Photo by Christian Petersen

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Repurposed garments, dyed by hand

“I really like the idea of giving old things a new lease of life, and hand-dying makes everything completely unique,” says Isvald Klingels while sifting through a stack of garments she’s about to list on her new online shop. The array of colors seems infinite, if subtly so—from brightest royal to faded periwinkle, with a few gradients of emerald and pink. But it’s all very blue.

Klingels—her first name is the old German version of Isolde; her friends call her Izzie—is quick to declare herself obsessive. Her drawings are made of a thousand points of ink meticulously laid down on paper over the course of weeks, sometimes months—and the same attention is applied to her eclectic fashion sense. Her promiscuous love of textiles, patterns and traditional garments from the far corners of the world (Klingels grew up in London) led to her recent sartorial obsession: indigo.

One of the oldest dyes in the world originally extracted from various tropical plants, indigo has been used extensively for thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans used it, and a recipe for indigo dying is etched into a Mesopotamian tablet nearly 3,000 years old. Of course, it’s also the color of blue jeans. When Klingels started “messing around” with indigo last summer, her dip-dyed shirts turned heads, including the owners of Capitol Hill’s NuBe Green, who asked her to start a line of hand-dyed indigo scarves for them.

Dyeing has since bloomed into a business. The label—“Isvald”—offers a variety of one-off, repurposed indigo garments, mostly linen, silk or cotton pieces, from summer dresses to overalls. After Klingels selects the garments from thrift stores, each piece gets an individual treatment, tied with twine, pleated and stitched shut with thread, or pinched with small wooden clamps. Klingels’ penchant for pattern is alchemical.

The dyeing itself takes place in her bucolic backyard in the Central District, a large lawn flooded with sun and romantically overrun by leafy trees and bunches of golden dandelions. Under the shade of an awning in early June, Klingels fills a black, speckled dye kettle with warm water and synthetic indigo crystals. As the chemical steeps, the dye bath turns shimmering iridescent purple and green.

“It’s such a multi-dimensional dye,” she says, gathering her packets of knotted and tied cloth, “with luminance and depth that you don’t find with other dyes.”

Klingels submerges one of the wrapped bundles into the bath, gently stirring for under a minute. (Some garments require up to three dips to achieve the desired color or pattern.) She removes it, cuts the twine and reveals a shirt speckled with a grid of small, white lozenge shapes connected with a delicate web of almost invisible striations. Surprisingly, it’s not blue at all, but yellow-green.

“The indigo doesn’t show until the fabric is oxidized,” she explains, “so there’s a kind of magical development and uncertainty that happens, like shooting on film.”

As the minutes pass, the color gradually shifts, melting from garish green to that unmistakable deep blue. Each garment she pulls from the bath is unfolded with a sense of wonder.

“My style is loose and experimental,” she says. “You stitch or tie a design and you don’t really know how it will look exactly until you untie it. I’m learning as I go and I’m really enjoying myself. I think that adds something to the finished pieces that people really respond to.”

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Also available at NuBe Green (1527 10th Ave.)