Natural Dye Upcycle Project

Natural Dye Upcycle Project
Natural Dye Upcycle Project

Dyeing is a very exciting journey.
You can transform colours. You are the artist. 
My first was the shibori project involving my UNIQLO dress, and I also had a taste of dyeing with batik colours, transforming a well-loved white top into a myriad of colours. These upcycling projects used less natural chemicals, but they still enabled me to make my clothes last longer!

Batik Upcycling DIY

Eco Prints and Natural Dye

I have been experimenting with combining upcycling, ecoprinting and dyeing.
I had put aside my "zombie apocalypse" top that I had upcycled using an old white organic MUJI top and the ecoprint method. Local cherries and onions were wrapped inside the organic cotton and bundled off into the steamer. I had high expectations, but what you initially see when you bundle the garment, is not what you get after the steaming. I had forgotten that:
a) plant / vegetable colours become "sadder" after the garment is cured. The brilliance of the cherry red faded to a mere pink. I felt a little cheated but I think I it was because I just hadn't done my homework. 
b) less is more. As you can see in the video below, I had gone overboard. Encouraged by what I had seen in youtube videos, I decided to copy the tutorials. Unfortunately, I didn't get what I wanted, but you learn from your mistakes.

So this is what the garment looked like immediately after the unrolling - notice the hues of green and deep reds? Well these all faded into a bloody orange and red, while the green just disappeared (see right of the picture).  I honestly thought that the colours were fine, and I quite liked the look until someone mentioned it looked like blood. It didn't help that I was having my period at the same time too! Can you imagine what I saw when I was changing my soiled flannel?
Ecoprinting and upcycling

To be honest, I am not too sure why the green disappeared - I had read that the kumquat leaves would impart a deep green to cotton. Either I hadn't done the eco printing correctly, or I had acquired the wrong type of leaves. 

Agy Textile Artist

Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of my friends said, "zombie apocalypse"  and "crime scene". Many suggested that I try doing some stitching on the top to give it dimension but I did feel that the red from the onion and cherry was very overwhelming and any amount of stitching wouldn't be able to save the garment.

Rust Dye

It took me a while to figure out what to do. I put the garment to one side and was deciding between redyeing or stitching. I decided to do both.  The first step was to immerse it into the rust solution (basically an iron mordant that you can make with vinegar, water and rusty nails). It was very scary at first as rust can eat away at the fibers and basically destroy the garment. So,  it was a case of a quick dip, in and out, then drying and repeating it a second time before rinsing and immersing in salt solution to make the colours last.  The result of this process was shades of grey and brown. 

Eco printing, natural dyes with onion and cherry

The onions became a very dark grey, while the cherries gave a dark reddish brown.

Stitching the Garment

After dyeing and curing the garment, it was onto the stitching. I was inspired by dandelions and the seed dispersal during spring. So it was back the sewing machine for some free motion embroidery with dark brown #30 Gutterman thread. I ended off with some handstitching using a variegated #12 Aurifil thread for the seed dispersal. 

Free motion embroidery and handstitching


This garment upcycle took longer than my usual projects. In fact, I have noticed that my projects are taking quite a bit of time compared with my sewing from a few years ago. It was disheartening but I have observed that I am at a very peaceful stage with my work - I can't panic, I need to be calm.  It was very reassuring when I read this article in the BBC Art website detailing the work that goes into making a traditional Japanese kimono. It takes one year, and one of the weavers, Mifuko Iwasaki says

"Calmness is important.  If we mess it up now all the work until this point will be for nothing ..... If you’re not in a peaceful state of mind it will show in your work." Mifuko Iwasaki

How important these words are to me! Take time to do your work, don't rush, and even better, be calm. 

How do you ensure you don't mess up your work?

Upcycling with eco dyes and embroidery

Upcycling Workshops in Singapore

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I was recently invited to give upcycling talks and workshops at the Ministry of Health and Spring Singapore. It's actually a very interesting trend because since I started conducting them in 2013, I have noticed that the participants are more engaged and interested in the topic, which is great! The other thing I have realised is that I am getting more males in the class as well, another good development.  I also get more positive feedback and they understand the urgency with the need to change their behaviour too.

