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Natural Dyes : Common Misconceptions

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Natural Dyes : Common Misconceptions
Ladies and gentlemen, I have finished my art residency at L'Observartoire.

Yes, one month is over and I can't believe how fast it went. The open studio was very successful and the dyed and upcycled pieces sparked conversations about nature, sustainable fashion and food waste. I would like to thank Isabelle Desjeux and Blue House International School for giving me the wonderful opportunity to carry out my experiments at the studio. They were such a supportive and welcoming group. Special thanks also goes to the Pantry at the school, the educators, the parents and children, Kitchen by  Food Rebel and Native Bar for supplying the much needed food scraps. Thank you. Thank you also to Muriel Boutin-Becuwe for helping to source for the hotel bedsheets that would have otherwise been sent to the landfill.



Having started the dyeing in January 2017, the journey does not end here (although I think I would like to take a rest!). There are so many things I would like to do, but there also so many things that I learnt and would like to share here. The first is to quell the misconceptions that I hear about natural dyeing.

Common Misconceptions about Natural Dyes


Common Misconceptions About Natural Dyes

a) Natural dyes have no environmental impact

We often get misled by the word "natural". Although the dyes come from nature, it doesn't mean that the process of extracting them and applying them to the fabric has no environmental impact. For one piece of fabric (60cm x 60cm),  I had to:

 - scour it to get rid of oils, wax and dust
 - mordant it and then rinse
 - make a dye pot and dye the fabric before giving it a final rinse.

Throughout this process, I had to heat my pot for over 3 hours and use copious amounts of water. Just imagine this going on in a factory! So who says there is no environmental impact?

b) There are no chemicals in natural dyes

What is a chemical? A chemical is any substance that contains matter be it naturally or synthetically made.  Natural dyes contain chemicals - mangifera indica is the chemical from mango leaves that produces the yellow green colour, while the dye in onion skins is 3,5,7,4 - tetrahydroxyantocyanidol or Pelargonidin.  In fact, water and even sugar is a chemical, large amounts of which would be toxic to us.

Chemicals are used to help the dyes adhere to the fibers of a piece of fabric - alum, iron sulphate, copper sulphate, tin and chrome have all been used in the dyeing process. Without them the colours would not be light or colour fast. However, due to environmental and safety reasons, copper, tin and chrome are no longer used.

Dragon Fruit Dye

c) Vinegar and salt are mordants

During the open studio, many people asked me whether I used vinegar or salt as mordants. The answer is no because they are not mordants. Rather, vinegar is used to shift the pH of the dye pot and this is how you achieve different shades of natural dye colour from one source.  Vinegar is also used when applying synthetic dyes so that there is an even take up of dye.

Salt on the other hand is linked to fixing the colours of synthetic dyes such as Dylon.  If you would like to make rust dye then vinegar and salt are your best friends!


d) Natural dyes are dull

While the majority of natural dyes (based on my experiments in Singapore for the past year) end to give brown, at this residency I have been able to extract bright yellow, pinks and orange.  The dullness may occur over time if no mordant is used or if an iron mordant is used - iron sulphate tends to give a "sadder" version of a colour.

Over-boiling a dye pot could create a colour duller than expected. My favourite dye is the yellow green from mango leaves. However, dyeing it for over an hour tends to change the colour to brown.



Colours that I have achieved:
  1. Mango leaves, Mangifera indica. L. - yellow green
  2. Rukum masam, Flacourtia inermis Roxb - muted pink
  3. Eucalyptus leaves (immersive and eco print) and bark, Eucalyptus camaldulensis Dehnh - rich brown
  4. Golden shower tree pods, Cassia fistula - pale brown
  5. Yellow onion skins - deep orange
  6. Red onion skins - pale orange
  7. Coffee grounds - very pale brown
  8. Avocado seeds and skins - tones of pink
  9. Blue pea flower, clitoria ternatea - blue
  10. Dragon fruit - pale pink
I'm definitely looking forward to adding more to this list....

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Colours From the Garden - Natural Dyes

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Beyond  Gardening - Natural Dyes

Collaborations are wonderful especially when you are from different niches. I had never explored projects beyond upcycling and sewing until this year!

I first met Nova of Cultivate Central at what was then known as Mini Maker Faire back in 2013. We were both setting up our booths - Nova had her DIY upside down planters and I had my A Darn Good Mending Cafe - and we ended up being so busy that we didn't have time to stop and chat. We met again at another festival, but this time at the Esplanade where we were engaging children in hands-on activities. I had a mini upcycling weaving installation while Nova had this elaborate plant pipe system.  I didn't think that we would get to collaborate (I mean what do plants and textiles have in common, right?) until Nova dropped me a line earlier on this year.  She had seen my experiments on eco prints and natural dyes  since the beginning of the year and thought it would be good to host a "beyond gardening" workshop, which explores the interconnections between the garden and non-gardening disciplines.

