Linen Hinterland, or the dress that was and then wasn’t naturally dyed

Hello makers, how is April treating you all? After a week of 20 degrees warm spring weather, we are now being peppered with hail, gales and snow at every turn. Ah, the life of an April dweller. Spare a thought for my poor blossoming apple tree who enthusiastically started blooming when the weather was nice and now has to deal with frost and snow, the poor sod! Anyway, I thought I would come to the Treehouse to talk a bit about the most April-embracing project these hands ever made. Strap in friends, cause this sewing project has been on a trip and and so will this post detailing it be.

This is the second Hinterland dress I made, the first one was the plaid version I made the previous winter. However, it’s actually the first one I cut out and planned to sew! My partner had left for Yorkshire for a week, to attend the UCI Road Cycling World Championships (as a spectator, mind). If you are in the know, then yes we are talking about a project I cut out 1.5 years ago in real time, and approximately 80 years ago in lockdown time. ‘Twas a time where sport and other events with spectators where still a thing, and when nobody batted an eyelid at large gatherings of people. Indeed, it’s like a different universe now. Anyway, I had the Treehouse to myself for a week and I had some bigger and smaller projects planned to entertain myself. It’s not that I wouldn’t have done those things or made those messes had my partner been at home, just maybe not in such an ambition amounts as I had planned to do that particular week.

One of these projects was “Project Yellow Linen Dress”. You see, I’ve been taken with the idea of a yellow linen dress for some time. Of course, once I identified that particular longing, I kept noticing yellow linen dresses on Instagram and pinterest as trusty reminders that I needed to make that idea happen. The obstacle I ran into was that I was dreaming of a particular shade of yellow. Not too light, but also not too orange, turns out that particular shade is (or possibly was) hard to find in fabric stores over here at the time.

I was also getting interested in natural dyeing, again. After looking for that particular shade of yellow fabric for some time without any luck, I thought I would give dyeing it myself a go. I had zero experience with naturally dyeing fabric, or dyeing plant based fibre for that matter, so it seemed like a fun challenge to immerse myself in.

I bought a piece of white linen and started doing some research. After reading up on in a bit I eventually settled on dyeing with fustic. There are many, many, many natural sources that yield a yellow colour, and to be honest normally fustic would not be my first choice. Not because it’s qualities aren’t good, but there are natural sources for yellow that I can obtain more easily locally, which is just more sustainable. However I went with fustic anyway cause I had read that it’s particular qualities made it more suitable for plant based fibres and you needed less of it.

Dyeing a sizeable piece of fabric in a single pot isn’t really an advisable venture, and since I was planning to cut a dress out of it, my source fabric was quite sizeable. So, pre-dyeing I cut the fabric in pieces. I made the dyebath by boiling the fustic pieces and letting them sit in the dyebath for a few days to make the dye stronger. I then filtered the fustic pieces out, filled a bit pot of water and added the dye and fabric. Which I let simmer for about 1.5 hours and then also let sit overnight.

Yes, this is actually a post dyeing photo…

The colour obtained from that was a subtle light yellow. Lighter than I expected but I knew plant based fibres usually take dye lighter than wool. So, I figured I’d simply repeat the process to get an a bit darker result. I did… twice. I wish I could tell you that after all that, I was wowed with the result, but I was not. While the colour got darker with each dye session, it was only marginally so. Even after three baths, the end result was an earthy pastel yellow colour. If I were more into those colours it wouldn’t have been bad, even if it wasn’t the result I hoped for, but truthfully pastel yellow is one of those colours that I just knew I wouldn’t wear.

I wasn’t really sure how to proceed at that point. I had already put a lot of effort and resources in it and I didn’t want to continue to do that. So I stuffed it in a cabinet to over-think things a bit before proceeding. I don’t know why the colour just wouldn’t get a bit more saturated. The dye stuff should have been more than enough. I know plant-based fabrics take dyes less well than animal based fibers, however I have seen people get quite dark and saturated colours with plant dyes. So maybe my material wasn’t right? Or maybe I should just stick to dying small pieces? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try my hand at plant based dying linen again in the future but for now I should maybe stick to wool.

