Dyeing to Know

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I’ve been a long-time fan of Wiksten, a handmade clothing line by Iowa-based (formerly of Brooklyn) Jenny Gordy, as well as the fiber-wrapped jewelry of Erin Considine. I don’t deny that I’d love to spend some time in Brooklyn, where there’s an amazing community of talented women and small business owners, including Mociun, Shabd (NYC), Odette NY, Lena Corwin, who also curates the Artist Series Lines & Shapes books and Brooklyn Diary. From an outsider’s point of view, these books and designers’ blogs give me a tantalizing glimpse of an enviably vibrant scene. Their products, and indeed their design aesthetic, celebrates a quotidian, individual beauty that incorporates the variations and flaws inherent in nature, is often hard to find in Toronto (though that is becoming less and less the case).

For instance, I love the care and attention that went into Wiksten & Odette’s jewelry collaboration a few years ago, where Jenny’s hand-dyed strings and bags complemented Odette’s tiny silver hand-cast arrow charms. I never would have thought to dye something as delicate as thread! Seeing Erin Considine’s dyed-fiber wrapped pendants, and reading about hand-dyeing yarn only made me want to try the process even more, but sadly, I don’t live near either Shabd’s wonderful tie-dye workshops or the Textile Arts Center. I later found that these weren’t genuine impediments.

I’m also enamoured by the indigo blue cotton robes that the Japanese wore for centuries, especially during the Edo period (1603-1867). Cotton’s a difficult fabric to dye, except with indigo, and the Japanese developed many methods of stitching and tying the fabric in unique ways to relieve the monotony of the blue. To me, the combination of indigo and white is iconic and time-worn, and I’d never tire of it. I’m always searching for yukata in Japanese gift shops, along with lacquer, pottery and tea implements, objects I became fascinated by when researching Japanese and Chinese gardens for my poetry manuscript.

I kept this dyeing project on the back of my mind for a few years, until I decided to open an Etsy store less than a month ago. I knew right away that hand-dyed ribbon necklaces was something I wanted to offer. But how to go about it? The first step was to find some suitable dyes. I had a tight budget, and I came across the Jacquard iDyes, which come in small packets for one washing machine cycle. I wasn’t entirely happy with the selection of colours, though– while Aboveground carried Turquoise, Royal Blue and Navy Blue, I wasn’t sure how close they were to a true Indigo. Dyeing ribbons and fabrics in the washing machine, too, wasn’t optimal, as I couldn’t control the intensity of the colour.

On the shelf below, were boxes of Jacquard’s Indigo Tie-Dye Kit. They were about $15 each, but having spent a few hundred dollars on beads and other supplies, I wandered up and down the aisles of Aboveground getting in the way of the salespeople and trying to decide whether or not to go with it. In the end, my love for indigo won out, and in terms of cost, it works out wonderfully because the dye vat keeps for several weeks.

With only a few days before my first craft sale at the Parkdale Bazaar, I wasn’t sure if I would have time to learn the dyeing process. I sourced ribbons at Mokuba, who carried several natural cotton ribbons of varying weights, as well as a beautiful uncoloured silk ribbon of about half an inch a width. At nearly $15 a meter, though, I could only afford a small amount, so I compromised by also buying two metres of the much more affordable cotton ribbon, as well as polyester “vegan leather” in grey and turquoise for my pyrite necklaces. Even though I’d never dyed before, I had a feeling the dyed ribbons would be something special. How I knew, I don’t know. You just have to leap into thin air sometimes.

Knowing that I would have an entire vat of dye meant I would need more than a few ribbons. After reading about the daunting process of scouring online, I saw I’d need natural or undyed fabrics. It was a relief to learn I wouldn’t have to pre-mordant the fabrics for indigo, another intimidating process. Sourcing undyed material was another Carmen Sandiego-like hunt, and googling and searching through fabric stores only resulted in seeing natural linen at the Designer Fabric outlet for about $30 a metre, way out of my price range. I couldn’t be sure it really was undyed, either. Finally, I came across G & S Dye on an online dyers forum, near OCAD. While their natural silks and brocades were a little pricy, their linen and cottons were affordable. I headed down to Dundas & University, and found a tiny shop crammed with bolts of fabric. One of the owners helpfully showed me some mid-weight white cotton, of which she only had a half-yard left, some wide natural cotton that looked a little like hemp, and some lovely light weight linen. I thought it best not to venture into some of the finer fabrics until I knew what I was doing.

