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The navy lark

In this house, blue is the new black.

Navy clothesNavy is fast becoming one of the dominant colours in my wardrobe and also in my house. It's been a long time coming.

For years, although I liked the colour in principle, I couldn't bring myself to wear it or have it around me, because it was my school uniform colour. Educators, I suspect, little realise what damage they do by putting kids into useful colours like navy, black or grey. Why couldn't they all pick screaming royal purple with gold and pale blue stripes, like the old Stratford Grammar School for Girls uniform, and have done with it?

But I digress. 

Here in the countryside, wearing black often seems out of place (too citified), and green, khaki and brown are more popular colours. But green is a difficult colour to pull off, and khaki and brown can seem horribly dreary. For me, a good, dark Barbour-style khaki works fine, and a bitter chocolate brown, as dark as you can get, but other than that, these are colours I am wary of. 

However, I realised some time ago that little by little, things in the house have been turning navy. Partly this is to disguise dirt: our original blue was a lovely duck-egg shade, but a dog and five cats soon make a mess of that, and my duck-egg blue sofa covers don't stay clean for more than a few days.

But partly it's because it's simply that it's an easier dye colour than black because with weak navy, you get blue, but with weak black, you get a nasty shade of shit brown.

I am a huge fan of dyeing things (see pic above - shot in bright light. These blues are actually darker in real life): it gives you a complete new item for very little cost, and adds at least a year of life to stained, slightly worn or 'tired'- looking garments or household linens.

Over the past couple of years, I've used navy dye for the sofa and armchair covers, our dingy towels, some pillowcases, and overdyed my faded jeans. I've also done batches of t-shirts, and although I've also tried other colours, I realised I kept coming back to navy simply because it gives the best results. 

Last week, I went all out and dyed three batches of things, with the aim of giving me as many outfits as possible. They include a cotton float dress from Orvis (where the polyester thread hasn't taken the colour, leaving a decorative effect); my blue striped djellaba, which was looking shabby; more towels and pillowcases; a favourite white chiffon top that had picked up a coffee-coloured stain; a linen blouse with drawn threadwork (below, top), old pyjamas, several t-shirts, a striped cotton shirt and a tiered peasant skirt.

shades of navyUndoubtedly you get the best results by only having one thing in the dyebath, but this works out quite expensive and is only worth it if you've damaged an expensive item, as I did with my float dress, which cost £65 and which I ruined the first time I wore it.  I have dyed as many as eight items, but this does result in a weaker colour, and I've found that three to five items gives about the best balance of results vs value for money. It is also useful if you think in terms of outfits and dye several items together that can then form the basis of a capsule wardrobe. If you want a really dark colour, consider dyeing in brown, burgundy or dark green first, then overdye to get the darkest of all navies, as I did with this viscose chiffon blouse (left, below). 

The costs involved are about 10 euros for a packet of Dylon dye, peanuts for a bag of salt, and several washes on hot (one pre-wash, one dye wash and one rinse wash to get the dye out - the packet says 60 degrees but I wash on 95 degrees). There is also, in theory, a fourth wash with bleach to clean the drum, but I don't do this - I just follow the dye wash with a couple of 'darks' washes, which cleans the machine adequately. 

I also don't wash items immediately after dyeing. I take them out of the machine, air dry them on a rack (remember, if you dry your clothes outside, to always dry blues in the shade because the colour is fugitive), then put them away for a week or two to allow the colour to set. Only then do I put them through the machine again, on 30 degrees, to get rid of any dye particles that might cause skin irritation.

dyed vestIf you're unused to dyeing, you should be aware that machine dyes only work well on cellulose fibres - cotton, linen, viscose, hemp, ramie etc. Machine dyes aren't generally recommended for protein fibres such as wool or silk, and synthetics won't pick up the dye, so if your garment has, say, 5 per cent lycra, the colour will be slightly weaker. Also, most stitching is done in polycotton, so it will show up as a contrast. This works just fine on casual garments such as t-shirts or jeans but can look terrible on more formal garments. You can also use it to your advantage, as in this vest, left, where you can clearly see how strongly the cotton jersey has picked up the colour in contrast with the polycotton lace insert.

Next shirt 1Next shirt dyed

Textures will show up far more in the finished article, so you get the best results from dyeing slubby cottons, damasks, voiles, etc, rather than flat fabrics such as jersey.  

You can overdye patterned fabrics with good results, such as this shirt, shown here in its new form and its former black, pink and white colourway. I loved it like this but never wore it because it didn't go with anything else I owned. You can see how the white stripes have turned mid-blue, the pink stripes have turned purple and the purple stripes have turned a dark indigo.

 

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To dye for - part one

In part one of a series on dyeing your clothes, here's how to wash-and-dye

BeforeAfterReader Shelley told me off recently for being bored with my clothes, which galvanised me to finally do the batch-dye I've been planning on.

There are several reasons I periodically dye my clothes. Firstly, it covers wear - pale colours show wear more than dark colours and you can get an extra year or two of life out of a t-shirt or a pair of jeans by overdyeing it a dark colour (navy, brown and black work the best). 

The second is to cover stains. Since our water is brown (from a well) it sometimes leaves stains or streaks on clothing, a bit like coffee stains. The best way to cover these is shibori, which is a posh kind of Japanese tie-dye. 

