Indigo Dye

Indigo Dye
"The color indigo, often associated with political power or religious ritual, has held a significant place in many world civilizations for thousands of years. In the excavation of Thebes an indigo garment dating from c. 2500 B.C. was found, for example — furthermore, the Hindu god Krishna is most often depicted in blue,1 human sacrifices were often painted blue in ancient Mayan culture,2 and the Virgin Mary is regularly imagined draped in blue clothes in Christian art."  Anne Mattson, University of Minnesota

Indigo from the leguminous plant indigofera was a highly prized trading commodity, often being referred to as "Blue Gold", and it was of far superior quality to the blue dye extracted from the woad plant that was cultivated in Europe.  Indigo was imported from countries such as India, China and even as far as the Americas. It was used in ancient civilisations - Egyptian artifacts suggest that indigo was employed as early as 1600 B.C and Mesopotamium writing tablets illustrate dyeing recipes for turning wool blue through immersing and air drying.

By the time the Industrial Revolution arrived, demand for the precious commodity increased to satisfy the burgeoning textile industry. However, as the natural extraction methods were deemed inefficient, the industry turned to chemical extraction and eventually the synthetic version of indigo. This discovery led to the Nobel Prize to  Adolf von Baeyer (yes, the famous German chemical firm!).  With this development, demand for natural indigo waned, but now with the negative environmental impacts of synthetic dyes, we are seeing a resurging demand for the natural form.

All very interesting, yes? 

I was very curious about the process of indigo dye that I took part in a indigo shibori workshop at Mai Textile Studio. Minyi, the owner, shared with us the process of indigo dye and was extremely patient with us! Thank you, Minyi.  

indigo shibori

Only the plant is natural!
If you're thinking of indigo as being a natural dye, yes it is, but only to some extent. Minyi explained that chemicals are still required to extract the dye and also to maintain the indigo dye vat e.g. lye and soda ash. More importantly, because of the chemicals, the dye in the vat needs to be disposed of properly (ie in the sink that leads to a water treatment plant and not a river!). I think I was more surprised by the stink the vat caused but I got used to it after a while!

indigo shibori

Dying takes time
This workshop is not for people who don't appreciate textile arts. Yes, I'm serious, this process requires a lot of patience and if you don't understand this then the indigo shibori workshop isn't for you (sorry to be so blunt). Traditional shibori takes hours (not one or two). In fact, the dyeing process requires standing over a large vat and dipping and drying your piece of fabric at least 8 times. It's backbreaking but definitely worth the effort. Just remember to do some stretching before hand.

indigo shibori

Don't peek!
Minyi only takes in 5 students at a time and so we had her full attention. She kept reminding us not to peek and be patient. It reminded me of the time my mum used to remind me to wait until Christmas Day before I could unwrap the Christmas presents. We definitely sounded like excited children when unraveled our pieces. Here we are looking very happy!

indigo shibori

Having taken this workshop, my curiosity for colour has just ramped up a few notches, and I don't think I'll look at the blue on my jeans the same way again!

Photos: Courtesy of Mai Textile Studio

Don't Try to Focus Your Creativity

Don't Try to Focus Your Creativity

"Don't try to focus your creativity. Let it drift and explore!"

I was sharing with a friend how frustrating it was for me to concentrate on one technique, and it has been like this since....forever.  It can be very intimidating and even more so when you are trying to find your way - it might take a few months, a few years, or even a lifetime, but I always have to remind myself that it is part of the journey and enjoying the process is the most important part of it.

Because of my interest in textiles and how much love that goes into them, I made the decision to explore weaving but somehow I drifted into colour as well. So, weaving is on hold now and weaving is sitting on a table in my room. Somehow I can't sit still!

I had chanced upon Dionne Swift's on-line silkscreen workshop and had always wanted to take one, so I signed up! Many of you might be thinking why wouldn't I take one closer to home. Unfortunately, the workshops I found in Singapore did not go into the process of creating your own mix of dyes, and this was something that I wanted to have control over rather than buying pre-made ones.  It was an intense 2 weeks but because it was on-line I got to decide when I would take the lessons.