“Stuffing the project into the cupboard for a bit” turned into over a full year of the project gathering dust. Enter a global pandemic, which saw me first blazing through all kinds of diy and crafts in an effort to distract me from it and then followed up with months of feeling meh and wondering if I ever would touch my sewing machine again. At the start of this spring I had a massive reorganisation and clean up session in my apartment and found the dress and decided pretty much on the spot to just get a chemical dye for it and dye it with that. It would mean that I would dye it a fourth time…not ideal, but having it sit in a cupboard unused isn’t either. So I decided to go for it.

So I got a dye lot called “golden yellow” and went for it. I just dyed it in the same pot I also used for natural dying. The only difference was that this time I decided to first sew the dress and then do the dying. Mostly because I was stressed and lacked patience to wait for the parcel of dye to arrive in the post, partly because I was scared to lose more fabric to fraying (The cut but unfinished pieces, having been through three dye attempts already, showed quite some fraying at that point). In the end the latter wasn’t that bad. After ironing all the pieces, I measured them on some of the traced pattern pieces and didn’t see a noticeable loss of fabric. I’m a slow sewist and a project such as this would ordinarily take me several sewing sessions, but I stress-sewed this entire thing in one day (yeah, I also have no idea how).

As said at the beginning of the post, I used the Hinterland dress pattern from Sew Liberated, which I used previously to make my cosy flannel dress. Details of this version are very similar. I did the partial button placket and made 3/4 sleeves. I used more lightweight fabric, and it is striking how much of a difference that makes in feel of this dress. The only difference I made from my previous version is to shorten the skirt, since I made this with the eye on spring and early summer weather. The length of my dress sits somewhere between the long and short length that the pattern provides.

I had a run-in accident with my serger after I had attached the bodice and skirt, making a small cut in the fabric. Reader, a few curses where uttered, but since it was close to the seam it was an easy fix. I do think that because of that incident my gathers are a bit more of a mess than they usually are. It doesn’t bother me too much, but I did notice it in the photos. Ah well, a bit messier but wearable still beats a project in the bin.

After all this -talk about long term project- I’m relieved to say that the dress is actually finished and that it has seen it’s first few wears already. The colour I ended up with is a bit more of and orange toned yellow than golden toned but perhaps that is being too nitpicky after the journey this things has been on. This is a colour and shade that I actually like and wear and that is, after all that effort, the most important thing.

I hope you enjoyed reading about whatever the lessons were this project was trying to teach me (patience? yellow sucks? “Don’t think you can ever just dye a piece of linen, you oaf”?). Let’s hope the next time I’m taken with an idea the project goes more smooth across the board. Can you imagine the opinions this dress must have of my sewing practise, having been through 4 intense dye sessions, stuffed in the WIP corner for over a year and then stress sewed in one session?!

Well, if anyone needs me I’m off pretending to be a honey dipped bee/daffodil in this dress until it’s threadbare. I feel that is the least I can do given all the resources thrown at this project to make it happen. See you next time I think I have smart idea. xxx

3 thoughts on “Linen Hinterland, or the dress that was and then wasn’t naturally dyed

  1. Two things may have prevented your fustic from taking well: scouring and a mordant (alum). There’s lots of impurities in fabrics that need a good washing out in simmering water with a bit of detergent and soda ash then rinsing well before mordanting. Fustic has lots of tannins but not enough to give good colour by itself on linen which is notoriously hard to dye with botanical dyes. Lovely colour you ended up with though! I’ve resorted to dumping a sad natural dye project in Procion myself on occasion!

    1. Hi Louisa, thanks for the advice!

      I previously only naturally dyed wool so, so although I knew it was supposed to be more difficult to obtain colour on plant based fibres, I think I was a bit underprepared for just ~how much~ harder it is. This was a lesson! I did use alum, but as I used about the same amount I use for the wool, I think I should have used significantly more. I’ll definitely take the scouring advise to heart!

      It is part of the learning process but when I try my hand at botanical dyes on linen again I will put more thought and effort in preparing the fabric to take the dye.

      1. Wool is so much easier to dye! I love it. However, I would use alum acetate for better results on cellulose fibres rather than regular potassium alum. Have you seen all the great info on https://naturaldyes.ca/ ? I’ve known the owner of Maiwa Handprints for nearly 30 years and Charllotte and her daughter Sophena definitely know their stuff! I’ve learned so much from them over the years but am still nowhere near an expert.

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