crochet as a child. I am an avid knitter and I have a love for all things handmade." (Abuelita Fiber Company Bio). Recently Abuelita Fiber Company has worked with Gum Tree Farm and used our Merino yarn for her work. This hand-dyed yarn will be available in her shop soon.



Tell me how you got interested in the world of Natural Dyes.

Fatima: I’ve been a knitter for over 15 years and I think when you're someone who likes a sort of handicraft you tend to gravitate into other parts of that craft later on. It’s only natural! I’ve always known about natural and synthetic dyes, but several years ago I started to do some research into the history of natural dyeing and I really enjoyed learning about the history and how things were created in the past and how we create things now. I then realized natural dyeing can be done very simply, even using your kitchen and household items which is where I started dabbling into natural dyeing. And that’s how I got bit by the dye bug I guess! Once I started it I just got more invested and I thought I had too much yarn for me to be able to use all on my own so I need to do something with it! I thought selling it and providing other people with the opportunity to use naturally dyed yarns would be great so I could share my love of dyeing yarn.

What was the first natural dye you worked with when starting?

Fatima: I think it was probably avocado pits and skins as well as onion skins. They are two of the easiest dyes to work with because they naturally contain tannin in them which is one of the agents you need to use in binding the color to the fiber. Since there are natural properties in onion skins and avocado skins and pits you don’t have to do a lot of prep work to dye something. You can easily save them up when you are cooking or when you’re in your kitchen. You extract the dyes very easily in a pot so I think those are the two I used first and continue to use! I use a lot of onion skins and avocado pits and skins in my dyes today.

Would you recommend Avocado Pits & Skins and Onion Skins to people interested in beginning to natural dye?

Fatima: I think avocado skins & pits and onion skins are easy because you tend to have them in your kitchen quite often. Another easy one is coffee grounds or tea bags that you’ve used, black tea or green tea. Even if you’ve used a tea bag in your tea you can save it and let it dry. I then pop them all in a ziplock bag and once you have a certain amount of them you can use them for dyeing. They are very easy to use and have quite a bit accumulated within a short amount of time in your kitchen.

What is your favorite natural dye to work with?

Fatima: That’s a good one. I would say the color that comes from avocado is my favorite. You get a blush pink or rosy pink. You could even get a deeper pink as well depending on how much you use. I also really love the smell of marigolds when you are extracting the dye from them. It smells so good!

Do you have a favorite project you worked on?

Fatima: Last year I made a Sophie Shawl, which is a pattern from Petite Knit, using some of the worsted yarn I carry in my shop. That was one of my favorites because of how versatile it became. The color of the yarn is like a muddy green and it matches everything. I can always throw it on and it’s super warm and soft. It is definitely one of my favorite items that I wear constantly.

Is there a part of the fiber field you would like to venture into?

Fatima: A dream of mine in the future is to have a collection of clothing that I have dyed naturally. Whether it’s vintage clothing or restored clothing, just to show people and educate them that you can constantly use your items whether they are old. You can revive them and continue to use them. You don’t need to necessarily lean into shopping new to have great things to wear. I would love to go into that and offer second-hand clothing that has been naturally dyed and revived.

What are the steps before dyeing?

Fatima: Natural dyeing is a long and extensive process compared to synthetic dyes. You first need to scour any yarn you get which is the process of cleaning the yarn to make sure all of the spinning oil, dirt, and veggie matter is out of the yarn. This depends on how clean the yarn was when being processed and spun. It helps to strip the yarn of oils and dirt so that the dye can adhere to it better. That is the first process, and the second process is mordanting. Which is a process that opens up the fibers to attach themselves to the dye permanently. Since natural dyeing is a slow process you have to think of it as slow fashion, it’s a process that has been used for over two-three hundred years. It’s the process that has been used throughout human history until the 19th century. It’s fun to keep that history alive. Although it’s quite long and labor intensive I really enjoy it because it keeps part of our human history alive.

What is your call to action to persuade people to use natural dyes over synthetic dyes?

Fatima: I don’t think it’s realistic that we as a society revert back to using natural dyes. It takes up a lot of water resources so you have to be careful how you use natural dyes. Of course, the whole world can revert back to natural dyes but there is a time and place for everything. For people who would like to learn more about natural dyes, I would say with natural dyeing for the most part a lot of it is non-super wash wool. You see a lot of people who do natural dyeing use non-superwash wool and in the process that wool goes through for superwash wool basically putting the yarn through a microplastic coating process which therefore eventually gets into our waterways, land, and soil. So using natural dyes and nonsuper wash wool and natural dyes are generally better for our environment. Natural dyes also don’t use toxic chemicals which don’t harm our waterways and our ground. I can take a pot of natural dye and dump it in my garden and it can become part of my compost, whereas I can not do that with synthetic dyes.

Where do you get your color inspiration from for your Yarn Club Boxes?