I'm pretty happy with what I've made so far and ideas have been buzzing in mind as to how I can take it further with my old clothes. It does make me appreciate how much effort goes into handmade prints and designs.  So when my friend said that I should drift and explore, I think she's right. I need to find out what I'm happy with and only by exploring can I do that.

silkscreen printing

silkscreen printing

silkscreen printing

silkscreen printing

silkscreen printing

Slow Fashion - Sashiko

Slow Fashion - Sashiko

A friend of mine once asked if so many people have an aversion to fast food, why can't this be the same of fast fashion? If there is a growing slow fashion movement, then shouldn't there be one for fashion as well?  I'm not really sure, why is there this discrimination? What makes people behave differently towards fast fashion? It might be because we are really spoilt for choice when it comes to clothing versus our fast food options - different styles come into the store every day, we are bombarded with marketing campaigns telling us to buy new or we will lose out if we don't, (that's kiasuism to the Singaporean), and we all want to look and feel good (unfortunately, that's human nature). 
Slow fashion is all about developing a deeper meaningful relationship with your clothes. Jane Milburn of Textile Beat says:

"It is about thoughtful, ethical, creative and sustainable ways to enjoy the garments we wear every day while minimising our material footprint on the world. "

When I spoke to an assembly of students at Compassvale Secondary School, I told them that slow fashion is all about being best friends with your clothes  - taking good care of them, treating them well and never tossing them to one side. If you do that, then your clothes will last a great deal longer!

I hope they got the picture; it's all about tender loving care, good old TLC.
Like this pair of denim shorts that I repaired and repaired again.
"Denim has a life and lives with the wearer" (Clothing Poverty, Andrew Brooks), and mine do too!
sashiko jeans
I had originally patched and darned the weak points of my shorts, and even added a touch of sashiko, but over a period of a few months, the fabric was starting to thin out. I have now given it a bit of character - they are truly MINE! 
Sashiko Eases the Stresses of Daily Life
Just taking the needle and sashiko thread and sewing running stitches across my shorts has been very therapeutic. It has made me think about life (I'll tell you later!). 
You might be wondering how I could just sit there and sew running stitches. Well, let me tell you a little secret - sashiko is really not done the same way as a normal running stitch. I only found out when I was struggling during my first foray into the Japanese repair technique. 
Sashiko is About Pushing Fabric Not the Needle
how to sashiko

Yes, that's right. It is all about pushing the fabric with your non-needle holding hand (for me my left hand) onto the needle. 
how to sashiko

The needle is held in position by your other hand and propped up against a sashiko thimble that rests on the middle of your palm. Here's an amazing video that I found on youtube from Bebe Bold. Can you see how easy it is? This has made it so much easier (and faster) than relying on sewing with the needle itself.

I didn't have a pattern, I just went wild and let my hands do the thinking. 
I now have a reinforced bum on my pair of shorts!

how to sashiko

how to sashiko

This sashiko project took me a few evenings to complete, but I think it can be done in one day without any interruptions. For those of you who love anything creative, once you start, you can't stop, and that's what is so lovely about slow fashion - it slows you down, and once you are in the flow it can be the most therapeutic thing to have. Try it and let me know how you feel!

Walk Sew Good

Walk Sew Good
Do you ever wonder.....what if?
What if I had decided to stay?
What if I had taken design instead of science for my college studies?
What if I didn't have kids?
A few chance encounters this month stirred these thoughts.
  1. A friend mentioned over coffee how being married with kids changes our progression as artists. No overseas workshop trips, less time to experiment and being in the flow of creativity. It's a change in priorities! 
  2. I attended a talk "Surface Design: Discover the Quality of Tactile Fabrics" and discovered that Tiffany Loy and Minyi both went to Japan to study weaving and shibori, respectively.  I wanted to scream, "I want to do that too!"
  3. Then I e-met two wonderful ladies, ​Gabrielle Murphy and Megan O’Malley who plan to walk across Southeast Asia later this year. They plan to speak with and learn from the people that are making fashion in a positive and sustainable way. I wanted to scream even louder, "If only!"
I started wondering "what if I had made these decisions earlier in life?". Obviously this would be very unfair to my family as I had made a commitment to be with them. But can I do something to improve my situation?

Of course I can! I saw this quote on a friend's facebook feed. It's true, you have to change your situation to be where you want to be. I might not be able to go on a study/workshop trip, but I can continue learning on my own and attend local workshops to satiate my hunger for knowledge.  I will squeeze in as much time as I can to continue my craft, and be extremely DISCIPLINED (ahem, do you really need to surf the internet?). It's my life and I have to take control of it!

