Allowing Nature to Speak Through Colour

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Allowing Nature to Speak Through Colour

".... everything around us is magical. But I didn't really do a good job in explaining.  Fairies and unicorns aside (coz those are definitely magical), the rain is magical. How does it fall in separate droplets instead of sheets (like when you pour water)? Plants are magical...growing from similar looking seeds into different sized trees and flowers of assorted colours.  So yes... everything around us is magical! Even you and me."

Yes, everything is magical. I was not looking, or rather, I was not being cognizant of what my true surroundings are.  I was aware of nature in our parks but failed to appreciate the beauty of the flora in my own neighbourhood and what they can provide for my upcycling work.

Ecodyeing and ecoprinting

Eco dyeing and eco printing

Nature Speaking Through Colour

It's been very quiet on the blog because I have been pouring over the internet and books, doing my research on natural dyes. What I have realised is that what works in other countries does not necessarily mean it will work here especially when you are not going to have the same flora. It really is one huge science experiment where you have controls and only change one parameter at a time.
I have been doing a bit of foraging but only picking what I need from the ground. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it's illegal to pick the fruits or leaves from trees in Singapore.

Eco Print/Dye

I am trying to avoid using alum and iron mordants but as I am dealing with non-animal natural fibers (ie. cotton) it has been very difficult not to use them to get beautiful prints. Cotton has many issues with dyes a) it doesn't take to natural pigments very easily unless there is a mordant to fix it; and b) the natural colours will fade over time due either light or washing. Well, this is why people invented chemical dyes, but I am trying to avoid all that and use as little metal mordant as possible.

The process does take quite a bit of time and you do need to plan out the whole process. This is what I have been doing so far:

  1. scouring my sourced cotton textiles
  2. mordanting
  3. dyeing

Don't forget that there are periods of time where the fabric needs to dry before going onto the next step. At this point I do feel my utility bills are going to be a bit higher so planning is really important. If I am going to do a bigger project I definitely will be making sure I make the most out of all the resources I have.

Eco dyes

Small Steps of Progress

Eco printing or eco dyeing is very experimental - you really don't know what you are going to get and unless you have done it many times, it is very difficult to replicate the results. I going to need a lot of patience if I am going to use it to upcycle cotton clothing. There have been a few little bumps along the way, but of course that's what learning is all about, right?

#1 Negative feedback

Just take it in, reflect and see how to improve it. I tried printing kumquat leaves, onion skins and local cherries onto this old Uniqlo top I had. I was all excited. Surely it would turn out very pretty. Alas, I think I was very ambitious and I forgot that what you see is NOT what you get.  The pinks became oranges, and the green faded after one day, and I got what looked like a blood-soaked garment. My husband's first reaction was, "zombie apocalypse". I think he couldn't see what I saw but now I am trying to see how I can turn this negative result into a positive one.  Stitching perhaps?
Anyway, I have decided to do some more experimentation so I can feel a bit more confident before I take the plunge and dye some clothes again.

Blue print ecodyes and dyeing

Natural dyes

Eco dyes

#2 Flora identification

This one is difficult, I even borrowed a friend's pair of binoculars so I could get a close up of the leaves in the tree. Add to the fact that not all leaves are created equal when it comes to natural dyes. The library is definitely my friend in the next few months.


#3 Getting back to the chemistry behind it all

It does get exciting to see all the chemicals involved in the process, but why do certain things happen? I was trying to read up and remember my A-level chemistry. After a few hours of reading, I got even more confused - I think my brain didn't function (is it age?).  I will have a go at it again because it would be very useful to find out the "why?" so that I can move in the right direction.

So where am I going next with this?
More experimentation. So far, I have tried onion skins, local cherries, avocado, blue pea, mango leaves and golden shower leaves, but I need to see whether they are colour fast.

Stay tuned!

Eco dyeing and printing

School of Gentle Protest

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I signed up for the School of Gentle Protest!
School of what? 
Gentle protest? 
I know, some of you might be thinking what on earth has this to do with sewing, but have you read my post from 2015, Can We Solve the World's Problems with Artivism

"Gentleness, conversation and collaboration can make our world a better place, and the road there less angry, aggressive and divisive." Sarah Corbett

In recent months, with so much anger and impatience, there has been quite a bit of shouting and violence in activism.  I went to my first protest in 1989. My parents took the whole family as a sign of support to the Chinese students at Tiananmen Square, but also to protest against the crackdown.  I remember everyone walking in total silence. After that, life carried on as normal and people forgot, or chose to forget.  I believe gentle protest in the form of craft / art helps continue the message beyond the time of the initial conceptualisation of the message. 

