Monday, February 8, 2010

Upcycle, she said.

The global push to be more ecologically conscious has led to many seemingly green options. From organic cottons, to soy protein fabrics, the world presents us with new things everyday to fill our closets with shamelessly, while seemingly satiating our consciences. But a problem remains: What to do with all that ‘stuff’ we bought before?

I’ve often maintained that the greenest thing you have is the thing you didn’t have to buy, so while I must offer my unadulterated congratulations to the brilliant minds that made corn, soy, bamboo, and wood pulp into wearable fabrics—we have not healed the planet long enough to go on consuming, green as these alternatives may be. As a society, we must slam the brakes on ‘new’ consumerism entirely, because all those things we throw away still choke the planet. We must use what’s already here and we must use it to its fullest extent.

The answer? Upcycle.

My first major ‘upcycle’ project was at the tender age of 18—sure, I had turned pants into shorts before then, but the first big project was epic… and in retrospect, probably not the right place for it. I made a dress for a black-tie event out of a bed sheet—yes, a bed sheet.

It was a surprising hit and I don’t think I ever bought a dress for a black-tie affair after that. The question became not “where did you get your dress?” but “what was this before you wore it?” I’ve made dresses from bed sheets, old drapery, belly dance veils, factory ends; shirts from scarves, older shirts, and cottons that I’ve dyed myself. I’ve unraveled poorly sized knit sweaters from Value Village and reused the yarn to make projects from pictures I’ve seen in magazines.

It’s really not that hard.

The rules of fashion are simple and finite: Fashion changes. Plain and simple. What’s in today will probably be out tomorrow, and for a fashionista: keeping up can be a daunting task. However, the odds are in your favour! Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun and the world of fashion is no different—it’s all been done before, giving you far more options than you may think!

Consider the obvious: Everything was originally made by somebody.

You can easily make the drab ‘fab’ all over again, simply by learning the basics. The global shift to peasant tops makes this a fantastic time to try updating something. Success means one less item in the land fill.

I hope you’ve been good over the years and stocked up on cotton, because cotton is the secret weapon of any upcycler! It gets points for universal versatility, is easy to maintain and has one of the lowest skin-irritability rates of any fabric.

One of the main reasons I love cotton is that it can easily be stripped of dyes and redyed. You can use things you never would have suspected, to get some of the most beautiful dyes, without ever compromising on being green! Experiment with spices to see what colours you can come up with—brilliant mustard yellow, cinnamon stick brown, paprika and chili powder reds. Here are some dyes traditionally sources from various roots in Tibet.

Use a worn part of the material that you will not be reusing to do test dye swatches. Consider keeping the swatches labeled neatly in a book afterwards, you’ll soon learn what colours you like and what colours to not bother testing.

I can’t say I love Kristen Stewart, but the girl’s got style, and she lends her red-carpet looks well to this topic. I always make a point on finding out what she wore to the award shows, because sometimes you get gems like these:

She’s practically a fabric printer’s fashion dream in these two dresses!

Fabric printing is brilliantly easy, and once you get the hang of it, it’s hard to leave fabric alone.The example above is done with ink blocks and paper, but the principle is easily transferable to fabric. Always remember to pin your fabric in place, and lay a piece of board between the layers so the dyes don’t bleed through to the next layer of fabric.
Personally, I find using a water soluble dye (root dye) for the base colour works best, and I often layer vegetable-oil soluble dyes (spice dyes) to print over my base. You can use paint brushes to brush on a root dye to achieve a look similar to Kristen’s second dress, where the pattern center is left white.
Colour fasting can get tricky when using these dyes. I like to do it in a few steps. First, I mix vinegar and salt in a spray bottle, and spray down the project, leaving it to air dry. How many times I repeat this step varies based on how contrasting the colours I’ve used are, whether I’ve left any virgin material on the project (dye-free areas), and how much colour I’m willing to lose over time. Step two is quite simple: submerge the dyed article in vinegar and leave for a few days, changing the vinegar every 48 hours.

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