Aviary Denim is a fairly new endeavour for The Aviary Studio, started during the first 2020 lockdown. We are now making hand woven selvedge denim from scratch using only mill waste yarn, which we are dyeing with natural indigo in a non-toxic, plant based dye vat.
We are very much in the experimental stage, testing all the yarns and perfecting our dye techniques, but the aim for 2021 is to be offering meterage of 100% hand crafted denim, made in as sustainable a way as possible, by never using new yarn or virgin cotton, and never using toxic chemicals or synthetic dyes in the process.
Most denim these days is made with virgin cotton, and is dyed using synthetic indigo, using chemicals such as Lye and Sodium Hydrosulphite as the reduction agents - not to mention water usage during the finishing processes. With todays demand for denim - along with the rest of the fast fashion industry - the level of damage to the environment and its inhabitants is significant.
We have chosen to go back to basics, using only natural ingredients - we use organic henna and lime as our reduction agents, and natural indigo in our dye vat. Besides obvious environmental reasons, using natural ingredients makes the vat much safer for us to use, and to dispose of.
All the yarns we use in our denim are mill waste. Sometimes the yarn has already been dyed with indigo, like the blue cone in the image below, which is an old Den M Nit yarn, from an indigo yarn company who had a factory in Simonstown, near Blackburn. The factory closed down and its old stock was passed on to Fairfield Yarns, a fantastic source for surplus and redundant yarns.
We source a lot of our yarn from Fairfields and also directly from mills who are discontinuing lines, or throwing yarn away. Often when the yarn on the cone gets down to a certain level, it no longer works in the warping machinery, so it is discarded. The little that is left is plenty for a small scale weaving studio like us to use, so we buy all their end cones to use in our cloth.
The beauty of using waste yarn is that when its gone, its gone - we might not be able to get any more of the same, so each roll of denim is unique.
When one cone of waste yarn has run out, we move on to another, making a few meters of a slightly different denim quality.
Of course this is no good for mainstream brands - but we aren't about mass production, dye consistency, uniformity or perfection - for us the beauty is in the imperfections, the colour variants, the tell tale signs and scars that connect the cloth to its maker. Our denim is for small premium denim brands, for whom sustainability and craft are the main priority.
In the garment industry there is little tolerance for imperfections - every garment must be the same, every garment must pass the test. Machines have been developed to provide automated solutions for human error, creating regimented uniformity and consistency - no slubs in the yarn, no slight variations in colour, no evidence of a fixed warp thread or human touch. We choose instead to embrace all those things, and encourage an appreciation of craft and transparency.
We dip test each waste cotton in the vat before dyeing a full width warp. We'll document from one dip to ten dips in natural indigo, so that we know which shade we will achieve with a specific number of dips.
Sometimes we'll go for one dip, for a faded look denim, and sometimes we go for 5 or 6 dips to get a really intense dark hue.
Each yarn type dyes slightly differently too, depending on its twist, and on whether its been bleached or not prior to coming into our hands - so we don't try to control the shade too much.
We have been weaving our test warps on our old WeaveMaster looms, but for meterage we will be using our meter wide Louet, and our 80cm wide Toika floor loom. Traditional denim looms wove at 80cm width, so the Toika is perfect for it!
The WeaveMaster looms were originally made and used by war veterans for work and therapy after the war - these ones had been stored for decades in an attic in Surrey, so its lovely to give them purpose again.
Of course, usually the indigo is in the warp, not the weft, but for weaving up the dip tests we do it in the weft. That way, we don't need to make individual warps for each dip test.
This is a test for Ikat denim, for which we will make a full width warp once we have chosen which yarn quality works best, which shade of indigo, and how many dips.
We use off-cuts of our denim sampling warps to patch and repair jeans in the style of traditional Japanese Boro mending. We'll soon be giving workshops on Boro mending and Sashiko stitching, both in person and also online.
First the hole is roughly stitched up, then we tack patches on to the front and the back of the jean, wherever the hole is. After that we do a vertical running stitch, followed by a horizontal running stitch to create the Sashiko cross stitch.
We use mill waste cotton to weave the denim in the first place, and we also use waste cotton for the stitching, so that every part of the process is using up and recycling materials, and never buying them new.