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

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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!

Urban Ventures - Upcycling Workshop

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Urban Ventures - Upcycling Workshop
Upcycling workshop with Agy Textile Artist

I'm happy to announce that I will be hosting a free workshop on 21 May (11am - 6pm) at Urban Ventures organised by LOPELAB. Just bring an old t-shirt and we will explore techniques. My friend, Chew Lihong, will be there to share some knitting skills as well. You may remember we were at Sustainability Sunday at Serangoon back in March and had lots of fun.

Upcycling workshop with Agy at Sustainability Sunday

Besides my workshop, there will be whole slew of activities to take part in from storytelling, urban heritage tours and even some salsa if you're up for some spice in your life! Click on the image below for more details.

What: Urban Ventures
Where: Duxton Plains Park
When: 19 - 21 May 2017
Why: Bring art and music to the world!

Upcycling workshop with Agy Textile Artist at Urban Ventures

Anthropocene vs Symbiocene

Anthropocene vs Symbiocene
According to this paper, Earth hit levels of carbon dioxide (410ppm) on 18 April - a "climate change milestone" since records were made.  Not a happy milestone, mind you, but of course we don't need to be reminded of our fate as destruction (should it be exploitation?) is all around us. Yes, I said "our fate", and not the Earth's fate, because while the Earth can reset itself, humans will probably be wiped out.

I recently read "Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist" in The Guardian.  Ian Kingsnorth, the author, says “This is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as humans have existed, and we have done it, and now we are going to have to live through it, if we can.”  It does sound grim.

"we have created an “all-consuming global industrial system” which is “effectively unstoppable; it will run on until it runs out”. "

The age of Anthropocene is upon us. To be honest, there might be some truth to Kingsnorth's words. Having started working as an environmentalist so many years ago (okay, since the late 90s), I haven't seen much progress in terms of reducing consumption, we now have hazy days due to forest fires from our neighbour, a new incineration plant is coming up (but we already have 4), and recycling is still not getting anywhere.

Can we even exit anthropocene and move towards symbiocene? 

Here is an art collaboration that I did with Christine of Rhinestic Knick Knacks.
As you can see Symbiosis does not include humans. Anthropocene, well, you can see what humans can do.

Anthropocene vs Symbiocene

Materials used: old cotton t-shirt, thread scraps
Technique: free motion embroidery

Allowing Nature to Speak Through Colour

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Allowing Nature to Speak Through Colour

".... everything around us is magical. But I didn't really do a good job in explaining.  Fairies and unicorns aside (coz those are definitely magical), the rain is magical. How does it fall in separate droplets instead of sheets (like when you pour water)? Plants are magical...growing from similar looking seeds into different sized trees and flowers of assorted colours.  So yes... everything around us is magical! Even you and me."

Yes, everything is magical. I was not looking, or rather, I was not being cognizant of what my true surroundings are.  I was aware of nature in our parks but failed to appreciate the beauty of the flora in my own neighbourhood and what they can provide for my upcycling work.

Ecodyeing and ecoprinting

Eco dyeing and eco printing

Nature Speaking Through Colour

It's been very quiet on the blog because I have been pouring over the internet and books, doing my research on natural dyes. What I have realised is that what works in other countries does not necessarily mean it will work here especially when you are not going to have the same flora. It really is one huge science experiment where you have controls and only change one parameter at a time.
I have been doing a bit of foraging but only picking what I need from the ground. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it's illegal to pick the fruits or leaves from trees in Singapore.

Eco Print/Dye

I am trying to avoid using alum and iron mordants but as I am dealing with non-animal natural fibers (ie. cotton) it has been very difficult not to use them to get beautiful prints. Cotton has many issues with dyes a) it doesn't take to natural pigments very easily unless there is a mordant to fix it; and b) the natural colours will fade over time due either light or washing. Well, this is why people invented chemical dyes, but I am trying to avoid all that and use as little metal mordant as possible.

The process does take quite a bit of time and you do need to plan out the whole process. This is what I have been doing so far:

  1. scouring my sourced cotton textiles
  2. mordanting
  3. dyeing

Don't forget that there are periods of time where the fabric needs to dry before going onto the next step. At this point I do feel my utility bills are going to be a bit higher so planning is really important. If I am going to do a bigger project I definitely will be making sure I make the most out of all the resources I have.

Eco dyes

Small Steps of Progress

Eco printing or eco dyeing is very experimental - you really don't know what you are going to get and unless you have done it many times, it is very difficult to replicate the results. I going to need a lot of patience if I am going to use it to upcycle cotton clothing. There have been a few little bumps along the way, but of course that's what learning is all about, right?

#1 Negative feedback

Just take it in, reflect and see how to improve it. I tried printing kumquat leaves, onion skins and local cherries onto this old Uniqlo top I had. I was all excited. Surely it would turn out very pretty. Alas, I think I was very ambitious and I forgot that what you see is NOT what you get.  The pinks became oranges, and the green faded after one day, and I got what looked like a blood-soaked garment. My husband's first reaction was, "zombie apocalypse". I think he couldn't see what I saw but now I am trying to see how I can turn this negative result into a positive one.  Stitching perhaps?
Anyway, I have decided to do some more experimentation so I can feel a bit more confident before I take the plunge and dye some clothes again.

Blue print ecodyes and dyeing

Natural dyes

Eco dyes

#2 Flora identification

This one is difficult, I even borrowed a friend's pair of binoculars so I could get a close up of the leaves in the tree. Add to the fact that not all leaves are created equal when it comes to natural dyes. The library is definitely my friend in the next few months.


#3 Getting back to the chemistry behind it all

It does get exciting to see all the chemicals involved in the process, but why do certain things happen? I was trying to read up and remember my A-level chemistry. After a few hours of reading, I got even more confused - I think my brain didn't function (is it age?).  I will have a go at it again because it would be very useful to find out the "why?" so that I can move in the right direction.

So where am I going next with this?
More experimentation. So far, I have tried onion skins, local cherries, avocado, blue pea, mango leaves and golden shower leaves, but I need to see whether they are colour fast.

Stay tuned!

Eco dyeing and printing