Sunday, 11 August 2013

I started my own indigo dye vat

I'd had an indigo dye vat in the cupboard for over a year but had been too scared to use it! Scared... really?! Well, I was worried more about wasting it or getting it wrong in some way, so after my natural dyeing intensive, I felt ready to set it up. 

It was the kind of kit that included a chemical reducing agent rather than natural fruit sugars so I also wanted to ensure I didn't poison the family by splashing it around the kitchen and waited for some fine spring weather.

I raided my wardrobe which has a plentiful supply of items which haven't been worn for at least a year! I decided to try some shibori stitch resist around the lower legs of some white linen trousers.

I realised after much stitching that it was quite difficult to get a tight bind with thin thread, so over tied with thicker string.

I set up the indigo dye vat in the garden using a plastic box with a lid, to reduce the oxidisation of the liquid. Notice my handy stirring stick! Very useful for mixing in more reducing agent.

Indigo is perhaps the most fun of all the natural dyeing techniques I'd tried as watching the transformation when you take the fabric out of the vat is SO EXCITING!!! The trousers quickly changed from lime green, to green, to turquoise to deep blue in a matter of minutes, I was a bit gutted I couldn't keep this turquoise which had patches of lime which complimented it so well! 

I dipped the trousers a couple of times once oxidised, to intensify the colour but with this particular kit, I realised that the really deep navy blues were not going to be possible. I think this fact, along with the environmental considerations, means that I will probably start my own natural fructose based indigo dye vat as soon as possible.

Releasing the bindings was quite a slow process due to my intricate stitching which didn't really affect the dye outcome as obviously as I'd hoped. The string would have sufficed!

I tried a stitch resist on a linen skirt too (above) but as you can see, it's quite subtle. I'll no doubt over dye and play again with these clothes as they don't have the depth of colour I was after but this was one more learning experience which convinced me that the natural indigo dye bath is the way to go.

Saturday, 10 August 2013


So, after my natural dyeing intensive, I had over 50 fabric samples and set about ordering them into a sketchbook. I planned to have a larger version of my previous one (shown at the top of the picture below) with 7 rows of 7 stitched samples which could be folded into one fat sketchbook or opened out to display as a large piece.

All my samples were linen and cotton but as many were plain colours, I decided to work into them with pattern and embroidery. I started playing with discharge printing. This is basically removing colour with bleach. 

I tried various shibori resist techniques before spraying and dipping each sample, then quickly rinsing when the desired level of fade had occurred. The samples below worked really well until I decided to try this technique on bleach...

I spent an extra long time intricately ironing, folding, pegging and clamping the dyed silk, forgetting the fact that I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, that bleach EATS silk!!! See the results for yourself!...lesson learned!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Natural Dye Fabric Samples & sketchbook

I had a fantastic 3 days learning so much about natural fabric dyeing and produced loads of samples. You can see the rhubarb bottom right and the indigo on the left but we also dyed with madder (the reds and pale pinks), cochineal (the brighter pinks), dyer's camomile (the gorgeous mustard colour) and logwood (the dark blue/purple).

Helen also produces her own range of plant based fabric paints which can be used as watercolours on paper or to paint fabric and she showed me how to make a plant dye solution into a screen printing consistency by thickening it with gum tagacanth. 

When I got home, I started cutting all my samples to the same size with the aim of creating a larger version of the fabric sketchbook I had previously made (you can see it laid out at the top of the picture below.) I planned to have a 7 piece sketchbook of 49 samples, many of which would be embroidered and worked into and which would fold up or could be displayed as a larger piece. (It didn't quite pan out this way as the looming New Designers exhibition necessitated a more realistic option!)

I love the colours produced by just a few simple plants and ancient techniques. As they are all linen, they have a rustic charm and the colours have a quality and vibrancy that can't really be captured by a camera. PLUS, they smell fantastic!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Natural Dyeing Intensive: Part 3 - Indigo Dye Vat and Shibori

Day 3 of my natural dyeing intensive was all about that mystical, magical substance of legend... Indigo, which is believe it or not, insoluble in water. It has to be combined with an oxidising agent in order to dissolve and attach to fabric. This is what it looks like in it's solid form, when it is known as indigotin.

The first step was to make an indigo stock solution by reducing the 'indigo blue' to 'indigo white' by adding it to an alkalised water from which the oxygen has been removed. Calcium hydroxide was used as an alkalising agent and fructose (from a packet although you can use actual fruit) was the reducing agent. The solution changes from blue to light green when the oxidation process has completed and a skin then forms on the surface.

The stock solution was then added to a larger vat of water and left to oxidise again.

While we waited, Helen taught me some shibori resist techniques including arashi (tying around a pole) and itajime (clamping) along with others that I already knew as plain old 'tie-dye'.