Everybody's journey will be different, but by witnessing and being part of others' experiences we can grow richer too. I'm so in awe of Megan and Gabrielle - what they are doing is amazing. They will be connecting with people across South East Asia, people who are trying to change the fashion industry status quo for the better.  The stories of these people will be shared on Youtube and as Megan beautifully puts it, 

“We want to connect people with the stories of those working hard to create fashion in a sustainable and beautiful way. The aim of Walk Sew Good is to start a conversation with our followers and show them how they can support a fashion industry that has a positive impact,”

I asked both of them what pushed them to do this, and I wondered how their families felt. Megan and Gabrielle mentioned that the inspiration to walk came from the 13,000km pilgrimage Satish Kumar undertook to promote nuclear disarmament in the 1960s,

"In terms of how we decided to go for it, the idea had been mulling around in my brain for about a year and a half after I read an article about Satish Kumar before I did anything about it. What a legend and an inspiration! I highly recommend his book if you can get your hands on it. He did his walk to promote nuclear disarmament and after reading the Dumbo Feather article, I felt like I wanted to do something as powerful and meaningful about a subject I cared deeply about."  - Megan

I really could understand what was going through Gab's mind when she alluded to the "now or never" attitude. If you don't do it now, then when?

"I could spend the next 50 years of my life stuck behind a computer, or desk or counter in a job I hate, complaining about the state of the world, doing nothing about it, then die sad and depressed without ever having really lived; OR I could join Walk Sew Good with Megan." - Gab

Are they scared? Yes, they are (and so are their families), but, as Gab put it, 

"I think that there are some risks in life that are worth taking. If this trip can help make a difference to slavery, pollution or improve sustainability it's worth it. Hell, if it can stop my friends from buying so much crap then it's worth it. "

If you would like to support them on their 5,000km journey across SE Asia, pop over to their campaign page and "like" them on their facebook so that you can be "part" of their journey.  These two definitely knew what they wanted to do and are an inspiration to all of us!

So stop asking the "what ifs" and change them to "now or never"!

Fashion on the Ration: Make Do and Mend

Fashion on the Ration: Make Do and Mend
fashion on the ration

My friend, CL, had popped over to the UK to attend a conference in April and casually asked, "Would you like anything?"  I was thinking of very nice teas and their buttery cakes, and of course Jaffa cakes. So when she got back, I was pleasantly surprised (okay, I was OVER the moon) when I received the Make do and Mend booklet that I had seen circulating in the British mending space.

Even though it's a reproduction, it does give some insights as to how people lived during the 1940s and how the war saw the introduction of not just food rationing but clothing rations as well. Almost everything was diverted to the war effort.

Just how much of this is part of our lifestyle? Very close to zero! Some of the tips in this little booklet actually echo what my mother taught me. Things like, how to store your clothes properly, getting rid of moths, putting newspaper into wet shoes and my all time favourite - NEVER hang dry a knit.  I learnt my lesson dearly when I didn't listen!

Refashion or upcycle was never part of the lingua franca but they definitely knew what they had to do to add a bit of spunk to their wardrobe.  This section on "Turn out and Renovate" definitely shows us the endless possibilities of what could be done to get a "new" wardrobe; they even had a section on underwear. I was surprised that there wasn't anything on Men's refashioning though, but before you say that men do not sew, EVERYONE was encouraged to pick up sewing skills as part of the war effort as you can see from this little snippet from the Imperial War Museum website. 

make do and mend

And can you believe that clothes swaps existed even then?
"Clothing exchanges were set up by the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) to help meet the needs of parents struggling to clothe their growing children. Parents could take the clothes that their children had outgrown and were given a number of points for the clothes handed in. These could be 'spent' on other clothes at the exchange. "
And what about in Singapore?  Just like in war torn Europe, war compelled the public to do what was necessary to make new clothes from old, and mend worn garments: read the story behind the sewing machine now displayed at the National Art Museum.  But mending was very much part of every culture even before the war. In Singapore, we had "sew sew" women who would visit households on a regular basis just patch up some clothes or fix a button that was falling off. I found some images here and here.  
A mention of one sew sew woman can be found in the Singapore Memory Project.  Ng Fook Kah remembers her grandmother, Chan Chow Foon:
"Grandma was a “sew-sew” woman, skilled in 手红handicrafts, sewing, mending with threads and needles. She plied her mending skills at the boats anchored at the docks and outer waters of Singapore. "
I wonder what happened to the the "sew sew" women after the war?
I found this old Singtel phonecard on sale on the internet, and it shows a sew-sew woman at work (sorry for the extremely pixelated image). 
sew sew woman