Fatima: It depends on the theme! One of the box sets I am doing is a collaboration with a friend of mine who is also a natural dyer. It’s around nostalgic stories so we look at children’s books and young adult books that we grew up reading so they are nostalgic. We look at the pictures and illustrations of the books as well as the covers of the books and draw out the colors of those images to inspire the dyes for our skeins. That’s how I get inspiration sometimes. Other themes I’ve done other themes like our spring-themed colorway mini skein set which is based on colors spring. A lot of the colors I am inspired by are color from nature itself which makes it kind of easy to dye naturally since the colors come from nature. On the flip side if you talk to any dyer they say the pot always has a mind of its own. I intend for a color to come out a certain way and I put the dye in and the yarn in and it kind of does its own thing and you’re like “Oh! Well, I wasn’t expecting that but it’s a nice color!” So you just have to trust that sometimes things work and other times they don’t which is also totally fine!

Do color trends in fashion or home goods affect the colorways you produce?

Fatima: I don’t use [trends] often intentionally. I used nature around me and what’s in season for sure. I like to plan in advance. In spring and summer, I have lots of marigolds growing since it’s the season for that. I dry them so that I can use dried marigolds in the winter. I can get bright yellow and green if I mix it with blue. This way I still have an array and assortment of colors that are intentionally dyed. Most of my inspiration comes from what my customers and friends are eager to have, some neutral colors especially. Having some staple neutral colors in your wardrobe allows you the ability to have a more sustainable wardrobe. I try to always have shades of browns, greens, and creams because that applies to everyone's wardrobe. Oftentimes when you are knitting you need a neutral base color when you are doing color work so those neutral colors are popular because everyone uses them.

Do you ever dye fibers other than wool, i.e. Linen, Cotton, or Silk?

Fatima: Yes! So I have quite a bit of 100% organic cotton items in the shop right now. I have fabric napkins, tea towels, and drawstring bags. I have worked with other fibers, typically cotton in the past. They go through quite a different process because it’s a cellulose fiber instead of a protein fiber. I would say I prefer to dye protein fibers because you can do a lot of speckled confetti work because you can steam things with bits of flowers, so you can make a lot of fun patterns. You could also do things like tie dyeing especially when I work with indigo.

Being a proponent of local sourcing how do you find your yarns and dyes?

Fatima: I am a member of the Chesapeake Fibershed, I am actually a certified producer of the Chesapeake Fibershed. All of the fiber I get is locally sourced within the Chesapeake Bay area and that includes Maryland, and Virginia, and could go all the way up to Pennsylvania and Delaware. Some parts of Chesapeake Bay run into part of New York. So depending on where the fiber and farms are located, I can source from farms in the Chesapeake Fibershed. That is where I focus. I grow a lot of my own dyes and I forage for a lot of them as well. A lot of the acorns and walnuts I pick up along walks in my neighborhood or where my family lives. I use a lot of kitchen scraps so my freezer is pretty full of not food but food scraps to preserve them throughout the year. I also use natural dye extracts that I purchase sometimes as well. I do mark on all the products which ones are 100% locally sourced and dye locally, versus which ones I used natural dye extracts for as well.

Do you prefer to use a certain type of wool? i.e. Merino or Jacob etc.

Fatima: I feel like Merino is saturated in the yarn industry so I try not to use Merino. I try and explore lots of heritage breeds. Right now I really enjoy Cormo wool and the majority of the wool I have in the shop now is Cormo. Cormo sheep is a cross between a Merino and a Corriedale Sheep and the breed came into creation in the 1930s. The wool is super close to skin soft like Merino but it has a springy elasticity so it creates a cool squishy yet stretchy fabric as well. It has a very versatile property it's so you can use it for garments to hats to socks to scarves. So I really enjoy working with that kind of yarn right now, but I have worked with lots of different breeds as well.

Why is working with fiber and natural dyes important to you?

Fatima: One, I think it brings me a lot of joy and calm. It’s really relaxing. For as labor intensive the dyeing process is I really can connect to where things come from. I am a really big proponent of knowing where our food comes from and also where our clothing comes from. I think it’s really important in society to know where the origins of where our things come from. So, being able to work with wool, like the Merino I am working with right now, I see the veggie matter in strands of the yarn. I see the hay and can smell the sheep and lanolin in the yarn and it helps me connect back to where things come from. It really grounds me as a person which is one of the joys of working with yarn. When it comes to knitting, knitting is known as a stress reducer and anxiety reducer as well. It is super meditative as well, so being a knitter for over 15 years I find I gravitate towards knitting during times of stress and anxiety and it brings me calm. It is also very gratifying to take a string and a couple of straight sticks and really create something useable and can be heirloom pieces that I can pass down to my kids in the future or friends. It’s really something that is timeless and continues to grow and exist when we are not here anymore.


-GTF Field Notes

Written by Ellie Auch

Photos from Abuelita Fiber Company