My latest shirt was inspired by a fabric called Womens Business by Mavis Marks, who is a member of the ikuntji indigenous artist group. Here this fabric is used by Tessuti to show off their latest shirt pattern. I love the colours and the bold design.

Not long after the women’s business fabric made itself at home in my brain I came across another shirt, painted by artist Kay Chapman.

You can see where that fusion came from, can’t you? I painted with thickened dye, with a brush, free-hand, but with one eye on my inspiration shirts.

The fabric I used is a very high thread count viscose/cotton, one of Ikea’s single bed sheets. It has a subtle lustre and a lovely feel, and is so smooth that you can paint on it almost like you can on paper. I used thickened dye, which stops the dye from running like ink on a blotter, and makes very nice clean lines. The hand of the fabric remains soft, the dye produces wonderful, luminous colours and I just love the subtle colour variations.

Painting with dye is easy once you have worked out what to do. The main stumbling block for me has been that dye needs soda ash solution to fix it to the fabric, but adding it to the dye makes the dye go off too quickly (20-60 minutes). It takes hours to paint a shirt, and if you keep mixing up the dye in batches to get around the time limit, you will inevitably get colour variations on different garment pieces, and not the colour variations I am looking for! Soaking the fabric in soda ash and then painting the design on the wet fabric makes the dye run and while painterly watercolour effects are easy, achieving clearly defined outlines is impossible. Spraying Soda ash solution on the painted design afterward also makes the dye run. Ask me how I know.

The solution is to soak the fabric in the soda ash solution, let it dry and then paint on the dry fabric. I was doubtful that there would be enough soda ash left in the dry fabric to fix the dye, but what do you know, there was and it did.

I also needed a better setup to paint. Newspaper on my cutting table is ok for block printing or stencilling. Painting enough fabric for a shirt is much more messy, needs lots of room, and moving a finished piece to make room for the next is risky, because the dye is wet and will get on everything and anything you touch. I don’t want dye all over my nice new sewing studio, so I needed a large flat surface outside. One that does not take the dye and pass it inadvertently onto the next project and does also allow me to fix the fabric to it easily. An enormous table would have fitted the bill, but I don’t have one, at least not one I can ruin with dye.

Fortunately we had some corflute at work, which is absolutely ideal. It is a good size for a garment, plastic, so does not take dye and can simply be wiped off after each project. I can tape my garment pieces to it so they don’t move or flap around in the breeze (this is definitely an outdoor activity). The corflute sheets are rigid and can sit on a couple of sawhorse bases for painting, but are light enough for me to pick up the whole sheet with the painted fabric taped to it and move it wherever I need to, mostly into the shade to keep the painted fabric from drying too quickly.

Yes, one pesky inconvenience of dye is that it needs to be kept wet for an extended period, best overnight, to bond the dye to the fabric. That is a pain in the whatnot, for an impatient person like me who is used to being able to to cure what I have printed/stencilled immediately and sew it up straight away. At least with the corflute I can cover the wet painted fabric with another sheet and weigh this down which keeps it from moving and spreading wet dye, protects my work from blowing leaves, curious kitty-cats and passing wildlife during the night, and keeps it wet for as long as needed.

So here we are, a new shirt, hand-painted. The pattern used is the Jac shirt from Tessuti. And I’m not showing my face until lockdown is over and I can get a decent haircut.

I’m not quite up to Mavis Mark’s standards, but it is a first try and I bet Mavis did several designs before she settled on the final one. That is the trouble with us DIY-ers, while commercially you have the luxury of prototypes, we have to make everything work the first time around. By the time I get as good as Mavis, if I ever do, my wardrobes will be stuffed with a gazillion shirts, each one slightly better than the last but still not quite there. Bummer!

Dye painting notes:

  • Fabric pre-soaked in soda ash solution and dried, painted dry.
  • Cut out garment pieces. Painting the uncut fabric is a lot more work and unnecessarily wasteful of dye.
  • Paint with a sodium alginate and dye mixture.
  • To make sodium alginate gel, add one teaspoon of the powder per 250ml of water, blend in a blender unless you want lots of lumps. Sodium alginate is a food additive and safe to use in your blender. Leave to settle and get rid of air bubbles, decant into a screw top jar.
  • Put a quantity of gel into a container, add Drimarene K powder, black (navy base) to the sodium alginate gel. You can also use Procion MX.
  • Brush dye on fabric, keep wet overnight.
  • Wash out in cold, then hot water with Synthrapol or equivalent neutral pH detergent. Don’t wring or distort the garment pieces before sewing them up.

This is linked to MMM.