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.
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