Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

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Soil to Soil Textiles: TED Talk

For some while I’ve followed the progress of the Bristol Cloth and the businesses at the Bristol Textile Quarter. I also enjoyed attending a natural dyeing workshop held by Botanical Inks. Recently Babs Behan from Botanical Inks has presented a TED Talk on textile dyeing. I have found the talk fascinating and thought that I would share it with you. Being a lover of facts and figures I thought I’d add a few science bits I found from my own research too.

A colourful pile of indigo-dyed denim

I was really struck, particularly when Babs talks about how dyes are used in relation to jeans. I had, clearly wrongly, always assumed that jeans manufacture had continued to use natural indigo dyes. I think this assumption had been because I know that indigo has a particular property whereby only the surface of the fabric is dyed and inner layers remain uncoloured. This means that as denim ages and gets worn the fabric takes on that faded look so peculiar to denim jeans. Apparently, indigo has been synthetically produced since the end of the nineteenth century and this is what is mostly used in the textile industry [1].

Chemical formula for indigo

That said, synthetic indigo and natural indigo dye are chemically exactly the same, however there are some differences that are worth noting [2]. Natural indigo can contain impurities like tannins, which some believe make its colour richer and more interesting. Synthetic indigo uses raw materials such as aniline and hydrogen cyanide which are highly toxic [3].

Cloth dyed with mauveine, the first synthetically produced dye

Babs also talks about azo dyes, which are typified by a characteristic nitrogen to nitrogen bond (N=N) [4]. Azo dyes constitute 60-70% of the dyes used in the textile industry [5]. Many azo pigments are considered non-toxic, but some are mutagenic, carcinogenic or provoke allergic reactions. The textile industry discharge large quantities of azo dye effluents (up to 15% of the dye is lost this way), with acute hazardous effects on the environment and human health. There is restricted use of azo dyes in textile and leather articles under UK law, however azo dyes can be broken down by skin bacteria into carcinogenic aromatic amines many of which are unregulated [6].

[1] Dyes used for denim dyeing

[2] Synthetic vs natural indigo dye

[3] Sustainability of indigo in denim production

[4] Azo dyes

[5] Use of azo dyes in the textile industry

[6] Aromatic amines as carcinogens


Colour to dye for

This month I’ve been doing some investigation into dyeing for the One Outfit One Year challenge.

I’ve decided to take a similar approach to that used in my earlier post Wool in the West Country, looking at what the people in England used traditionally. I’m hoping that will lead me in an interesting direction for the challenge.

European dyeing dates back to about 1400BC. International trade in dyestuffs and dyed cloth in Europe dates from around the 9th century.

A dye with a particularly a long history in this country is Woad, a blue  from the Isatis tinctoria plant. It was associated with the Iceni tribe and its leader Boudicca who used woad to colour their faces before going into battle. Vegetative remains of woad plants were found in Viking age York dating from the 9th/10th century.

I couldn’t resist putting in a picture from the ridiculous and historical inaccurate Brave Heart, with Mel Gibson painted with woad (1,000 years too late) in a tartan kilt (500 years too early), see wikipedia for the complete slating.

Brave Heart

Get with the times, blue just isn’t in at the moment!

Surprisingly, despite the long association with the British Isles, woad is not even an indigenous plant. It is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus and Siberia. It has been cultivated in Europe though since ancient times. In medieval times, Glastonbury, in Somerset was a centre of woad cultivation in the West Country, although a great deal was still imported. The port records in Bristol show that 255,360 lb of woad was imported in 1613.

Another dye with a long history in this country is madder, a red dye produced from the roots of the Rubia tinctorum plant. The plant is native to Mediterranean Europe, but was later grown in Northern Europe. The Roman Army battledress is supposed to have been dyed with madder.

Weld was also a core dyestuff in Europe and is said to give the most beautiful colour on wool and silk. It grows in the wild in most European countries and was grown as a crop from the early medieval times in England. Yellow can be obtained from dyeing with weld, but it can also be used to create green when overdyed with woad. This process was used to create “Lincoln Green”, the colour of dyed woollen cloth associated with Robin Hood and his merry men in Sherwood Forest.

Dyeing Wool Cloth

Dyeing wool cloth (1482)

I have found a few places that supply these traditional dyes:

The Mulberry Dyer

Based in Leek, Staffordshire. Specialises in historically accurate dyes, cloths and embroidery supplies.

All About Woad

Based in Birmingham. Supplies specifically woad and woad-dyed products.

The Woad Centre

Based in Norfolk. They have dyeing workshops as well as woad dye kits.

Nearer to home in Bristol, I discovered that Botanical Inks are running a workshop on Shibori tie-dyeing using natural dyes. The dyes are all made from locally foraged wild dye plants. Of course, I signed up for this workshop straight away! I noted that you could bring along your own yarn or fabric to dye. Alternatively, they have British silk available for use in the workshop. I’m curious about this British silk, since silk production is not normally associated with  England! Can’t wait!


March Upcycle – Star T-shirt

I’ve seen so many freeze paper stencil on the web that I just had to give this a go. They look like such an easy idea and the possibilities are endless. I had another rather faded old t-shirt to experiment on. I decided to give it a dye first to a more vibrant shade of mauve and then add a star in grey to the front. I also got to try out a bit more Inkscape functionality. I’m really getting the hang of the software.


Dylon Ocean Blue hand dye (or similar dye)

Reynolds Freezer Paper (This isn’t generally available in the UK. I’m not sure if there is any other equivalent that would do the same job. I found that it sold on Amazon)

Fabric paint (I used Marabu Texil)Star T-shirt (Before and After)Dyeing the T-shirt

1. Wash the t-shirt first.

2. Next, dye the t-shirt according to the instructions. I used the whole packet of dye to get a deep colour, but it is possible to use less or mix colours.

3. Let the t-shirt dry and then wash the t-shirt on its own in the washing machine just to make sure that it is colour-fast. Allow to dry.

Creating the template

1. (Optional) Create a template on your computer. I used the freeware program Inkscape to create my star template. I simply drew a star using the Star and Polygon tool and five circles using the Circle tool. I also rounded the stars corners and used the randomise tool to change my star to give it a slightly asymmetrical “hand-drawn” look.

2. Cut out the design and use it as a template on the freezer paper

3. Cut out the design from the freezer paper

4. Place the freezer paper on the t-shirt and iron gently on a hot setting. The paper should adhere to the t-shirt.

Star T-shirt template

5. Apply the paint to the t-shirt using a paintbrush or sponge.

6. Apply another coat of paint if needed (I found to get a solid look that I needed two coats). Allow to dry. Peel off the freezer paper

7. Place a cloth over the paint and fix the dye using the iron on Cotton setting