The Modern Natural Dyer Work-Along: Iron Age Tank and Gilded Cardigan

When I began to write The Modern Natural Dyer, I could not wait to somehow incorporate the work of Alabama Chanin. I received the opportunity to meet Natalie Chanin, the founder, about four years ago, and quickly responded to the beauty of her designs and set out to create an Alabama Chanin-inspired wardrobe.

Alabama Chanin was founded on the act of hand-sewing cotton jersey fabric into garments and home goods. Natalie has published four books teaching the techniques she uses to create her line of garments and goods, so that those of us who prefer to create our garments and goods can follow in her footsteps. One of the things I admire about Natalie's business is her dedication to creating local employment. About two years ago, Natalie launched A.Chanin, a series of simple and wearable garments machine-sewn Alabama-based facility out of the same organic cotton jersey used in the rest of her line. This is yet another avenue within Alabama Chanin which cultivates employment, and due to the speed of the machines, provides a lower price point then the hand-sewn garments, allowing another avenue to support the work and efforts of Alabama Chanin.

When I first considered how to include the work of Alabama Chanin in the Modern Natural Dyer, what first came to mind, was dyeing fabric, then using her patterns to sew a garment. Though, on second thought, I imagined it would be fun to support the A.Chanin line, as it is the new kid on the block, and also because the garments are pre-sewn, so the focus could be on the dyeing. That said, I still think it would be great fun to naturally dye your own fabric and hand-sew and stencil an Alabama Chanin garment. 

So once I established I would use the A.Chanin pieces, came the planning of the project. The Iron Age Tank and Gilded Cardigan is the sister project to The Wanderlust Bag. Both projects guide you towards looking closely at the shade card and to recognize that there are colors missing, like one of the world's most beloved color, green, and to start thinking creatively about how to make them. Though we use plants to dye, and plants are green, a single plant rarely gives green dye. Whereas the Wanderlust Bag project uses a combination of any yellow dye and logwood to achieve green, logwood fades quickly on cellulose-based fibers. So instead of using logwood, to get green, create and use a bath of iron-infused water.  If green doesn't float your boat, or maybe it does, but you want to explore other options, here are a few examples of how iron affects color. From top to bottom, this is Alabama Chanin jersey dyed with cochineal, madder, quebracho red, pomegrante, and weld. The second column is each of these dipped in iron-infused water. For the third column, I applied a slight twist or pinch to the fabric to create a slight pattern...more on that in the next section.

 So let's look a little closer at the ways I pinched and twisted the fabric.

And the patterns created after these fabric samples were dipped into iron. Unfortunately, color is tricky to capture. The pink sample in real life looks a bit more like the peach sample located just below.

Though I dyed the fabric, manipulated the fabric, and then dipped it into iron, another idea is to try to create irregularites in the dyebath, like I did with this madder red sample. Then, when I dipped it into iron, the iron water exacerbated those imperfections, making what I think is a really pretty, complex, and mottled fabric.

Tips and tricks to completing this project:

1. Cotton and cellulose-based fibers are fun to work with because you don't have to worry about felting.

2. Cotton jersey is more porous than wovens made of cotton. Cotton jersey needs less dye to achieve saturated colors.

3. I prefer to use wheat bran instead of chalk. I have found that chalk creates more streaking along the fabric and the chalk can change the texture of the fabric, making it slightly brittle, whereas the wheat bran is more nourishing.

4. There is a learning curve to achieving a solid, uniform color on cellulose-based fibers. If you are interested in achieving a solid color: purchase a larger pot so the garment can float easily in the pot. If the garment is scrunched into too small of a pot, those lines will show up on the dyed garment. Heat the dyebath until steamy, and then add the fabric. Keep the garment submerged under water throughout the dyeing process. You might have to stand there and keep poking any parts that stick out of the dyebath back under. Any parts of the garment that poke out of the dyebath during the dyebath will be a different color than the rest of the garment. Rotate the garment often during the dyeing process, every 5-10 minutes.

5. Accept imperfection. A hand-dyed, naturally-dyed garment is bound to have bit of imperfection and this is what makes it uniquely yours and lovely! You might encounter splotches or irregularities in color. Totally ok!

6. Invite "imperfection". Knowing there is a learning curve to dyeing fabric a single solid color, or desiring pattern, you can purposefully mar your work. Just like I showed you in the photos above. And this is where the work of Alabama Chanin can lend a hand. Commonly, Alabama Chanin garments are made from two layers of cotton jersey. First, the garment is cut from the material, then, the fabric which will be the top layer of the garment is stenciled, the two pieces of fabric are layered on top of one another, and then the two fabrics are stitched together, the stitches following the stenciled shapes. The center of the stenciled shapes are cut away, revealing the second layer of fabric. You can apply this process to your Iron Age Tank and Gilded Cardigan in any number of ways. You could stencil your pieces. Add embroidery or a bit of applique. Natalie's books and journal provide tremendous inspiration.

For those of you who have purchased the Phase 1 Kit of The Modern Natural Dyer Work-Along (its never too late to join us!), we included 1/4 yard of Alabama Chanin jersey. This piece of jersey could be used as a swatch to test out the process of natural dyeing cotton jersey fabric, and it could also be used to create a reverse appliqued or appliqued piece upon your Iron Age Tank and Gilded Cardigan.

Happy Dyeing!


It's Alabama Chanin April at Verb! I hope you will join us to dye and sew your own Alabama Chanin-inspired garments!

Come to The Modern Natural Dyer Meet-Up, Saturday, April 23 - and show off what you have been making - or perhaps you're curious - all are welcome.

Announcing The Modern Natural Dyer Phase 2 Kit! This Summer, we will be working on indigo + grown and gathered dyestuffs. Join us!