Ampersand Radio: Dyeing to save the planet

Visible mending and dye baths movements are taking root in Los Angeles.

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Our love of fashion is weighing heavily on the planet. Americans each throw away an average of 70 pounds of clothing a year. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a global movement to change this. To embrace reuse and repair our clothes. Can a person, store or event make a dent in this global issue? Sofia Fernandez spoke with practitioners of the movement to find out.


The streets leading to Suay Sew Shop are short and narrow. Suay is a retail store that upcycles discarded clothing and hosts community dye baths, where anyone can give new life to that once white, now yellow t-shirt.

This is the Elysian Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles that’s known as Frogtown.

Suay’s parking lot is by a dead end street against the LA River. The storefront has two entrances: one for the retail store where they sell upcycled home furnishings and clothes. The other door is for repairs, alterations and the sew shop.

REBECCA BLAKE THOMPSON: We are, you know, very much operating, um, in a way that invites and welcomes and encourages the local community to participate.

Rebecca Blake Thompson is Suay’s director of development.

THOMPSON: We strongly believe that we can create models that could then be implemented by communities all over the world.

One of the neighbors who comes to Suay is Nicole P. who’d rather dye her clothes here than at home.

NICOLE P.: I don’t want to do it in my bathroom. So I was like, this will be easy. And it’ll bring new life to some of the stuff I have.

The shop features a few different colors for dyeing each month. Cindy Villaseñor, known as Cero Waste Cindy, oversees the intake of clothes for repairs and dye baths on Saturdays.

CINDY VILLASEÑOR: We have Baltic blue right there, we have forest green right there, and then we have lavender.

Villaseñor sits behind a simple wood table with a scale for weighing and pricing out clothing that customers bring in.

The dyes look different on the fabric swatches in person than they did online. The lavender is prettier than expected, not a retirement home purple.

Villaseñor methodically records information about the clothes. She assigns them to their color selections and bundles them in plastic bags.

VILLASEÑOR: I put them in here just so keep them contained for now. And then our head of repair usually goes through each one, takes pictures of it, uh, with a ticket number. So like that we have an actual description of it. It does all go together and then they’ll go into a bin of what color you chose and then it ends up going to the dye bath.

The cataloguing process can take a long time but no one seems to mind. Nicole picks up the clothes that she dropped off at the last dye bath and can’t wait to see how they turned out.

NICOLE P.: I love it. It looks amazing. All right. Awesome.

SOFIA FERNANDEZ: What color was that before?

NICOLE P.: White. This was like a light pink and that looks cool. It was like kind of a  whitewashed out pink and now it’s really cute. And this was white. And that was supposed to be yellow, but now it’s sort of off white. Okay. All right. Cool. All right.

VILLASEÑOR: You are all set then.

NICOLE P.: Thank you very much.

VILLASEÑOR: Thank you.

Dyeing clothes isn’t a new phenomenon. But after what we’ve all been through these past years, the time seems right for renewal. The dye bath doesn’t know your politics. It doesn’t care about social media followers or income or trends. Its purpose is transformation.

Visible mending, the art of creating something new through repair, follows a similar philosophy. The stitch is the story. It invites conversation. It heals ruptures.

HAVEN LIN-KIRK: I don’t think it’s a trend, I think it’s going to become a necessity.

Haven Lin-Kirk, Dean of USC’s Roski School of Art and Design, is shepherding a mending and sewing workshop series here on campus. When we met, she was wearing a sweater with two patches of visible stitching.

LIN-KIRK: When you talk about something that is precious to you, that is an object. Oftentimes it’s something that, you know, it has either some personal connection, like it belonged to, you know, your mom or your dad or your grandmother, or somebody gave it to you.

You won’t get the same energy from the latest throwaway blouse at the mall.

LIN-KIRK: The new products that we buy, they don’t have that personal attachment. And so I do think that part of what’s happening right now, you know, whatever you want to call it, this make men it’s not just recycling any longer and repurposing any longer is it’s kind of holding onto the things that we really do value.

Consumption is the corporate American way. But individual decisions are powerful too. Suay’s Rebecca Blake Thompson says it starts with each of us.

THOMPSON: We as consumers have the power to say, I can work with what I got. I can take responsibility for what I already have. I can mend the items I have, and I can feel good that, that, that is important. And that is doing something good. I can take responsibility for my choices, responsibility for my consumption.

Suay regular Nicole is opting in to the movement.

NICOLE P.: I want to minimize my impact as much as possible.

Nicole is doing her part to offset the continual churn of fast fashion and its overwhelming waste.

NICOLE P.: I’m not participating in it. And I don’t want to participate in things that are like, you know, detrimental to the earth.

Revitalizing garments is about much more than the clothes we wear, it gets to the heart of who we are and our core values.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting us, author and poet Sonya Renee Taylor reminds us “we should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

Visit USC’s Visions and Voices website to learn more about the Roski School’s mending and dyeing workshops. The next event is Dec. 6 at the USC Fisher museum courtyard.