Beyond  Gardening - Natural Dyes


I was very excited as it was a chance to explore and share what I had learned. It just so happened that the workshop coincided with my art residency at L'Observartoire too!  I wanted to connect the participants with nature yet also understand how it contributes to our community, and living in such a fast paced society, we sometimes forget what nature has to offer.  We eventually settled on  dye pot of mango leaves, tumeric, pandan, blue pea flower, and even marigold from the from Cultivate Central's garden at The Art Ground

The day started off with a stew of mango leaves (someone did think we making wanton soup!) and ended off with a cacophony of banging and laughter from the children.  Everyone was so creative making their own patterns, combining colours, using different folding techniques and creating their own pieces of art. Towards the end of the workshop, I think everyone definitely agreed that beyond gardening rocks. And I can say for sure that beyond sewing rocks too!


All images are courtesy of Cultivate Central

Double, double, toil and trouble - Weeks 2 & 3

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Double, double, toil and trouble - Weeks 2 & 3
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,


Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Macbeth, Shakespeare

Natural Dye Pot Choices

Each time I step into the studio, I'm already thinking of what's going to be cooking in my two natural dyeing pots. As I throw in the ingredients and stir the pots, I am reminded of the chant the witches sing in Macbeth: "Double, double, toil and trouble".  Meet stainless steel pot and rice cooker, both obtained secondhand from kind people.

Starting a dyeing journey (or any project for that matter) does not mean buying brand new.  There are a few places on-line such as Freecycle where people are selling or giving away pots / pans / tools.  I always have to remind myself that:
  1. you must have separate tools and instruments for dyeing. Remember to label them or keep them separately from your usual cookware. 
  2. all dyeing is conducted separately from cooking, or even better in a separate location. 
  3. keep area well-ventilated.
  4. if you are dyeing in your kitchen, always do a thorough CLEAN UP of the space before you cook.

Do I prefer the pot or the rice cooker for natural dyeing?


I'm going to be diplomatic - both have their benefits and disadvantages! 

Rice cooker

  1. There are only 2 settings on the traditional rice cooker, cook and warm. Warm is the best if you want to simmer gently rather than boil. Mine simmers at around 70C which is perfect for mordanting.
  2. It uses electricity so you don't need to keep an eye on it, or be at home.
  3. If there is no water in the cooker, the rice cooker will automatically switch off to "warm".
  4. It's good for steaming eco print bundles.

Stainless steel pot

  1. I only have a 3 liter pot. If you are lucky and have a bigger pot then you can achieve even dyeing.  I had to limit the size of my bed linen pieces. The bigger the better if you want to work on large scale projects.
  2. You will need a stove or a hotplate.  I needed time to get used to controlling the temperature setting on the hotplate and it does take time to heat up. Always handy to have an electric kettle to help with heating up the water. 
I've been using both for simmering the natural dye concoctions and mordanting the cotton bed linens. I have only used the rice cooker for steaming the eco print bundles because it has the safety switch (I don't want to burn down the place, and get into trouble!)

What Have I Been Dyeing?


With only 2 pots, I have been scheduling their use between natural dyeing and mordanting meticulously! The important thing I found was not to get too impatient with the whole process. The first sets of natural dyes of mango leaf, rukum masam (a type of cherry), eucalyptus and turned out really well with no unevenness.  The second round of dyes with avocado and onion skins were uneven and I think it is because I was greedy and tried to maximise the amount of fabric in the pot. I also forgot to hang the fabric up after mordanting and ended up with creases of darker colours!

Dyes so far:
  1. Mango leaves, Mangifera indica. L. (immersive and eco print)
  2. Rukum masam, Flacourtia inermis Roxb
  3. Eucalyptus leaves (immersive and eco print) and bark, Eucalyptus camaldulensis Dehnh
  4. Golden shower tree pods, Cassia fistula (I tried to gather some bark but was not able to get enough for a decent colour)
  5. Yellow onion skins
  6. Red onion skins
  7. Coffee grounds
  8. Avocado seeds and skins
  9. Blue pea flower, clitoria ternatea
On the studio table I have rukum masam (pink), mango (yellow green) and avocado seeds (dark pink).

How to natural dye cotton

Highlights!

One of the exciting points for me is that I managed to achieve the yellow green colour from the mango leaves. With previous experiments I was only able to obtain a brown dye.



The second highlight was being able to achieve really clean eco prints from eucalyptus, mango and sea almond tree ( Terminalia catappa) leaves. Earlier rounds of eco printing were hit and miss - I either got some clean printed leaves or smudges all over the fabric. I am wondering whether it is the time of year or whether it is just luck this time around. I think I will write about this in another post.  There is just too much to share!

