The navy lark

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In this house, blue is the new black.

Navy clothesNavy is fast becoming one of the dominant colours in my wardrobe and also in my house. It’s been a long time coming.

For years, although I liked the colour in principle, I couldn’t bring myself to wear it or have it around me, because it was my school uniform colour. Educators, I suspect, little realise what damage they do by putting kids into useful colours like navy, black or grey. Why couldn’t they all pick screaming royal purple with gold and pale blue stripes, like the old Stratford Grammar School for Girls uniform, and have done with it?

But I digress. 

Here in the countryside, wearing black often seems out of place (too citified), and green, khaki and brown are more popular colours. But green is a difficult colour to pull off, and khaki and brown can seem horribly dreary. For me, a good, dark Barbour-style khaki works fine, and a bitter chocolate brown, as dark as you can get, but other than that, these are colours I am wary of. 

However, I realised some time ago that little by little, things in the house have been turning navy. Partly this is to disguise dirt: our original blue was a lovely duck-egg shade, but a dog and five cats soon make a mess of that, and my duck-egg blue sofa covers don’t stay clean for more than a few days.

But partly it’s because it’s simply that it’s an easier dye colour than black because with weak navy, you get blue, but with weak black, you get a nasty shade of shit brown.

I am a huge fan of dyeing things (see pic above – shot in bright light. These blues are actually darker in real life): it gives you a complete new item for very little cost, and adds at least a year of life to stained, slightly worn or ‘tired’- looking garments or household linens.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve used navy dye for the sofa and armchair covers, our dingy towels, some pillowcases, and overdyed my faded jeans. I’ve also done batches of t-shirts, and although I’ve also tried other colours, I realised I kept coming back to navy simply because it gives the best results. 

Last week, I went all out and dyed three batches of things, with the aim of giving me as many outfits as possible. They include a cotton float dress from Orvis (where the polyester thread hasn’t taken the colour, leaving a decorative effect); my blue striped djellaba, which was looking shabby; more towels and pillowcases; a favourite white chiffon top that had picked up a coffee-coloured stain; a linen blouse with drawn threadwork (below, top), old pyjamas, several t-shirts, a striped cotton shirt and a tiered peasant skirt.

shades of navyUndoubtedly you get the best results by only having one thing in the dyebath, but this works out quite expensive and is only worth it if you’ve damaged an expensive item, as I did with my float dress, which cost £65 and which I ruined the first time I wore it.  I have dyed as many as eight items, but this does result in a weaker colour, and I’ve found that three to five items gives about the best balance of results vs value for money. It is also useful if you think in terms of outfits and dye several items together that can then form the basis of a capsule wardrobe. If you want a really dark colour, consider dyeing in brown, burgundy or dark green first, then overdye to get the darkest of all navies, as I did with this viscose chiffon blouse (left, below). 

The costs involved are about 10 euros for a packet of Dylon dye, peanuts for a bag of salt, and several washes on hot (one pre-wash, one dye wash and one rinse wash to get the dye out – the packet says 60 degrees but I wash on 95 degrees). There is also, in theory, a fourth wash with bleach to clean the drum, but I don’t do this – I just follow the dye wash with a couple of ‘darks’ washes, which cleans the machine adequately. 

I also don’t wash items immediately after dyeing. I take them out of the machine, air dry them on a rack (remember, if you dry your clothes outside, to always dry blues in the shade because the colour is fugitive), then put them away for a week or two to allow the colour to set. Only then do I put them through the machine again, on 30 degrees, to get rid of any dye particles that might cause skin irritation.

dyed vestIf you’re unused to dyeing, you should be aware that machine dyes only work well on cellulose fibres – cotton, linen, viscose, hemp, ramie etc. Machine dyes aren’t generally recommended for protein fibres such as wool or silk, and synthetics won’t pick up the dye, so if your garment has, say, 5 per cent lycra, the colour will be slightly weaker. Also, most stitching is done in polycotton, so it will show up as a contrast. This works just fine on casual garments such as t-shirts or jeans but can look terrible on more formal garments. You can also use it to your advantage, as in this vest, left, where you can clearly see how strongly the cotton jersey has picked up the colour in contrast with the polycotton lace insert.

Next shirt 1Next shirt dyed

Textures will show up far more in the finished article, so you get the best results from dyeing slubby cottons, damasks, voiles, etc, rather than flat fabrics such as jersey.  

You can overdye patterned fabrics with good results, such as this shirt, shown here in its new form and its former black, pink and white colourway. I loved it like this but never wore it because it didn’t go with anything else I owned. You can see how the white stripes have turned mid-blue, the pink stripes have turned purple and the purple stripes have turned a dark indigo.


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