Our clothes get old, bleed and might be smelly too.

Our clothes get old, bleed and might be smelly too.

by Saeed Al-Rubeyi

I know the title is a little bit much, but there’s something we’ve been wanting to talk about for a while. 

We’re at a place now where a lot more people are discovering us than we have time to chat to personally. Lots of people are ordering Story online or picking it up in stores because they like the look but don’t necessarily know what we’re about. We do our best to explain this to buyers (and councel them that some items will need explaining), but we still occasionally get emails that say things like:

“The black jacket I bought from you has rubbed colour on my crisp white shirt!”

“My legs are blue your product is defective”

“The fabric is much more textured than I could tell from the photo. Can you send a replacement?”

“The colour is a little different to pictures I’ve seen - I think I have a wrong item?”

With that in mind we wanted to write a piece outlining our practices, how we approach our products and what you can expect of them.

You can read our full manifesto here, but in short, our mission statement in large part is to explore what it means to make natural clothes. We use natural fibres and dye them with natural dyes then send them off into the world to be their natural selves. Almost all our clothing is made of 100% plant material (and we’re working on the rest, or using other materials that provide some kind of sustainable solution - we don't hate plastic we just don’t think it’s being used very cleverly).

The way we make things is much closer to wine making than manufacturing clothes. We design things with a look and feel in mind, but how they ultimately turn out is completely down to the soil, the plant, the weather that year and even little changes like humidity and acidity.

Plant-made things are, by their very nature, impermanent and changing. A testament to this is how few items of clothing we have from our recent human history - they’ve long since become worm food. Plant dyes are much the same - they are colours extracted from plants or the earth - not lab-made-super-chemicals designed to stain something forever. If you buy story mfg you’re buying an organic, biodynamic banana - not a hermetically sealed, processed and polished Twinkie (though, even a Twinkie is more natural than most clothing being made today).

Our aim has never been to make clothes that look brand new or stay fresh as a daisy forever. We love how clothes change over time and show signs of wear, tear, repair and love. In the last few decades industry has warped our perception of what is normal - that 100% polyester jacket your mate has will likely look exactly the same in 100 years - and that's actually pretty weird if you think about it. 

Ageing is normal, it's beautiful and part of the appeal for us as designers. There’s an architectural concept called Ruinenwert (English would be “Ruin Value”) we think of often when designing. It is the practice of creating a building to leave pleasing-looking ruins when it comes to the end of its life. With that in mind, you’ll find at the end of this piece some lovely photos submitted by users of their well-worn “ruined” pieces - but before that, I want to answer some of the more direct questions:

Why does it rub? Why is it fading / changing colour?

Our indigo bleeds onto your hands and clothes when it's new, and it even has a little bit of a smell from the dye process. This is normal, it's natural. So does our black, red and sometimes brown.

Natural dyeing is very different from synthetic dyeing. We don't use any harsh chemicals, and depending on the chosen colour, the fibres might be fermented, boiled, painted or printed on with completely natural ingredients. Unlike synthetic dyes, which are designed to bond and never let go, natural dyes create strong but not permanent friendships with fabric and yarns. To us, this is part of the appeal, because how the dye changes are completely down to the wearer.

Some dyes and dye methods create clothing that bleeds less. Items that are yarn-dyed (like our denim) or tie-dyed are much less prone to rub off. Garment or fabric dyed items are usually very saturated with colour so can leave the most residue - but this only lasts for the first few wears.

How strong colour will stick is called ‘fastness’, and there are three main types - lightfast (how much it fades when exposed to sunlight), washfast (how much it fades in the wash) and rubfast (how much it faded with wear). All of these, to us, are interesting ways things can change (in fact, some natural dyes don't fade at all but actually ‘tan’ like humans, becoming darker).

We can’t change this and rub-off/wash out is to be expected with all of our dyed garments, but if you’re sensitive to these types of things then our advice would be to wear your new item with other dark clothing for the first few wears. 

The good news is that these natural dyes have long been used, not only to dye clothes, but also as skin treatments in Ayurvedic medicinal culture (and many others), so you might find wearing these items agree with you positively.

In terms of washing your clothing - we suggest hand washing (because the fast cycle of machines can leave permanent streaking) and using pH-neutral soap (many natural dyes are sensitive to pH and will lighten/darken or even change colour if exposed to certain ranges - although this sensitivity appears to lessen over time). 

For what its worth I wash my story clothing mostly in the washing machine because I don't mind fade, wear, streaking or any kind of change - but that our care instructions are there for those who do (and I don't blame you if you like things consistent and you've spent a lot of money it makes sense to be cautious)

What’s that smell?

Natural dyes can have a smell for the same reason coffee, cheese, chocolate, beer, and flowers do - because they are natural and born out of natural processes. The indigo smell comes largely from the bacterial fermentation process.

When we started out I would find myself telling people about the natural indigo process for literally hours (Katy said she saw ‘the light go out’ in a lot of peoples eyes). I’d talk through the cultivation, the extraction, the dye and drying process - usually to people who would lose interest somewhere along the way. I was SO excited to talk about it with someone who had some experience with natural dyes, and when I finally got the chance I witnessed something which seemed odd at the time. The moment I mentioned the natural indigo dye process the chap grabbed a fistful of fabric, buried his face in it and took a deep sniff before looking me in the eye and nodding his approval.

I was a bit confused at the time, but I’ve since picked up the same (quite creepy) habit when inspecting textiles. It’s not very scientific, but its a helpful start to figure out if they really are what they say they are (you really can tell if something has been fermented). The chap trying to catch a stink on our jacket was looking for that evidence of nature - that wild element people search for in cheese, in beer, in music.

We have begun adding a little natural lemongrass extract into the final bath of our indigo-dyed items to take the edge off, but the fermenty smell still remains. My favourite of the smells is the rust dyed items which smell a little like keys.

How come my stuff looks different to photos/other store’s stuff?

How things turn out from piece to piece is, again, really quite a lot like making wine or cheese. Changes in soil or pH have a big impact on the final product and we absolutely embrace that. We do our best to keep a high level of consistency between production products and the original samples (often dyeing things many times to get the shades to match) but we refuse to waste fabric just because it isn’t even-toned.

We love evidence of handiwork, so our products are often quite textured - it’s one of the things we really feel is missing out there in the world.

I have a feeling we’ll revisit this as we grow and need a place to answer more questions about the products, but for now, enjoy some lovely user-submitted photos of well-loved gear (we had quite a lot of submissions so we had to make an edit!).