I've even got to the stage of sewing a garment. Here's a video of the progress so far.


Thank you to Kitchen by Food Rebel, Blue House Cafe and the community at Blue House International School for contributing to the food scraps.

Update: Open studio is happening on 29 October, Sunday (2 - 5pm). Details at this link

Artist Residency - Week 1

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Artist Residency - Week 1
Sometimes you need a change of scenery to make things work, to get those creative juices flowing, to just start on a new upcycling / sewing project! Well, I got that opportunity courtesy of my artist friend,  Isabelle Desjeux. She very kindly allowed me to use her beautiful studio, L'ObservARToire, for the whole of October (in fact she has a line up of artists using her studio). I am really excited because it is nestled in a quiet part of Singapore, away from traffic, away from the crowd! 

What I Will Be Doing - Reimagining

I will be reimagining nature, reimagining food waste, and more importantly, reimagining textile waste.  Everyday, I will be foraging in my neighbourhood and around the studio for leaves, bark and even food scraps! It has started off well, and we have even managed to get the children from the Blue House International School to bring in some food scraps. So this month is all about upcycling, sewing and natural dyeing. 

Why food waste?
We throw out so much food from ugly vegetables, expired produce and waste from the kitchen. Some people use their kitchen waste to make compost, but why not see what they can offer in terms of colour? By the way, food waste is a huge problem in Singapore. According to National Environment Agency, it accounts for 10 percent of the total waste generated while only 14% of it gets recycled. 

Why nature?
Nature has a lot to offer to us - a relaxing environment, food, shade and services. But they also give us rich earthy colours.

Why textile waste?
We just have too much textile waste be it clothing, linens and furnishings. Just take a look at our thrift stores - we are just drowning in our own clothing.  According to a recent documentary by Channel News Asia, The Salvation Army in Singapore receives 10 tonnes of donations of which 60% is clothing. And this amount increases to 60% during peak periods such as festive seasons! Throughout this residency, I will be using old hotel bed linen purchased from Hock Siong and old bed linens from Raffles Hotel (I must thank Muriel Boutin-Becuwe for helping me reach out to the hotel and getting their management to agree with passing them onto me for upcycling).

Art Residency - upcycling, sewing and natural dyes


What's Happened During Week One

Week one was all about settling in, and can you believe that I forgot about my sewing machine during the move? I remembered my pots and pans, but the sewing machine got left at home. Anyway, it happens - I am getting old.

How do I feel?

  1. To say I feel ecstatic might be an understatement.  I am very happy to be in a work space without my family telling me to clear up my things after a project. Not to say I'm messy, but knowing that I have a wet and dry work space for my natural dye and sewing experiments is liberating.   
  2. I feel relaxed. The view is amazing so every time I need to take a rest, I just look at the view and take a deep breath - aaaaahhhh. 
  3. I feel inspired. We are so close to nature, so it's a great place to be foraging for my leaves, flowers and bark, but it's also an inspirational place too! We are also within the Blue House Nursery and International Preschool, and they have a great kampung (Malay for community) spirit, they have even agreed to contribute to the kitchen waste for the dyeing. 

Eucalyptus Bark and Blue Pea Flower (Clitoria ternatea)

I dyed the sheets using the eucalyptus bark from my neighbourhood park, and I started to collect the blue pea flower from the hedges surrounding the school grounds.  You might remember the last time I tried eucalyptus, and this time around I still get the rich earthy tones of the bark. I'm so glad I was able to replicate the results but important learning points this time around are:

Natural Dyeing with Eucalyptus Bark

  1. Not to be greedy and stuff too much fabric into the pot; this results in uneven pigments on the fabric. Ideally, I should have a huge vat that is as tall as me, but alas.....
  2. Keep stirring and watch the temperature... and time!
  3. It might be possible that bark (or even leaves) collected during different times of the year produce shade of brown? I will have to try this out.
  4. Always remember to label your samples and cloth prepared for natural dyeing. Preparing the cloth takes at least one and a half days so I take notes and label. I am still trying to figure out a good way to do the labeling. 

Natural Dyeing with Blue Pea Flowers

Here are the results of the eucalyptus with immersive dyeing and screen printing.
Next is mango leaves and rukum masam!
Stay tuned for week 2.
Oh, I think I should start some stitching.

Natural Dyeing with Eucalyptus Bark

Natural Dyeing with Eucalyptus Bark


Read up on Week 2 & 3 here. 

