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


#1year1outfit – The Hacking Jacket Part 4

The slow progress with my jacket continues. In the last two weeks I have finally got to the stage where my jacket is looking like a jacket. It is now hanging up on a door in the living room on a hanger.


Jacket on hanger

Sadly didn’t have enough twill tape to do both sides in the same colour – it’s inside, no one will know!

My next steps are a departure from the pattern instructions. I am constructing a lining for the jacket. I’ve also been following Steffani Lincecum’s Craftsy course on tailoring and I’m therefore using this as a guide for sewing the lining.

For the lining fabric I bought some silk fabric from Majestic Silk. This is organic, peace silk and made in Hertfordshire. I have used it previously to make this Sew Liberated Myla Tank.

Myla Tank

Since the silk fabric is white (and there is no way I wear this amount of white as I’m too accident prone) I dyed fabric. Some while ago in the summer I collected dock leaves. For those who aren’t familiar with this plant, it’s very common in the UK and tends to grow on waste ground or at the sides of the road. I found our local park was a good source.


Dock leaves

To create the dye I boiled the dock leaves for an hour to produce a brown-ish gloop and stored this in a glass jar on the window sill. Babs from Botanical Inks (where I did a dyeing workshop) suggested that dyestuffs could be left in the sun to produce a stronger colour.

Dock leaf dyestuff

Dock leaf dyestuff (aka the smelly gloop!) in a chilli con carne sauce jar.

I created a dye bath by tipping my dock leaf brew (complete with leaves) into a large saucepan and topping it up with water to cover the fabric. I don’t think that my saucepan is really big enough to dye this quantity of fabric, and unsure whether I would be able to evenly dye my silk, I decided to shibori tie-dye it. At least this way, my dyeing would be intentionally uneven!

Unfortunately, despite sterilising the glass jar, the dye had fermented a little and I got a distinctly bacterial whiff when I opened the jar. Undeterred I still decided to used it, but boiling the fabric in the dye bath on the hob for an hour, was a very stinky business and not to be recommended. Actually, that doesn’t come anywhere near describing how bad it was. I had to open all the windows in the kitchen and hold my jumper over my nose to stop myself gagging each time I entered the room! In the future, I’ll try to use my dyestuff before it starts to go off!

Notwithstanding the stench, the dye worked very well and gave rather lovely light brown or ecru. More importantly a quick wash after taking it out of the dye bath and it doesn’t smell either.

Tie-dyed silk

The next stage will be cutting the lining pieces an constructing my lining. The question is whether I will have a jacket before the new year?


#1year1outfit – Natural Dyes Workshop

I signed up for the One Year One Outfit challenge at the start of the year, but so far I had just been doing my research. At the end of last month I attended a natural dyeing workshop run by Botanical Inks. They are based in South-West and they are running workshops both in Gloucestershire and Bristol at the moment. The workshop was attended by seven other people and I found myself the only sewing enthusiast in the group, which surprised me. There were quite a few students from the nearby UWE campus and also a couple of people whose crafting background was paper crafts and they wanted to be able to make fabric covers for their hand-crafted work-books. It was good to have such a mixture of experiences within the group.

I took along a couple of scraps from my stash. The remainder of some white cotton lawn and also some cotton jersey (which I think my other half had been using as motorcycle polishing rags). I also bought a metre of organic silk fabric at the workshop. This fabric is peace silk and is 100% organic. It is grown in Hertfordshire. I know that isn’t very local, by English standards. The town of Hertford is 137 miles away, but to the best of my knowledge this is the only place in the UK that grows its own silk. Before I attended this workshop I had really excluded silk from my list of fabric possibilities, but I’m glad I can include it again. It certainly opens up the door to more long-term possibilities. I like the idea of applying the local and ethical into my wardrobe on a more long-term basis and would like to use a diverse range of fabrics.

At the start of the workshop we dropped our textiles into a large bucket of water to pre-soak them and sat down for a cup of tea. Babs, our tutor had brought along some herbs from the garden and I drank a tea made from her deliciously fresh mint. While the fabric was soaking, Babs, talked, very knowledgeably to us about the shibori tie-dyeing process and the dyes we would be using. I selected to dye my silk with dock.


For those that are not familiar with this plant, it is very common in the UK and it is well-known plant even to children. Dock leaves are a traditional remedy for the sting of nettles. After landing in some stinging nettles, I remember as a child, being sent off to find some dock leaves to place on the nettle stings. Whether this actually works or not I have no idea, but it certainly takes your mind off the stinging, which is probably the only treatment anyone with nettle sting needs! For my cotton scraps I chose baths of rosemary and of avocado skins.

After our fabric had finished soaking, we set about doing our shibori. Shibori is a technique whereby fabric is bound, stitched, folded, twisted, or compressed to result in a dyeing pattern where the dye is excluded by the folds or twists from certain areas of the fabric. For the silk fabric I just folded the fabric in concertina-fashion and tied it in place with curtain rings and elastic bands. For the cotton lawn I just twisted the fabric over a wooden stick and secured with string. The cotton jersey was also folded in a concertina fashion and tied with elastic bands.

Shibori Dyeing

The fabric was then dropped into the cold dye baths. These were then placed on the stove to heat up and simmer for the remainder of the workshop.

While our fabric was dyeing, Babs continued with her discussion of dyeing techniques and introduced the concept of mordants. The dyes that we used in the workshop were all substantive dyes i.e. colour-fast and do not need mordanting. These plants often have high concentrations of tannin in them, or as in the case of dock, oxalic acid, which are naturally occurring mordants.


After about an hour in the simmering dye bath, we removed our textiles from the baths, unwrapped them and placed them in a bath containing soapy water to wash them. The soap was a pH-neutral soap, which is best to use when handling naturally dyed fabrics.

Finally, we all ironed and blow-dried our creations to try to get them as dry as possible before our trips home.

Silk dyed

Silk dyed with Dock leaves

Cotton Lawn dyed with Avocado Skins

Cotton Lawn dyed with Avocado Skins

Cotton Lawn dyed with Avocado Skins

Cotton jersey dyed with Rosemary

Cotton jersey dyed with Rosemary

I was very pleased with my silk fabric dyed with dock. For my scraps I think that the dyeing was quick subtle. Obviously in a dyeing workshop there are time limits and I think, particular the rosemary dyed cotton jersey would have benefitted from longer in the dye bath. Babs recommended that after an hour-long simmer in the dye bath to leave the fabric overnight in the dye. She also mentioned that additional dips in the dye bath might be required to get more vibrant shades.

I’ve finally got off the ground with my One Year One Outfit project. I  have fabric for my first garment and the know-how to do some future natural dyeing. To tie in with the Indie Sewing Pattern month at The Monthly Stitch, I’m planning to make the silk into a Myla tunic from Sew Liberated, so watch this space!

As for my cotton scraps, I think I may well use them again and re-dye them. I was hoping they would be a more vibrant colour. They are only scraps but I think I could make some sleeves or shoulder panels or some part of a garment from them, so they may crop up again in the future.