I thought the white China cotton would be good for testing on, and for making small bags for customers. The natural cotton would be suited for making the kind of storage bags that I bought at Grassroots in the Annex a few years ago. The washable, reusable bags come in handy for my knitting projects, for packing lingerie for a trip, for buying bread and produce at the farmers’ market, and a whole lot of other uses. The wide lengths of linen would be perfect for scarves and handkerchiefs. I prepared the fabrics by washing them on the delicate cycle with an eco-friendly detergent that contained no perfumes or oils that might react to the dyes, and the fabrics have to be washed of any adherents or sizing that are applied to the material during manufacturing.

Finally, I had to research the dyeing process itself. Thanks to an amazing website called Honestly…WTF, which has all kinds of fashion hacks (as it, honestly, wtf, you could make that yourself!), I found this tutorial on Shibori dyeing. It looked simple enough in the tutorial, and I couldn’t wait to try it for myself.  An indigo dye is different from any other in that it dyes through a living fermentation process. I love the idea of a living vat that changes over time.

I spent some sleepless nights worrying I wouldn’t have enough things to sell for the bazaar, reading through the kit’s instruction manual, and deciding how I wanted the fabrics to look. Strangely enough, I knew what patterns I wanted for the different fabrics very quickly– small, scrunched up, starburst shapes for the small cotton bags, which would be used to package jewelry for customers, simple, dip-dyed or windowpane patterns for the larger cotton draw-string bags. I would hold off on dyeing the linen until I felt I’d mastered the basics, but I hoped to do some more ambitious, river-like patterns for the scarves.

I found an old 5-gallon wine vat in the garage and scrubbed it out with diluted bleach, and jittery with nervousness that I’d mess the dye vat up, I began filling with lukewarm water. I emptied the prereduced indigo and then the reducing agents, and began to stir it like the instructions directed. An acrid, cat-piss smell lifted up. I covered it, lugged it to the backyard, and tucked a garbage bag around it. I filled an old metal washtub with water to rinse out the fabric when I was finished with the dyeing. It was a bit like laying out everything you might need for surgery.

After tying my fabric with elastics and scrunching them down a broom pole, I went back outside after about 45 mins to see if the dye had “bloomed”. An indigo foam had surfaced, and with my gloved hands I pushed it aside and lifted it into a plastic container. Beneath, the dye was a yellow-green colour. I began to carefully lower the fabric into the dye, careful not to let any air get in as I rubbed and turned the fabric under the surface. I couldn’t let the fabric drop to the bottom and walk away, either, as there was sediment on the bottom of the vat that might result in an unevenly dyed texture. I knelt there in the growing dusk, twisting and turning the cut fabric pieces for about 5-7 minutes. The longer they stayed in the dye, the darker they’d turn out. I squeezed it out as much as I could beneath the surface, and lifted them dripping into the garbage bags, where they slowly oxidized. While this was happening, I dyed the rest of the fabrics, and when everything had turned blue in the air, I chose a few pieces to submerge again.

I lifted a small yogurt container full of dye for the ribbons, which were tied with elastics. I wanted the ends to stay white, so I folded them in the length of the intended necklace, pushed them into the dye, and suspended the ends from a chopstick. By this time, it was dark out, so I began to rinse all the fabrics in water, and to wring them out in the basement sink. This was the fun, breath-holding part– untying the elastics and pulling out the twine and stones. I felt strangely as if I’d done it all before, for the whole process wasn’t as unfamiliar as it should have been.

The fabrics turned out more arresting that I could have hoped, with characteristic shapes and variations of colour that we don’t see in factory-made clothing or synthetic dyes anymore. About a week later, I dyed the linen scarves and pocket squares, and dipped in a skein of natural wool yarn as well. Once again, the effects left me addicted to the process and wanting to create more ambitious patterns. I’ve since borrowed a few books from the library, including India Flint‘s comprehensive Eco Colour: botantical dyes for beautiful textiles, which is making me look at people’s gardens with avarice and mercenary feelings. While I’ve known since I was a teenager that I wanted to become a writer and a poet, learning the basics of this age-old artisan skill gave me a vision of an alternate calling, and another kind of life.

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About Phoebe Wang

Apollo's sister. A moon off Saturn, a small, sparrow-like bird, once a Titan.

One comment

  1. Well-sourced and linked post, I’m finding this very helpful as I plan my first Shibori dyeing project with indigo! Thanks much!

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