Why can't it be stylish to be mending? Let's bring mending back in vogue. I'm now on my second mend of my jean shorts, and if you are keen to know more about mending, just hop on over to my Fix It Friday series. 


Did you know it's Mend it May on Jen Gale's My Make Do and Mend Life? She's got some pretty nifty resources too! And if you are in London, lucky you! You're in for a right treat if you visit the Imperial War Museum. They have an on-going exhibition called Fashion on the Ration, detailing how men and women styled themselves during the war. It's on until May 2017, so catch it while you can.

Fix It Friday

What is Sustainable Fashion Really?

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A few weeks ago I caught up with my friend Lastrina, and found out that since her COP21 moment in Paris last year (you can read about it here) she has taken great strides to get Singaporeans to be more concerned about climate change, and, more importantly to take action.  She co-founded, Singapore Youth for Climate Action (SYCA) with three other amazing ladies who were also attended COP21 - Melissa Chong, Cuifen Pui and Juliana Chia.  One of the initiatives under SYCA is the Learning and Leadership Programme, which involves deepening youth knowledge on climate-related topics in the local context; and secondly understand oneself better, and enhance skills needed to start movements.

SYCA invited Connected Threads Asia to be resource people during one of the sessions (23 April) and I was very honoured to facilitate the session.  Participants experienced a session of exploring their values, understanding the supply chain of the fashion industry, and working as teams to define what would be the most sustainable garment. For me one of the points that came to mind during the session is how everyone has a different take on what sustainable fashion is. In fact, many people I speak to don't realise that to achieve sustainability in an industry :

a) It takes time. Existing companies are huge mammoth like structures with supply chains that extend across the globe, so change happens a step at a time. Positive changes have been made since Rana Plaza, some people say not fast enough,  but remember because so many parties involved things can't happen over night.

b) Systemic change has to happen and for this to occur, collaboration is needed. And when I mean collaboration, I mean with EVERYONE who is part of the system, including the authorities.  Take for example, a few stores setting up a clothes recycling bins is only a small step, but collaborating with the local authorities to have an official collection .... now that's big impact and everyone can get involved. If you are looking for alternative technologies to recycle mixed textile blends or a create a waterless dye, why not work together with other brands to develop it so you get economies of scale when it comes onto the market. It's a win-win for the brands and the environment.

And then there is this .... the vast amount of information on the internet .... there is so  much that people jump to conclusions and they don't dig deeper. If in doubt, try searching for the information yourself, treat what you see that gets posted or shared with a pinch of salt.

The slack that some brands such as H&M and Levis are getting are a case in point.  Business model aside (yes, I don't like the fact that seasons change EVERY week to promote consumerism) , brands that are making positive changes to their supply chain (be it environmental or from an ethical point of view) and are transparent  about it (varying degrees, I might add) appear to be the ones that are usually picked on. Remember the World Recycling Week campaign? Many people were accusing H&M of being unsustainable and forgot about the things that they were doing for positive change. Rather than point fingers and be a keyboard warrior, why not work together towards something better? Why not get the ones who are not making any change at all to do something?

And what do you think about the backlash to Australian brand Gorman? They posted a #whomademyclothes post in response to the Fashion Revolution Day campaign. Unfortunately, or fortunately, they were called out by the public - their parent company were graded an "F" in The 2016 Australian Fashion Report.  What does the grade "F" mean? What would your response be?

 A lot of the people who commented on Gorman's instagram did not know what the grade "F" meant or did they read the report.  What would you do?

Please note, I'm not defending all these organisations, nor do I buy from fast fashion ones either because I believe in 2nd hand / upcycled or ethically made purchases.  You might not believe in the same things I do, but I do believe that everyone should be well-informed to make the right choices.