Do you remember the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong? It was an act of defiance against the Mainland Chinese government. Although the protests were dissolved (albeit violently), many citizens carried on their protest through gentle means. For example, a few groups and individuals promoted the use of the Cantonese language (predominantly used in Hong Kong versus Mandarin on the mainland) through books, print media and art as a way of showing that the public would not submit to mainland dominance (see video below).

These ladies in the USA are using quilting to bring together people no matter what their political opinions.  Politics has divided communities, friends and even families, but a craft can bridge that divide and provide a platform for people.

So how's the school so far?

I am loving it! There's homework (sometimes watching a movie) and discussions, but it really gets you thinking. For each lesson, they have a visiting lecturer who will share their experiences and give invaluable tips.
I'm still figuring out how best to bring across what I value, but for me, my message is to get people to think about their clothing. When they notice the upcycled / repaired garments I am wearing, it starts a conversation.  I share my tips, my tutorials; I give talks and workshops.  One lady (who's now a good friend) came to interview me for her school project and she was moved by the message that she decided to cut down on shopping and start repairing/upcycling her clothes.

My favourite lesson so far in Inner Protest.

Is there a better way to get this message across?

It's a very dynamic process and I definitely think the medium in which we express ourselves will change. But I love sewing so I that will be the best way to do it for me.

I'm now on lesson 4 but the videos and homework are left on their website. So join in the conversation!

Hummingbirds - Repair Patches & Embroidery

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Hummingbirds  - Repair Patches & Embroidery
Hummingbird Repair Patch - Free Motion Embroidery

My friend and illustrator/designer, Agnes, was doodling on some scrap fabric during a workshop break, and someone said, "Hey, Agy, why don't you try doing some embroidery on it?". Agnes had sketched a pair of hummingbirds and a bunch of flowers, and I thought, why not? Rise to the challenge.

The Importance of Hummingbirds
I have never seen a hummingbird in real life. Those that I have seen are in the media and wildlife documentaries -  tiny birds fluttering their wings and steadily hovering over a flower just so that they can reach the sweet nectar. What I didn't know is that while there are over 300 species of hummingbirds, they are in fact, "hovering on the brink of extinction".  These birds play a very important role in our food chain. Like bees, these beautiful creatures help pollinate a variety of flowering plants and also have a role in nature's insect control.  
Image credits - By Charlesjsharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY 3.0,
Did You Know....
  • Hummingbirds can only be found on the American continent, from southeastern Alaska to southern Chile.
  • Hummingbirds used to be hunted for their feathers.
  • Habitat destruction and the loss of / change in distribution of nectar abundant flowering plants are putting hummingbirds at risk.  They are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
  • It has been reported that changes in our climate are causing flowering plants to bloom before the hummingbirds arrive from their migratory flight. This means that the flower would have wilted and no nectar would be available to the birds.

What Can We Do?
Being in Singapore, I know we can't do much, but if you live where they roam, you could follow this useful guide.  However, I do think steps such as putting out bird feeders and using non-chemical methods to get rid of pests are things we can adopt elsewhere if we want to protect our own pollinators. We don't want to kill them!

Join and Work With Nature Society Singapore - working as an individual is a good start, but working together with others makes for a bigger impact to protect our local pollinators.

Stitching the Hummingbirds
I had such a great time stitching this pair of birds. What made it even more exciting was that I had also collaborated with textile artist, Vicky Bilton, in a fabric scrap exchange. She has sent me such a lovely collection of her indigo dyed scraps, velvet and satin.

Vicky Bilton
Hummingbird Repair Patch - Free Motion Embroidery

Hummingbird Repair Patch - Free Motion Embroidery

Hummingbird Repair Patch - Free Motion Embroidery

Tension Problems
I cut Vicky's scraps, carefully placed them onto the sketch and stitched away. Initially I had so many 
tension issues. If you've been following my instagram account, you'll probably be aware of this issue. My quilting friend suggested I give my repair man a call and get him to come over and give my machine a thorough check. Lo and behold, my bobbin case was rusty on the inside and I needed a replacement, plus I had some alignment issues. So, I guess the $101.11 repair was well worth it!