Once removed from the indigo vat, the cloth quickly changes from lime, to dark green, to blue - it's MAGIC!!! : )))

When you see a piece of fabric dyed all one colour, you realise why embellishing resist techniques are so popular because it's quite hard to get a perfectly even colour! Good job 'perfect' is not my thing!

These were two of my itajime shibori samples which I clamped using wooden pegs and bulldog clips. I absolutely LOVE the colour indigo and can't wait to have my own dye vat permanently on the go at home.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Natural Dyeing Intensive: Part 2 - colour modifications

Day 2 of my intensive with Helen and one of the coolest aspects of natural dyeing, colour modification! I did feel like I was back in the chemistry lab at school but although we had to be careful with all the substances, they were all naturally occurring elements such as ammonia, copper and iron.

Who knew that you could get 6 different colours out of one dye vat?!!

Colour modification involves adding various solutions (and combinations) to your fabric after it has been dyed. In this experiment, we had dyed the fabric in rhubarb root.

Each swatch was placed in a plastic beaker with a little dye, then 5 different solutions were added. These included copper sulphate, ferrous oxide (iron) and ammonia, plus mixtures of each. It sounded all a bit toxic and polluting initially but all of these substances occur in the earth and you can make your own solutions for example by simple placing old metal objects in some water. This saves having to purchase the powdered chemicals.

Generally, ammonia had a warming effect, making colours more pink and iron had a 'saddening' effect, making them darker. Each swatch had it's own label attached... labelling is VERY IMPORTANT if you ever want to replicate a beautiful colour that you've stumbled across!

These were the six different shades produced from one vat of rhubarb dye!!! I was blown away by this! It was SO much fun and all the colours complimented each other perfectly. I called them my rhubarb and custard samples. I was definitely going to have some fun when I got home with this technique! 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Natural Dyeing Intensive: Part 1 - Scouring, Mordanting and Hapa Zome

At the end of March I attended a 3 day, one-to-one intensive training with natural dyeing enthusiast, Helen Melvin. Having applied for funding to go down to Swansea for training (and not got it!) I was really pleased and surprised to find someone specialising in my area of interest, living within an hour of me.

We covered so many topics in the 3 days and it would have taken me years of experimentation to learn this much information otherwise. There are always people who have been there before us and although natural dyeing seems like a fringe activity in this industrial and digital age, I like to remember that for thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution, this is how everyone dyed cloth.

Scouring and Mordanting

Unlike synthetic dyeing, when fabric is dyed naturally, it requires considerable pre-treatment. You can either look on this as an irritating inconvenience and proof that synthetic dyes are preferable OR you can consider this all part of the slowing down process, an extra interaction with the materials and an opportunity to cultivate a bit of patience! ; )

Most fabrics have a greasy residue from their production process and this is especially true for silk which can loose weight considerably after scouring. Scouring basic involves washing the fabric in soda crystals, rinsing and then repeating.

Mordanting is most effective when it is done over a two day period. Although a quicker option is available, colours may not be as fast (or they may, as with everything natural dyeing, you'll have to experiment for yourself!)

We soaked the fabric in Sumac (remember me using that out of my garden purely by chance) overnight and then in a solution of alum salt for another. Some of the linen above went a lovely lime green colour - who knows why! It's the mystery that makes the process so exciting.

Hapa Zome
The first natural dyeing technique Helen introduced me to was Hapa Zome. This is the process of beating plant material and other natural elements such as iron, copper etc. into cloth.

We used silk organza and haboti. The organza didn't really absorb much dye but you can see the results on the haboti above.

Personally, although I love natural dyeing, I do think there's a fine line between the results looking beautiful and looking like they've been wrapped around a dead body for a few years! eek! This just doesn't pass that test, although I'm sure I'll use it for something! ; )

I actually love the pieces that don't work too though. It's a challenge sometimes to relinquish control, drop expectations and just enjoy the process but natural dyeing certainly demands that you do!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

TEXTiles fabric sketchbook

Adding a narrative element to my naturally dyed fabrics became important in order to personalise my work. Having learned some hand book-binding skills during a previous MA module, I had fun applying them to a fabric version.

I used samples from my previous plant dyeing adventures and it will be interesting to see how fast the turmeric and blackberries prove to be over time.

The notion of provenance is key. The idea that a product carries the energy of those who have created it and the places it has visited prior to landing in your hands. In light of recent human rights violations in the textile industry, we all need to think about the knock on effects of purchasing 'throw-away' cheap clothing.

I think the mood of the person creating an object infuses it with either positive or negative energy so noted this key word in my small, folding, fabric sketchbook which buttons up thanks to my new sewing machine!