The third is because our brown water also makes everything dingy. White t-shirts quickly become a soft rust colour, and pinks and blues fade to quite nasty shades, at which point, overdyeing will make them look a lot better. 

And fourthly, I dye things to get something 'new'. For instance, I currently have about five cream cashmere sweaters and am thinking of multicolour dyeing at least two of them. 

There is also a fifth reason I used to dye things when I still had access to charity shops - to simply get them the right colour. As an impoverished student, I routinely bought clothes in awful colours and had them redyed at Sketchley's - a service that is sadly no longer offered. 

As it happened yesterday, I had a pack of Dylon Wash-and-Dye in the house. It was the wrong colour - I fancied navy, but it was dark brown - but it would have to do.

Machine dyeing isn't actually a particularly cheap method of dyeing, as the dye costs about 8 euros a pack and you end up doing three washloads - one to wash the clothes, one to dye, one to wash the dye out. You're then meant to do another one with bleach, but I just wash some darks instead and that cleans the washer out to my satisfaction. Silk and wool I prefer to dye by hand, so I use Wash-and-Dye only for cottons. 

Clothes to be dyedFor yesterday's dye batch I chose two t-shirts and two pairs of jeans, one of which was moleskin. That is about the most you can dye in any one go and expect to get consistent coverage - you need plenty of room in the machine drum for items to turn, and even with this amount of clothing, the brown, although said to be dark, has not come out as dark as I would like - it is more of a weak khaki colour. To get the colour as shown on the pack, you really need two packets of dye, or to put the clothes through two separate dye baths, but that begins to stroll on, pricewise.

As you can see, the denim jeans (on the right) were dark blue and the moleskin ones (on the left) were bright jade. The first pair were just looking a bit faded and since I have plenty of bluejeans, I figured they'd probably go black once overdyed, which would be useful. The jade jeans were a mistake buy. Beautifully made, but not my colour at all and I felt like a clown every time I put them on. They had also picked up a small stain from the dog's paws.

AfterAs you can also see (even, I hope, although I've accidentally switched the garments around), the blue jeans did indeed go black, while the jade jeans ended up a khaki colour.

Meanwhile, the two t-shirts had both gone dingy after two years of constant washing, with particularly grubby-looking necklines, and one had a brown stain, so I decided to shibori them to get a mottled effect, which hides stains better than plain ovedyeing.

Pink t-shirt afterThe pink one, I just knotted tightly in several places and as you can see, the result isn't particularly satisfactory. I like the effect on the sleeves but on the body I have lost too much of the pink and ended up with something that looks a bit too much like camouflage clothing for my taste, even though it co-ordinates with the moleskin jeans (don't take any notice of the crinkling - that comes out with ironing or if you tumble-dry). I will probably re-do this tee with black shibori to get a stronger effect zigzagging across the khaki. If all else fails, I'll simply dye it black.

Blue t-shirt overdyedThe blue one I did with a wrapped shibori technique. To get this effect, you take the wet t-shirt and pleat it horizontally to form a sausage, then wrap the sausage very tightly with string, to-ing and fro-ing and overlapping it. The string forms a resist, creating areas where the dye can't penetrate, and you end up with these spider-web effects. This effect is much more what I was after, though again, I think it would have looked better with black or navy dye. 

stitchingThe stitching on nearly all modern garments is where dyeing can catch out a beginner. It is nearly all polyester, not cotton, so it doesn't pick up the new colour. In casual clothing, this looks fine - we're all used to contrast stitching on our jeans, for instance - but in more formal clothes, it can look a mess, especially where seams join. You can cover the contrast stitching with embroidery but you need either embroidery skills or a sewing machine with embroidery stitches to do this successfully. 

Anyway, I am quite pleased with yesterday's work. Four 'new' items of clothing, all co-ordinated, and nothing going to the landfill.

More on dyeing another time. 

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Oldies may be goldies, but newbies are nice too

I am feeling very girly on account of having something new to wear...

I had one of those results yesterday. Popped over to give a friend a CD and came back with a carrier bag full of clothing.

It's always nice when new clothes just drop into your lap, summoned by some invisible karma. In this case, it's three nice blouses for summer - one an Elizabeth Emmanuel - and a jacket from Wallis that fits me to a tee. In the last 'bourse' a couple of weeks ago I also got a gorgeous khaki cotton jacket, not to mention the most beautiful white silk Boden coat covered with pink roses that fortunately made my friend look like a hausfrau. I feel like a new woman.

It's particularly nice because my budget for clothes this year really ought to be zero. There are just too many other things that need money spending on them. I'll pick up knickers and socks with the weekly shop, of course, if needed, but I won't, this year, be assessing where the gaps are in my wardrobe and trying to fill them the way I usually do. Clothing will have to be something other people give me, or I make for myself. 

The water pump is gronking, and the washing machine is on its last legs; Lucy's cancer treatments have cost around 500 euros since February, and are bound to cost more over the coming weeks; and who knows what wood and heating oil will cost, come winter? Last winter it cost £2,500 to heat this house and we only had it on for six hours a day. 

The trouble is, I am now officially BORED STIFF with all my existing clothes. I hate to admit to such a girly streak, but I am very pleased indeed to get the chance to wear something new - I feel like a pauper who's been up to the big house and got a posh lady's castoffs. Any minute now, I shall be tugging my forelock with gratitude. 

 

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