I was eventually back on the machine and no more tension issues! I was so happy with the result that I whipped up another patch in no time. 

Hummingbird Repair Patch - Free Motion Embroidery

Hummingbird Repair Patch - Free Motion Embroidery

Coming Full Circle - Fashion Revolution

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Coming Full Circle - Fashion Revolution

whomademyclothes 2017

"These children should be freed from exploitation" 
Richard Oastler

Not many people know this but I was actually born in England. In fact, it does come as a surprise when I debunk the assumption that I was born in London. Instead, I was born and had my childhood in Bradford, West Yorkshire. I remember lots of fields, making daisy chains and rubbing buttercups under the chin to see if we liked butter. There was a fondness to rolling about in the leaves and having all this space to run about, not forgetting the lovely sweet shops. So, you can imagine how my heart fell when we shifted to Hong Kong, but that's another story.

Fashion Revolution

Introductory panel from the Terrible Times for Children display © Bradford Museums and Galleries

Bradford - International Textile Manufacturing Centre
Embarrassingly, I don't really know a lot about Bradford except for the riots and the Bradford City football fire. It was only recently that I discovered that Bradford was, in fact, an international centre of textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution, and only declined in the mid 20th Century. It was particularly renowned for its wool and textile weaving, and its rapid growth was helped by the fact that the city was close to coal mines and soft water. Unfortunately, child labour was rampant in the industry with children as young as 7 working for more than 10 hours a day in poor conditions. While there was a campaign to abolish slavery in the British colonies in the 1830s, it was not until a Mr. Richard Oastler had a chance meeting with a Mr. John Wood (who was agonizing over the employment of children in his factory in Bradford) that the cause for labour rights was championed for. 

From a letter to The Leeds Mercury by Richard Oastler, published on October 16, 1830: 
‘Let truth speak out, appalling as the statement may appear. Thousands of our fellow creatures and fellow subjects, both male and female, the miserable inhabitants of a Yorkshire town, are this very moment existing in a stage of slavery more horrid than are victims of that hellish system ‘Colonial Slavery’. These innocent creatures drawl out unpitied their short but miserable existence in a place famed for its profession of religious zeal, whose inhabitants are ever foremost in professing Temperance and Reformation, and are striving to outrun their neighbours in Missionary exertions and would fain send the Bible to the farthest corner of the globe... The very streets which receive the droppings of an Anti-Slavery Society are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled not by the cart whip or the negro slave-driver but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or the strap of the overlooker, to hasten, half-dressed, not half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery – the worsted mills in the town and neighbourhood of Bradford. Thousands of little children, both male and female, but principally female, from SEVEN to fourteen years of age, are daily compelled to labour from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening...Poor infants! Ye are indeed sacrificed at the shrine of avarice, without even the solace of the negro slave; are compelled to work as long as the necessity of your needy parents may require, or the cold-blooded avarice of your worse than barbarian masters may demand!’


While the right for acceptable working conditions was fought for (especially for children), reform for the textile industry was also demanded.  

According to this website, two other important local figures were involved in the reformation of the industry as well. Conditions in the mills and working hours were improved, while proof of age (birth certificate) was made a requirement for employment.  Here's a summary from MyLearning:
  • " Richard Oastler helped bring about the 1847 Factory Act which made the working day a maximum of ten hours.
  • Margaret McMillan's campaigns resulted in the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act. She also carried out the first medical inspections of primary school children.
  • William Edward Forster, MP for Bradford between 1861 and 1886, helped to develop the 1870 Education Act, which established a national education system. "

Fashion REvolution

fashion revolution

All image sources from

Concerns of Working Conditions in Literature
The labour conditions in the textile industry did not go unnoticed to the public. In fact, writers from the Victorian era used the industry as a backdrop to their novels. My favourite is Elizabeth Gaskell, who highlighted the plight of the workers in her writing, such as North and South, and Mary Barton.

Throughout North and South, Gaskell illustrates the huge social divide between the working and middle-class, and how the masters' desire to make more money means lowering wages (a very familiar scenario that we see today!) as one of the characters, labourer Higgins, laments to protagonist, Margaret Hale:

“Why, yo’ see, there is five or six masters who have set themselves again’ paying the wages they’ve been paying these two years past, and flourishing upon, and getting richer upon. And now they come to us, and say we are to take less. And we won’t. We’ll just clem them to death first; and see who will work for ‘em then. They’ll have killed the goose that laid ‘em the golden eggs, I reckon”. 

However, Gaskell also gives both sides of the coin and makes effort to cover the perspective of the master, especially when the workers had formed unions and gone on strike.

"He was trying to understand where he stood; what damage the strike had done him. A good deal of his capital was locked up in new and expensive machinery; and he had also bought cotton largely, with a view to some great orders which he had in hand. The strike had thrown him terribly behindhand, as to the completion of these orders. Even with his own accustomed and skilled workpeople, he would have had some difficulty in fullfilling his engagements; as it was, the incompetence of the Irish hands, who had to be trained to their work,at a time requiring unusual activity,was a daily annoyance."

She also mentions the conflicts between mill owners in terms of worker treatment. Higgins' daughter, who also works in the mills is ill from inhaling cotton dust and says:

.....Some folk have a great wheel at one end o’ their carding-rooms to make a draught, and carry off th’ dust; but that wheel costs a deal o’ money--five or six hundred pound, maybe, and brings in no profit; so it’s but a few of th’ masters as will put ’em up; and I’ve heard tell o’ men who didn’t like working places where there was a wheel, because they said as how it mad ’em hungry, at after they’d been long used to swallowing fluff, tone go without it, and that their wage ought to be raised if they were to work in such places. So between masters and men th’ wheels fall through. I know I wish there’d been a wheel in our place, though.’

Why are we back to square one?
We learn a lot from our mistakes and from our history, but it seems like we are a very forgetful bunch of people. By the time the last British mill closed down in the 1960s, most of the manufacturing had gone overseas, where capitalists were seeking higher profit margins. Today, we are witnessing communities being exploited again under extremely poor working conditions. I wonder what it would take to change this thinking. Back in the 1800s, people's attitudes changed when Oastler compared the conditions of the factory labourers to those suffered by the colonial slaves. We are so far removed from the horrors that for some, it is easier to close one eye and let it be.

What can we do?

  1. Vote with your wallet - shop consciously. Check out my post on PROJECTJust for responsible shopping. Always remember to do your research before you buy.
  2. Work together with the big names - some people may say that this goes against building a sustainable fashion industry, but these retailers have a wider reach. If you can change the way they think, just imagine the impact that it could bring. Don't forget that they are employers too!
  3. Take part in Fashion Revolution - there's a brilliant line up of activities from 22 - 29th April. Check out the Singapore activities here where I'll be holding my signature Restyle Your Wardrobe upcycling workshop on 22nd and 29th April.

Uniqlo Design Library Workshops

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Uniqlo Design Library Workshops
I haven't had the chance to update on what's going on with my creative journey as I've been very busy with preparing for upcycling workshops. Just last weekend, I was invited to take part in the UNIQLO Design Library workshops, and I was excited that they were willing to let me hold workshops based on the textile upcycling theme. In fact, they were more than happy to provide me a supply of cuts from their trouser alteration service!UNIQLO Design Library
We ended up making necklaces and sewing drawstring pouches from old t-shirts and transforming old clothes into zipper pouches.

Upcycling Workshops Agy

Upcycling Workshops Agy

Upcycling Workshops Agy
Upcycling workshop with Agy

Upcycling workshop with Agy

Shopping with a Purpose in Singapore - Handmade

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Shopping with a Purpose in Singapore - Handmade
I remember when I was at my first pop-up in Singapore. I made upcycled products from jeans and laid them out carefully on the table before the event started. I set my expectations very low because I wasn't really sure whether anyone would appreciate them. There were a handful who understood what I was selling, but I think the vast majority didn't like the idea of something that was originally destined for the rubbish bin or that it cost a wee bit more than mass manufactured items. Initially, I was thinking how ridiculous it was to sell upcycled goods, but then I realised that others in the handmade market were facing similar issues.

Nureen Das of  The Artesan Gateway asked me to share about shopping with a purpose in Singapore, and what the handmade movements is like. Hope over to her website now to read it. 

Shopping with a purpose