We tend to crave newness, whether that’s the newness of colours streaming into our daily lives, of patterns spread across fabric, or of garments replacing those that have grown old. Here are some suggestions for creating freshness by ourselves while drawing upon traditions, simplicity and the familiarity of our home.

There is an enchanting air that surrounds natural dyeing. The way vibrant colours swirl and bubble in a pot with carefully chosen ingredients is like the developing of a potion in a cauldron. The hands are used to initiate the process and the rest takes place on its own, the result unfolding with variation before our eyes. Because each dye is different and influenced by the slightest of changes, the period of watching it develop and find its personality is perhaps just as exciting as what is produced with the finished material.

Indigo, especially, is fascinating. It’s distinctive, powerfully blue in shade, and has a complex history that adds to the intrigue. The book ‘Indigo: Cultivate, Dye, Create’ by Swedish boutique owners and handcrafters Kerstin Neumuller and Douglas Luhanko is a collection of recipes designed to be followed at home. They vary from a banana vat consisting of bananas (used for managing oxygen levels), indigo, and slaked lime to the more restrictive recipes based around freshly grown Japanese indigo. At a talk at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum back in August, coinciding with the book’s launch, Kerstin and Douglas gave an insight into various printing methods such as hammering a leaf onto folded cloth then placing the fabric against a window so the sunlight turns the leaf print blue and the way that dipping a piece of fabric into an indigo pigment solution multiple times will darken the tones. There are ways of achieving other colours too: green when fermented and brown when no antioxidant is added.

One of the most popular ways of independently working with indigo is through shibori, the electrifying blend of shades of blue tied and clamped to form kaleidoscopic patterning. Shashiko has a similar effect in that contrasting white thread is sewn in a running stitch over indigo fabric, a mesmeric decorativeness like the mapping of constellations.

Aside from indigo, dyeing with food is a simpler way of generating colour. The absence of chemicals, which are needed as a reducing agent for organic indigo, means its wholly natural and efficient to conjure up. You can take a locally grown vegetable and merge it with a skein of locally sourced yarn for example. The veg is chopped up and boiled so that the colour seeps out and then, after removing the food, the creamy white yarn is submerged into the simmering dye. Shortly after, the yarn can be transferred to a jar with the liquid and left to set for twenty four hours or so before rinsing. I did this with beetroot and the result went from an orangey-red to its final straw yellow. When I did it with red cabbage, the outcome was a pale turquoise. It was slightly unexpected and that’s part of the fun.

to create for ourselves means to fully understand

This all fits within the wider of culture of DIY that, in regards to slow fashion, has risen over the years. Although almost mystical in the way dyeing works, it allows us to have an overall sense of control, determining the sustainability of a process. For example, with synthetic indigo used for jeans, water is polluted in great extremes (we only need to take a look at Xintang, China, where rivers run with toxic indigo-coloured ripples) and the popularity of the garment means jeans are commonly mass-produced in careless ways. Although there are brands that consciously address this (Blackhorse Lane Ateliers being one featured on The Maker Journal), it’s generally something that consumers don’t take into consideration when purchasing a new denim item. To create for ourselves means to fully understand.

It’s not just in the birth, however, but the longevity of an item’s life. It’s too easy for people to throw their garments away when they are slightly torn or frayed. This is especially the case for products that are so omnipresent, like denim, with consumers locked into the mentality that they can quickly replace it with something similar. The preserving of a garment through mending has become an artistic celebration of these faults and aged imperfections, whether it’s patches, darning, the aforementioned sashiko, or appliqué. They can be applied to anything from shirts to jeans to knitted sweaters, creating a playful patchwork appearance that’s entirely personal to the wearer. A browse of the ‘visiblemending’ hashtag on Instagram puts light upon this movement: There’s a cat face, stripes, and repairs stitched in a bold colour to accentuate where the damage was. There are several recent books on the topic too- ‘Mending Matters’ by fibre artist and slow fashion advocate Katrina Rodabaugh and ‘Lappat & Lagat’ by Kerstin Neumuller, the latter published in Sweden and a follow-up to ‘Indigo: Cultivate, Dye, Create’.

Dyeing, stitching, customising and mending are all interlinked through the individuality that they hold. The magic comes from allowing the natural to take the lead, in this case through the colours derived from food and plants, the natural wear and tear of clothing, or the freedom of the imagination. Not everybody is going to tap into the notion of DIY which is why, for those that do, there’s an added sense of pleasure and pride in the process and outcome.

the preserving of a garment through mending has become an artistic celebration of faults and aged imperfections

Written and photographed by Francesca Rose