This piece was originally written for the Tender Stores newsletter. If you would like to sign up for our occasional mailing list please click here.

On Colours





I’ve been interested in dyeing since before starting Tender, but have become fascinated the more I’ve learned. In this rather longer piece I’ll try to describe some different dyeing stages and my thoughts on colour more generally.

Dyeing can happen at different stages in a garment’s production, and broadly speaking the earlier on in the process, the more scaleable it is, but the larger the quantity of garments you need to be able to produce in the same colour. As Tender production is all pretty tiny that tends to mean that most of my dyeing happens further along, where you can dye smaller quantities of garments practically. Here are some stages at which colour can be applied:

Fibre dyeing is where loose fluffy fibre is dyed before being spun into yarn. I’ve never gone this far back down the line for custom fabrics, but aT grey marl Tshirts are a good example of fibre dyeing- the marl yarn is spun from a mixture of grey and white fibres, giving a random, speckled effect.

Yarn dyeing means taking an undyed (ecru) yarn and dyeing it before weaving into fabric. Usually this is done to a wound cone of yarn dropped into a tank of dye and then brought to high pressure so that the dye penetrates all the way to the centre of the cone, however some yarn dyeing (including indigo dyeing) is carried out on single running strands of yarn. Fabrics can be woven from differently coloured yarns in stripes, checks, or other more complicated patterns using different types of looms, and the parts of the fabric that cross different colours of warp and weft can create new colours again. A simple and particularly nice example of this is a gingham-type check, where three colours (here black, white, and grey) are created from two colours of yarn. Where the warp and weft are both white, the fabric is white; black and black makes black, black and white or white and black makes grey. There’s also a subtle difference created in the twill between a black-warp grey (darker) and a black-weft grey (lighter).

As well as using single colours of dyed yarn to weave with, more complex fabrics can be made by plying (twisting) strands of differently yarn-dyed yarns together. Tricolore Weft Canvas, below, is a yarn dyed cloth woven on a single ply ecru warp with a three ply weft. The weft yarns are dyed red, white, and blue, twisted up like a barber’s pole. Because the face of the yarn that shows in any particular weaving cross is random, the surface of the fabric has a dancing moiré-like appearance.

Piece dyeing is where a piece (the name for a rolled length of fabric, usually 40-100m depending on the weight) is woven from ecru yarn and then dyed, usually in a running system where the fabric is reeled from one reel to another, through a dyeing and drying process, but sometimes loose in big dye vats. Piece dyed fabric is all the same colour, but you can cut and sew garments from differently coloured panels.

The furthest down-stream in dyeing production terms is garment dyeing, and this is the one that I’ve always been the most interested in. A whole garment is dyed, bringing the various fabrics, sewing threads, labels and buttons together into one coherent piece. From the beginning Tender jeans have been garment dyed, with woad and later many other colours. Garment dyeing can mean dyeing as little as one individual piece of clothing, although it usually makes sense to dye enough to exhaust (use up) a dye vat or washing machine load. It may be obvious, but with garment dyeing the whole piece is dyed the same colour including any linings, labels, buttons, and sewing threads. It’s a particularly nice way of creating something with an integrity which will develop as it is worn over time.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate with dyeing is that it’s never really a matter of picking a colour (be it a Pantone or some other reference) and pouring in dye to match. When designers do this (perfectly legitimately) we are passing on responsibility to a dyer, who will have to experiment with mixtures of different colours, fixing techniques, temperatures, and timings to match what’s been asked for. This usually also depends on the fabric to be dyed, and with garment dyeing on many other factors too: how the fabric has been woven, whether and how the items has been washed before dyeing, whether it’s lined, what the composition of the sewing threads is, and all sorts of other things. Dyes often go into the process appearing to be one colour and come out, like pottery glazes, a completely different one.



In On Construction First Design I wrote about my approach to product design. I apply the same principals to dyeing- rather than working from a desired end to a means of achieving it, I like to find an interesting means and see where it leads. Particularly with natural and historical dyes it can be quite unpredictable as to how a colour comes out, and it often varies quite quite a bit across different materials.

Even the synthetic Hadal dyes follow the same principal. The idea with these is to offer darker, more fade-resistant, colours which can’t be achieved with older dyes. I made up the name Hadal Blue in reference to the hadal zone in the oceans, below the midnight zone (midnight blue)- I wanted to achieve as dark a blue as possible, by pushing in as much dyestuff as possible, without any lighteners.

The colour itself varies depending on the material and type of garment, however. A soft and highly textured Fine Beekeeper’s Cloth shirt (above) turns a much darker blue than a smoother, more tightly woven, and fully lined Beekeeper’s Calico jacket (left).

The nicest thing about dyes for me, however, particularly natural garment dyes, are the irregularities that show up during dyeing, and the terrific potential to show use and age as they wear off. Nowhere is this more celebrated than in indigo denim, but I’ve written about that in On Lost Jeans so I’ll finish with a one-off piece: it’s a Type 441 Compass Pocket Shirt cut from ecru curtain lining (a tightly woven cotton satin) and dyed with turmeric.

This was the first piece dyed with for Spring/Summer 2022 and it was hung on a rail in a showroom in Tokyo for a few weeks, during wholesale stockist appointments. The rail was quite near a window looking out onto the street, and over a few weeks in the summer the bright tropical yellow faded to a much softer creamy cowslip colour where it was exposed to the sun. The inside of the shirt, and various parts that were folded away from the light, retain the original shade, with soft undulating fades between the different parts. It’s quite hard to capture in photos (natural dyes often are), but it’s a really lovely piece, which will continue to fade and adapt as it’s worn. This faded shirt has now gone to a new home, but turmeric fades particularly nicely, so bright newly turmeric-dyed garments will quickly take on the same character.







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This piece was originally written for the Tender Stores newsletter. If you would like to sign up for our occasional mailing list please click here.