Three Reasons Why It is Important to Preserve Traditions and Craft

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Three Reasons Why It is Important to Preserve Traditions and Craft
Weave a Story, Agy Textile Artist

My Weave a Story upcycling community installation traveled to the Green Is the New Black "The Conscious Festival" in May.  Adults and children alike were engaged in the installation and it was exciting to see how the piece grew organically (take a look at the video here). The piece became a good starting point for conversations on how we consume our clothing and what we can do to slow it down. Yes, this is a form of artivism / gentle protest, something I would definitely like to see grow in Singapore. However, one thing I questioned was whether the act of making (in this case weaving upcycled t-shirt dreamcatchers) made the participants realise how our need for speed has caused such traditional forms of making to be lost.

Coopita - Preserving Traditions

My collaborator for the installation, Coopita, is all about preserving traditions. I loved how they brought in artisans from South East Asia to showcase their creations and techniques at Green Is the New Black. While Coopita supports artisans and craftsmen across the region, they promote their work, enhance their capabilities and empower their communities as well.  I was very eager to chat with co-founder of Coopita, Naomi Jacob, and find out why preserving tradition and craft is important in this technology-filled world of ours.

Coopita, Naomi Jacobs, Co-founder

How Did Coopita Begin?

Naomi says, "When I got married in 2013, my mother gave me a trousseau of about five saris that she had collected over the years from her travels across India. What was unique about each one of the saris was that the particular weave could not be found anymore. In the space of one generation, the skills required to create the weaves had vanished. As the craft sector is the largest employer in India after the agrarian sector, this loss of skills and traditions came as a surprise to me and I found myself pondering this conundrum.

A few years later, I was lucky enough to meet two individuals who were not just interested in this topic, but keen to do something to enhance craft preservation.Our little team really compliments each other; Isaac brings to the table his insights and experience as an entrepreneur, Mayur has over a decade of experience in investments, turnarounds and corporate strategy for small businesses and I come from an economics and development policy background with experience in policy making.

What started out as chats over coffee turned into weekend trips where we travelled across Asia over weekends to meet different artisan communities. The issues of a lack of market access and a loss of skills due to the disinclination of the next generation to take up traditional crafts seemed to cut across countries we visited such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, in addition to India. The insights we gained from these trips eventually turned into a business plan for Coopita.

Today Coopita’s purpose or mission is very clear to us - to focus on enhancing the capabilities of maker communities across Asia that work on craft preservation. Our efforts have brought us to a point where within the first year of our operations, we have been able to transfer over $25,000 to our maker communities (and our year isn’t over yet!). As a completely bootstrapped team, I am proud of our efforts, but know that there is a huge untapped opportunity here to do more and have a much greater impact. "

Top 3 Reasons for Preserving Traditions and Craft

Just like Naomi, I have a passion for preserving traditions. As the world gets faster, I see many people lose touch with traditional skills such as sewing, repairing and even taking care of our clothes. Naomi gives her top 3 reasons why it is important to preserve traditions and craft:

  1. Prevent loss of skills and know-how, which would be irreversible;
  2. Sometimes the traditional ways are actually better, as with the example of cast-iron pans  (see video below) when it comes to cooking or the Bolivian weavers who are able to create medical devices that cannot be replicated by machines and which save the lives of millions of children every year; and
  3. To prevent the loss of the intangible cultural heritage that traditional crafts are a manifestation.

So How Does Coopita Aid Craft Preservation?

"In order to reduce the dependence of makers on the seasonal tourism industry, Coopita’s first solution was to set up a customised e-commerce platform for the Asian makers we had met during our travels, that would take into account their specific requirements for logistics and payments.

By the summer of 2016, we had all the processes in place to start operating the Coopita platform. We started operations with about 20 maker communities on board our platform. In the first six months alone, we grew this number to 100+ makers in 8 countries across Asia.

We constantly look at ways in which we can add more value to our makers - starting with building up a pipeline of business to business (B2B) orders for our makers, to working with communities looking to finance product innovations to see how best we could raise this money and finally to grow the community of conscious consumers around us through events or workshops, so that we could showcase why craft preservation is so important."

I asked Naomi about her thoughts on traditional techniques vis a vis today's retail demand for quicker time to market.  In today's business environment, many say traditional techniques are not cost effective and scalable when it comes to making things. 

