Slow fashion DIY tutorial: Tea-dyed hand-printed t-shirt

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Since making the decision to exclusively buy sustainable fashion, the one thing I have missed is cute t-shirts. It is easy to find beautiful and stylish investment pieces- tailored dresses, stylish blouses, skirts with interesting prints- but when it comes to more affordable items like t-shirt and tops, the ethical clothing and sustainable fashion selection seems to be pretty plain. I have searched high and low for polka dots or stripes, tops with lace collars, and geometric print t-shirts, but my search has been less than satisfying. I haven’t found a single item that meets my high standards for ethical and eco-friendly considerations. And if I can’t find it, then I am sure that there are many ethical shoppers who are forced to make the choice between dropping their standards for style or wearing very plain t-shirts. On the verge of making the same choice myself, I realised that there is a third option- making or personalising my own tops and t-shirts.

So, in that vein, I am very excited to bring you my first DIY tutorial for this geometric printed t-shirt. This is a perfect project for anyone who wants to try their hand at making their own wardrobe, but aren’t yet game to pull out the sewing machine. The project introduces you to eco-dying and hand-printing techniques, and is simple enough for the absolute beginner.

STAGE 1 Eco-dying

For this stage you will need:

  • 1 White organic cotton t-shirt
  • About 25 new or used tea bags (I collect used tea bags in the freezer for dying projects)
  • 1 Large pot
  • Tongs or large spoon for stirring
Frozen tea bags for eco-dying

Frozen tea bags for eco-dying

Bring 4L of water to the boil in the saucepan and drop tea bags into the water to steep for 1 hour. The water does not need to be simmering- it should be maintained just below simmering temperature. After 1 hour, remove the tea bags. Pre-wet your t-shirt and place into the dye pot. Leave your t-shirt to dye for 2-3 hours, stirring regularly. The longer you leave it, the darker it will be. When ready, remove the t-shirt from the dye pot and spin off the excess water in the washing machine. Hang the t-shirt out to dry. Once dry, use the iron to heat set the dye. Alternatively, you can dry your t-shirt in the dryer.

Strictly speaking, it is recommended that you do not use your usual cooking equipment for dying, as the dying process can leave harmful residue in the metals, which will soak into the food. This is true even of eco-dying, as some natural dye materials are also poisonous. But since this project uses only tea, it is ok for you use your kitchen equipment. If you want to explore eco-dying further, I recommend visiting your local charity store for some saucepans and tongs that will be used exclusively for dying.

STAGE 2 Printing

Printing equipment

For this stage you will need:

  • Your ironed t-shirt (the t-shirt should be dry)
  • A square artists gum eraser ( I used Generals Gum Eraser)
  • A ruler
  • A soft pencil
  • A craft knife or blade
  • A large cutting mat (approx 44cm x 29cm)
  • Textile printing inks (in one or two colours- I used black and purple)
  • An old plate (for putting the ink on)
  • A paint brush or paint roller

To begin with, take your gum eraser

Gum eraser

and use your ruler and pencil to draw a triangle on one face.

Gum eraser with triangle

Using your craft knife and cutting mat, cut the eraser to make your triangle printing stamp.

Cutting the stamp

You are now ready to start printing. If you are feeling a little nervous about printing on the t-shirt, practice on some thick paper first. This is a good way to practice a few different designs, to work out how you want to print your t-shirt. Here are my practice runs:

Practice printing

You are now ready to print your t-shirt! It is important to remember that the textile ink will go through the fabric, so to avoid marks on the back of your t-shirt, place your cutting mat in between the two sides of the shirt. I have my printing on the front of the t-shirt, finishing just below the bust. If you want to do the same, first hold the t-shirt up against you and use the ruler to measure how high up your printing should finish.

Print your chosen area with your chosen print pattern. I used a paint brush to paint the face of the printing stamp- I found that this gave me the best coverage on the fabric. If you don’t like the coverage you get from one stamp, you can careful go over the same spot again with the stamp, or use a paint brush to touch up the fabric directly.  If you are using two colours, do one colour entirely, then wash your stamp and brush, and do the next colour. My finished printing looked like this:

Finished printing

Next, leave your printing to dry. This will take a few hours. Once dry, you should iron the print to set the ink. Follow the instructions of your particular ink- it should take around 5 minutes on high heat. You are now ready to wear your shirt!

Finished t-shirt

When starting out, it is important to remember that handmade clothing will have imperfections. It is all part of the process. When I started this project, I had planned to print a delicate design around the neckline. But once I dyed my t-shirt I found that there were a few darker marks on the stomach area of the t-shirt. So instead I decided to go with a bold geometric print which would draw attention away from the marks. Some were covered by the print, others are still visible but no longer prominent. The beauty of handmade is that no two items will ever be the same. My print is slightly uneven, but this is part of its charm. The essence of slow fashion and sustainable design is to take the time to connect with our clothing, and when things don’t go as planned, let the design process take you in another direction. There are no mistakes, only new challenges. Enjoy the process!

Resources

For ethically produced organic cotton t-shirts, I recommend PACT Apparel, ONNO, or 3Fish.

For more information on eco-dying, I use India Flint’s comprehensive book Eco Colour and for guidance on textile printing techniques, I use Printed Pattern by London-based textile designers Yvonne and Rebecca Drury.

 


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