GOOD

Ethical Style: The Dye-It-Yourself Revolution

Meet the DIY dyers who hope to revive the lost connection between the people who buy clothes and the production processes that create them.

Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.


For most of human history, the colors in our clothes were derived from natural sources: Yellows were extracted from the weld weed; blues from the yellow flowers of the woad plant; reds from the deep roots of the madder. Then chemist William Perkin began studying coal tar in an attempt to locate a cure for malaria. Instead, he stumbled upon a rich mauve color—the first synthetic dye.

Today, 150 years after Perkin’s accident, most fabric dyes are petroleum-based. Synthetic dyes offer a greater range of colors—especially vibrant neons—and dye clothing and textiles faster and more consistently than do natural dyes, which can produce unexpected results. Synthetic dyes also use chemicals that can be toxic, carcinogenic, and highly flammable. Industrial dye workers experience 40 times the rate of cancers and lung diseases as the general population. Residual dye chemicals wind up in rivers and seep into the groundwater. Consumers absorb traces of these chemicals through their skin just by pulling on a dyed t-shirt.

But when we squeeze into a synthetically-dyed pair of cheap skinny jeans, we rarely think about the unnatural indigo river it’s created halfway around the world. That’s because we’re mostly concerned with the bottom line—we want our clothing to be unique and ethical, yes, but what we really want is to spend less money and get more stuff.

Owyn Ruck is one ethical fashion activist who’s working to shift that desire. Ruck is the general manager of New York City’s Textile Arts Center, a community center that offers classes on weaving, knitting, screen-printing, and DIY dyeing in an attempt to revive the lost connection between the people who buy clothes and the production processes that create them.

Ruck and partner Visnja Popovic founded the center in 2009, just in time to capitalize on the recession-era impulse among urban dwellers to start “using our hands”—to symbolically revolt against a hyper-consumerist economy through woodworking, gardening, knitting, and beekeeping. “Not only do these things make us feel better, self-sufficient, and well-connected to humanity, but they also allow us to look at the economy in a different way,” Ruck says. After “years of removing ourselves from the making of goods,” consumers have begun to realize that they can make these goods themselves.

Learning how to dye your own textiles is a fun skill. Actually making and wearing DIY-dyed clothing is a radical lifestyle change. To help keep newly-skilled dyers invested in the process, the Textile Arts Center is launching a CSA for natural dyes, where members can sign up to receive weekly grown goodies for an extended period of time—in this case, six months. Instead of vine-ripened tomatoes and bunches of kale, Sewing Seeds, under master natural dyer Isa Rodrigues, hands out bundles of living plants that can be used to extract natural dyes. In conjunction with the new sill-dwellers, they’ll also get three-hour workshops as part of the pickup process, with recipes on turning the plants into dyes and how-tos on dyeing t-shirts and tote bags, as well as the necessary studio space in their Brooklyn and Manhattan studios to do so.

The natural dyeing process involves applying mordant to the fabric or garment, which fixes the color to the fibers; creating the dye bath; applying the dye, through immersion or painting or other methods; then, rinsing thoroughly. An exciting science underlies this process: Dyes can react differently depending on the mordant and the fabric. Some dyes require a heat bath, some don’t—dyes like indigo or turmeric. Water and pH levels affect the color. And when you become really advanced, you can apply the dye through shibori, the Japanese origin of American tie-dye.

Of course, opting out of the fast-fashion economy comes at a price. Four weeks of TAC instruction on fiber-reactive dyes will run you $275, and that doesn’t count the time, resources, and lifestyle changes necessary to actually start dyeing your clothes and textiles in earnest. A subscription to the CSA is a relative deal for newcomers to the process—$300 for classes, space, and plants.

That’s still pretty steep for most H&M shoppers. But part of the Textile Arts Center’s lesson is that truly safe, sustainable, and ethically-produced textiles can’t and shouldn’t be cheap enough to impulse-buy. Becoming a part of the textile production process can help us understand why truly sustainable and safe clothing comes with an elevated price tag. And that hands-on experience could encourage consumers to get behind a “less is more” mentality that supports more ethical production practices: fair wages and working conditions, better and longer-lasting fabrics, and a return to natural processes.

In the end, the skills imparted by the Textile Arts Center aren’t about building an army of DIY dyers, but more informed consumers and citizens who know how to buy the right stuff. “We’d love to see the fashion and textile industries become all about small, talented companies working with international and local artisans, using natural fibers and dyes, and doing small-scale production at fair prices,” Ruck says. We’ll trade our neon for the fashionably natural any day.

Send all of your ethical style queries to asktabeakay@gmail.com, or file your questions in the comments!

Articles
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott are getting company. Statues of the famous men are scattered across Central Park in New York City, along with 19 others. But they'll finally be joined by a few women.

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth are the subjects of a new statue that will be on display along The Mall, a walkway that runs through the park from 66th to 72nd street. It will be dedicated in August of next year, which is fittingly the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote.

Currently, just 3% of statues in New York City are dedicated to women. Out of 150 statues of historical figures across the city, only five statues are of historical women, including Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harriet Tubman.

Keep Reading Show less
promo-homepage

It's easy to become calloused to everyday headlines with messages like, "the world is ending" and "everything is going extinct." They're so prevalent, in fact, that the severity of these statements has completely diminished to the point that no one pays them any attention. This environmental negativity (coined "eco-phobia") has led us to believe that all hope is lost for wildlife. But luckily, that isn't the case.

Historically, we have waited until something is near the complete point of collapse, then fought and clawed to bring the species numbers back up. But oftentimes we wait so long that it's too late. Creatures vanish from the Earth altogether. They go extinct. And even though I don't think for a single second that we should downplay the severity of extinction, if we can flip this on its head and show that every once in a while a species we have given up on is actually still out there, hanging on by a thread against all odds, that is a story that deserves to be told. A tragic story of loss becomes one about an animal that deserves a shot at preservation and a message of hope the world deserves to hear.

As a wildlife biologist and tracker who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of animals I believe have been wrongfully deemed extinct, I spend most of my time in super remote corners of the Earth, hoping to find some shred of evidence that these incredible creatures are still out there. And to be frank, I'm pretty damn good at it!

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture
via Truthout.org / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics