Dip-Dyed Dress

Some time ago I reached out to Peggy Mead from Sew House Seven with a request that she write a guest post here. I was very interested in her business, which is designing and selling modern clothing patterns. As it happens, I found one of her lovely patterns on Etsy, where I have my other shop, while I was in the optimistic 'let's learn how to make our own clothes' phase early in the 2020 lockdown.

She, being both extremely busy and quite a bit smarter than me, counter-offered with the idea of working on a little project together and I'm so glad she did!

Her idea: I would dye fabric for a dress and she would make me her Wildwood dress with it, then I would blog about the process to (hopefully) both our benefit. My 'Yes, and..' was to take the finished dress and dip dye the bottom for an interesting look. It didn't turn out at all as I had imagined at first, but it was a really fun experiment. I love the process of working creatively on a project together with other designers and makers.

My first step was to choose a fabric and this being summer (at least it was when we started), a linen seemed a good choice. I work mostly with silk and knew this would be a bit of a challenge, since animal and plant-fibres take colour quite differently. I wanted a pretty colour that would be as stable as possible through multiple washes and wearings, so I chose a blue-grey I make with tannic acid and iron. This is that colour on silk.


On the linen it expressed itself with a lot more blue and came out a pretty mauve-grey, which pleased me - and relieved Peggy (I don't think she was too impressed when I told her I planned to make a GREY linen!).

Peggy took that fabric and rustled up the most beautiful dress for me!


Now came the tricky part and the part that made me nervous: dip-dyeing a finished garment. It's totally different to playing around with fabric that hasn't been made into anything yet - let alone something beautiful that someone else made!

Luckily I had leftover dyed linen I could experiment with, so I mixed more of the same dye, in a darker shade and carefully lowered the linen into it, taking care to keep the top part away from the dye. I was interested to see how far the dye would wick up into the fabric and how it would look when it dried.

It seemed to be doing its job.. but when the fabric dried there was no discernible difference in the colour.


I tried again. And again - with no success. This process that had worked so easily on silk just refused to take on the linen and I couldn't figure out why. The best I could come up with, after many dye baths with this, which i think you'll agree is not very pretty.

You can see that there's a pretty ugly tidemark from the tannic acid wicking up into the middle of the fabric - I didn't think this would make the dipped hem look intentional - perhaps more like I'd dragged it through mud somehow.

Eventually, worried that I had blithely promised too much and wouldn't be able to deliver, I decided to abandon that attempt and try something else: adding a totally new colour to the hem.

This required mordanting the fabric first.

Mordanting is the process of soaking a fabric in a pre-treatment that will bind natural colour to the fibres. It's not needed with tannic acid, which is its own mordant in a sense, but I wanted to add a red dye, so I soaked another test piece in alum, which is my go-to for vibrant colours allowed it to dry and then dipped carefully in a red dye bath. It worked!

The fabric dried to a pretty muted pink.

Now for the nerve-wracking bit..

Carefully I mordanted the hem of the dress and both ends of the ties by hanging the dress over a bucket of mordant and letting it soak up as far as it wanted to go.

Once dried I repeated the process with a red dye bath and holy-moly I love the way it turned out!

This has been such a fun collaboration! I got to bat a creative idea around with someone whose work I very much respect, took some time to experiment, fail and then figure out a new tack to take and I got a beautiful dress out of the deal. Pretty cool.

Many many thanks to Peggy for her patience as my summer sales got in the way of pretty much anything else in my life for quite a while and for being so generous with her skills and time. 

Now, to make my own dress with another of her patterns, which is how I found her great shop in the first place..

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