Simple Living : Beeswax Wrap Workshop

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Beeswax Wrap Workshop Singapore

As a textile artist, I always look for ways to use up all my scraps whether it be the fabric or the threads.  I recently met up with nature lover and good friend, Olivia Choong, and discovered she had an amazing garden and kept bees too. We both share a passion for simple living and minimising our footprint in the home, and we realised that making your own beeswax wraps is a great way to taking the zero waste journey to the next level.

So, I'm happy to announce our little collaboration, Simple Living : Beeswax Wrap Workshop.  There will be no sewing, but I will be sharing what fabrics you can use and how you can prepare your fabric for beeswaxing!

Simple Living: Beeswax Wrap Workshop, 4 Nov, 430pm - 6pm

Looking for a safe, natural and reusable alternative to plastic wrap and aluminium foil? Learn how to make your own zero-waste beeswax food storage wraps for use at home - perfect for encasing freshly cut fruit and vegetables, and sealing a variety of cooked food, and sauces in containers.

During this 1.5 hour workshop, textile artist, Agatha "Agy" Lee, and self sufficiency advocate, Olivia Choong, will guide you step by step in preparing a delicately scented beeswax mixture for application on any natural fabric, and evenly setting the mixture to create a beautiful beeswax wrap, ready for you to take home for immediate use!

Join us for this fun, hands-on workshop! Once you learn how simple it is to make your own beeswax wraps, you will no longer wish to buy (and throw) plastic wrap and aluminium foil. With the festive season approaching, this also makes a wonderful gift for friends and family.

Price includes all materials.

Disclaimer: 

Should you have an allergy to the materials mentioned below, we would strongly advise against using this to wrap your food.

What will I learn?

We will teach you how to make your own beeswax wraps.

Skills:
Adequate preparation of beeswax mixture
Even application on cloth
Uniformly setting the mixture on cloth
How to choose and prepare cloth for beeswax application

All materials provided!
Beeswax
Pine rosin
Jojoba oil
2 sets pre-cut cloth per participant
(5" x 5" for a mug and 9" x 9" for a bowl)

What to expect?
In this 1.5 hour interactive session, expect a fun learning experience:
Hands-on learning with both facilitators
Relaxing, cosy and supportive environment
Light refreshments (coffee/ tea and snacks)
Intimately sized group of 16 participants

Min. 5 pax to conduct the workshop.

Sign up here 

About our Trainers

Agatha “Agy” is a textile artist who is passionate about building environmentally aware communities. Her goal is getting people to reconnect with their clothes through techniques such as repair and transforming them into creative wearables (aka upcycling). Currently she is exploring embroidery and natural dyeing techniques as a way of reconnecting with our clothes, and nature too. Agatha can be found at Agy Textile Artist, and is a founding member of Connected Threads Asia and Fashion Revolution Singapore.

Olivia is a gardener, nature lover and believer of a sustainable society. She writes about gardening and sustainable living on her blog – The Tender Gardener, and raises awareness of environment-related issues through a non-profit environmental society, Green Drinks (Singapore), where she is the President and Co-founder.

Very much a homebody, she likes to spend time in her garden, fussing over her chickens and watching bees in her apiary.

Payment

Payment via bank transfer before the workshop is required to confirm your slot. An email with details will be sent to you within 3 - 4 working days upon successful check-out.

Refund Policy

Cancellation one week before: Full refund
Cancellation 4 - 6 days before: 75% refund
Cancellation within 3 days: 50% refund
Cancellation on the day itself: No refund

Workshop Policies

Payment is required beforehand to secure your slot.

Should you be unable to make it, we would really appreciate it if you could inform us at least one week prior to the class so that we can free up your slot for some one else to come make art with us :)

You may find a replacement if you are unable to make it for the workshop.

A Week of Upcycling

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I managed to finish a series of upcycling and sewing workshops over the last week of September, and just before I set up the upcycled installation at Green is the New Black. Very hectic but extremely rewarding!

Repair Sewcial

Repair Sewcial was very special. There was a huge response to the workshop and it was sold out. I taught zippers, changing elastic, darning and even darning. The session went really well and very social too! Do keep a look out for the next session.

Upcycling workshop - Repair Sewcial

Off Cut Workshop with Matter

This upcycling workshop involved taking the off cuts (excess or waste fabric from production lines)  from Matter, and participants converted them into various items including a tissue box holder, tissue pouch, and even a bag! I enjoyed this a lot because we were dealing with such beautifully crafted textiles. Do pop over to Matter and read the story behind the fabrics.

Upcycling workshop


Introductory Sewing at Nanyang Polytechnic

This two day session was interesting as I was asked to incorporate innovative techniques such as electronics, and design as well.

Sewing workshop

Sewing with Children

Working with children is the best because unlike adults, they don't hold back. They explore and don't have the fear we do when trying out something new.  I will be having my last session with these children on Friday!

Sewing workshop

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