We are so proud of all of our W'menswear indigo products that are painstakingly hand stitched and dyed in natural indigo by our friends Anne and Serg of Slowstitch Studio in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
After studying a 3 year batchelor course in textile design, specialising in weaving, then working in the industry, Anne decided to quit her computer bound job and fly to Japan to further her studies in natural indigo techniques. There she met Serg who was learning under the same master craftsman, and soonafter Slowstitch Studio was born in Anne's homeland of Thailand where there is a long and rich history of natural dyeing (and indigo) amongst nomadic hill tribe peoples who migrated from Yunan, Southern China.
The knowledge and dedication to tradition that Anne and Serg bring with Slowstitch Studio is a crucial force in re-establishing Thailand's natural dyeing industry that has since been contaminated by faster, cheaper chemical dyeing processes. Not only are modern synthetic methods destroying the natural environment due to a lack of regulation and education, they are also erasing an important history that defines the Thai identity.
The two spend most of their time building on their textile knowledge and working on a small plot of land to establish their first “edible forest garden” (a perennial polyculture of multipurpose plants that make up a self-sustaining woodland) which will integrate edibles together with plants that can be harvested for their use in textile work. In this way they are using their knowledge of visual pattern creation on cloth to foster regenerative patterns of behaviour and interaction with our immediate environment.
Even more recently, the two have begun to grow their own indigo plant crops locally, and we can't wait to see how they flourish! So to give you a proper understanding of how Anne and Serg make our beautiful indigo products, they have written a step by step guide illustrating exactly that!
Take it away guys...
Pictured above, the W'menswear Anchor Tee, stitched dyed by Slowstitch Studio.
1. SELECTING THE RIGHT FABRIC
Selecting the right fabric for the dye job is a crucial step as different fabrics can produce striking variations in the resulting pattern. Both protein based fibres (silk, wool) and cellulose based fibres (cotton, linen, hemp, etc) can be dyed in indigo and other natural dyes. We choose to use mainly cotton, linen or hemp for our projects with a preference for domestically produced handwoven and hand-spun fabrics. Fibre that has been spun and woven by hand tends to have fewer twists in the yarn which results in a heavier, fluffier and more open fabric profile that allows for a very attractive and dynamic absorption of dye.
Yarns that are woven into fabric on industrial looms are often coated with starch to make the weaving process run smoothly. This starch prevents the dye from properly adhering to the fibre. Fabric that has been woven by hand will also contain oils and contaminants that will adversely affect dye absorption. Before work can begin all of these contaminants have to be removed from the fabric by simmering it for an hour in a slightly alkaline soapy solution of water, soda ash and washing detergent. The fabric is then washed, dried and made ready for the next step in the process.
3. PATTERN PLOTTING
To create our patterns on cloth we utilize various techniques which all work by the same principle of allowing the dye to attach to some areas of the cloth while leaving other areas undyed. In order to expose some areas while resisting others the cloth is compressed in a way that is specific to each pattern and that process begins by plotting out a stitching template using a temporary fabric marker. Each pattern has a unique template with some patterns requiring a simple grid and others requiring more complex measurements. Depending on the size and complexity of the pattern this step can take anywhere from half an hour to half a day to complete.
Once the fabric is marked the stitching process begins. The fabric is stitched according to the template using thread and needle. Some patterns require stitching done in straight lines at specific intervals while others require the threads to deviate from a straight path for more intricate designs. This step is usually the most time-consuming in the entire process. A single yard of stitch-resisted fabric can take anywhere from one day to one week to stitch. Care must be taken to avoid threads interfering or catching on one another as this will cause the fabric to compress incorrectly.
5. THREAD PULLING
After the stitching is completed each of the threads must be pulled. This action causes the fabric to fold in on itself in various ways depending on how it was stitched. Only the sections of fabric that are left exposed will receive the dye. Variations can be achieved here by playing with the thread tension as this can affect how far the dye can penetrate into the folds. Each of the threads is knotted to keep the fabric compressed.
An alternate way of compressing fabric involves pleating and folding it in various ways. This collection of techniques is called “Itajime” as opposed to the previously described “Nui-Shibori” or stitch-resist techniques. As Itajime forgoes the plotting and stitching process of Nui-Shibori altogether it typically requires significantly less time while still delivering visually pleasing results.
Books have been written on the intricacies of indigo dyeing alone and in the 21st century the process still remains somewhat of a mystery. For our purposes here we will just say that the indigo must be kept in a good condition because a bad dye job at this stage can irreversibly ruin days/week’s worth of work. It is kept in a good condition by judging the alkalinity, oxygen levels and amount of pigment remaining in the vat and playing with all the possible variables to achieve a good balance. Indigo vats are traditionally kept in a fermentation stage but modern advances in chemistry have made the process easier by allowing the variables to be better controlled through the use of chemicals like sodium hydrosulfite. Our current method of maintaining our indigo vats involves the use of sodium hydrosulfite, soda ash and natural indigo pigment while we learn more about traditional techniques in order to transition to a full fermentation-style system in the future.
Like the steps leading up to it indigo dyeing takes time. The compressed cloth bundle must first be soaked overnight in water to help it take up the dye better. It is then carefully lowered into the indigo where it is gently massaged to help the dye penetrate into the folds. When the fabric is taken back out of the vat it will first appear to have a muted green colour, but as the indigo slowly oxidises in the air the shade will begin to shift towards a vibrant blue. To gain even distribution of colour and a rich deep shade this immersion-oxidation process must be repeated to build up layers of pigment on the fibre. This cannot be rushed. If one layer is not properly oxidised onto the fibre it will end up washing off along with any subsequent layers on top of it. We find that good results are obtained with repetitions of 5 minute immersions followed by 20-30 minute oxidation periods.
Depending on the state of the indigo dark shades can be obtained by repeating the immersion-oxidation process up to 10-15 times.
Written by the masters themselves, Anne and Serg of Slowstitch studio in Northern Thailand.