"Today, we have oceans that cannot breathe because of plastics. Fish that have ingested toxic amounts of micro-fibres and are unsafe for human consumption. Skies that are choked grey with haze from slash and burn farming. Factories that turn to rubble in an instant, destroying precious human lives, because they are built with only cost-effectiveness in mind. Perhaps it’s time more of us take a pause to recognise the toll that mass-production is taking on the Earth. Are all the negative externalities of mass production truly taken into account by capitalism today?
I would also pose a question on whether we should consider how traditional craftsmanship can achieve scale, while still maintaining their core values - taking the example of the English shoemaking company, John Lobb.

Coopita aims to take such learnings from how craft clusters abroad have achieved scale and see how it can be applied within the Asian context."

Working with Communities

"We try to make sure that our sourcing team personally connects with each and every maker that we bring on board Coopita, to make sure that our community stays true to our mission. Since we are working with a relatively small group of 100+ makers now, each maker is unique and exciting and adds to the diversity of the community.

Revolutionising Fashion

While each of the Coopita makers I have met have personally inspired me, there are a few whose stories I’d like to share:

(i) Lara Frayre, the founder of social enterprise Batak Craft is someone who has deeply impressed me with her commitment to her cause. Coopita is currently collaborating with Batak Craft on the crowdfunding campaign, Project Bamboo. Lara has tremendous respect for the Batak community she works with, and her organisation works within the tribe’s cultural foundation to find a sustainable livelihood that can lift them out of their current cycle of poverty. You can find more information on Project Bamboo here and your support would go a long way in helping the Batak tribe.

(ii) Recently, one of the best experiences the Coopita team has had with our makers was during our Meet the Makers Singapore event from 12-13 May 2017. 28 different maker communities from 9 different countries across Asia flew into Singapore for the event, which included demonstrations of weaving and ceramics as well as workshops where people could learn to use traditional craft tools like the backstrap loom/loin loom. The best part of the event was seeing how our makers connected with each other - we are looking forward to seeing some interesting collaborations arising from the event!"

Meet the Makers, Coopita

Thank you, Naomi for the insights behind Coopita, and why it's important to preserve traditions and craft!

Preserving Tradition - Block Printing & a Wedding Dress

Preserving Tradition - Block Printing & a Wedding Dress
When communities started to weave their own fabric, they realised colour could be added to the yarn or thread through various natural dye techniques. Intricate and colourful patterns were incorporated into the textiles by the artisans, each one telling a story through their hands. Weaving colour, however, has limitations when creating more complicated patterns, and eventually block printing (which was originally used to print text) was applied.

Block Printing

Block printing is traditionally achieved through carved woodblocks. If the artisan is planning on printing different colours on the fabric, the same pattern would have to be cut many times onto separate woodblocks - each block would have different parts cut out where the colour was not required.  Once the blocks are completed, they are then cured in oil to ensure that they are waterproof.

Block Printing with Matter

Fifth Generation Block Printing Artisan

My friend and I got the chance to try out block printing at Matter's block printing workshop in November last year. Fifth generation block printing artisan and Matter artisan partner, Khushiram Pandey, was flown in from India to share his expertise.  For those of you who are not familiar with the brand, Matter is a Singapore-based socially motivated fashion brand and work with artisanal communities around to produce designs inspired by tradition.

From the session, I was amazed to learn that the journey from creating the print design to eventually transferring the dye to the fabric could take up to several weeks to complete.  It would be so much easier and cheaper to use silk screen printing instead, but coming from a long line of artisans, Khushiram is passionate about preserving the traditional craft of block printing. 
Being a textile lover, I was very excited to learn. I had chosen to print on a silk-cotton blend scarf. Although we were not able to use natural dyes (as what Khushiram usually uses) or carve our own blocks,  we did get to explore the many woodblocks he had brought to the workshop.

Block printing workshop with Matter

Block Printing is Not Easy

Block printing is not easy - I hear your inner child shout, "But didn't we all block print with potatoes when we were children?".   Block printing is an art form. There are many elements to perfect:
  • Design - I stood in front of my square for quite a long time before I decided on the design I wanted. With so many block print designs to choose from, I didn't want to go overboard and end up with a kitsch look.  
  • Preparing the dye - one of the key components to block printing is ensuring the dye is of the right consistency. It was the first time I had seen dye seeped through a cotton and bamboo mat. Kushiram explained that this was important to ensure an even amount of dye coated the block.
  • Technique - Khushiram demonstrated how to dip the block into the pre-soaked mat of dye and the technique used to get a clean print. You could not be too heavy handed with the printing and he suggested that we practise a few times on the mat before working on our piece.

Block printing workshop with Matter

Block printing workshop with Matter

Incorporating the Scarf into My Wardrobe

I was very happy with the outcome of the workshop, and not to mention I learned something new.  As you can see from the photos, I settled for dots, triangles and lines. I was already thinking about how to incorporate it into my wardrobe. Eventually, I settled on upcycling my mother's wedding dress with the scarf.

Preserving Tradition - Wedding Dress

My parents got married in the seventies. It was the era of platforms, lace and balloon sleeves. My mum made her wedding dress and kept it for me. Unfortunately, the style was not right for my wedding but I decided to upcycle it (30+ years later and yes, I did as my mum's permission!). There is so much fabric on this dress to use that I made myself a top and I still have enough to make another.
This dress has a lot of memories - I took it out again from the wardrobe and spotted some confetti from the occasion.

Wedding Dress Upcycle

Upcycling Wedding Dress

The top that I made was slightly boat necked and had bat sleeves. I only had enough of the scarf to make the front part of the garment, but fortunately I was able to use the wedding dress material for both the back and front panels.

It's so lovely to have a garment that's block printed and upcycled from a wedding dress! It definitely gives preserving traditions a new meaning. Here I am in my new top paired with Matter pants. Stay tuned to see what happens to the other half of the wedding dress.

Wedding Dress Upcycle by Agy

Rebranding Green Issues by Agy

Rebranding Green Issues by Agy
Agy Textile Artist

When my friend, S, first approached me in 2008 to join her green lifestyle blog, little did I know that it would take me on a journey in the sustainable fashion world. To be honest, I did not think of myself as fashionable or even trendy. But a maker I was, and when S decided to step away from the project, I plunged into a world of upcycling and repair. It was initially just about sharing my weekend sewing escapades (from work!) but the more I read and researched about how important making is, the more I realised that I needed a platform for me to voice my concerns and ideas about sustainability and the fashion industry. It has created enormous opportunities for me - cofounding Connected Threads Asia and bringing Fashion Revolution to Singapore with my friends.  I am very grateful for the people who I have met along the way and the immense support given to me.

Now I am at the stage where I want to go to the next level. I prefer a gentler protest and have found that art is a very suitable avenue to bring the message of garment upcycling and repair techniques across to the public. I hope to do more interactive art installations where people can slow down and not just appreciate the story of the clothes, but also the environment as well.  So, I will be slowly changing this platform and eventually rebranding as Agy Textile Artist.

4 Ways You Can be a Creative Upcycler

4 Ways You Can be a Creative Upcycler
Creative upcycling

Some people have asked me how I teach people to upcycle. I provide the tools, the materials, and a conducive place for people to share their ideas.  I don't like to tell people what they should make because if I tell them that they won't own the process and value the item they have created. By making the decision to upcycle their trousers into a bag or a skirt, they will take pride in what they have made and, of course, use it! After all, upcycling is the process of prolonging the life of the garment and making your mark on it. 

So how can you become a creative upcycler?

#1 Look at things differently

A skirt is never always a skirt.
It can be a tube top, a bag, a clutch or even a pair of shorts if there is enough fabric. Here are a few ideas from participants from the Restyle Your Wardrobe Workshop. Trousers into skirt? Dress into bag?

Upcycling Workshop by Agy, Singapore

#2 Look at a garment like an artist.

You might not need to drastically upcycle a garment. Treat it like a blank slate and use that to create a masterpiece. Add your colours to it. Here's one of my favourites using batik dyes.

Batik Upcycle by Agy

#3 Make it simple

Being creative does not mean having to have a complex idea. Make it simple!
 “Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity” – Charles Mingus
You could just be adding cute buttons or pom poms, or even cutting the hemline to update a look.

Upcycling with Agy

#4 Try out different techniques

I sometimes find that I get stuck when using the same technique, but once I discover new ones I end up with a lot of possibilities. Not into sewing? Why not do some simple embroidery, or even using dyes? I converted this swapped dress using batik dyes and made it into something unique.

Shibori Upcycling by Agy

What tips do you have for keeping your projects creative?
Comment below!