“let me die
from having being drunk on
indigo skies, my liver…
overflowing with stars.”
If you love the color blue as I do then indigo is your spirit of choice. As part of my dye studies I decided to get real with indigo and trace it to its authentic form. Every pair of blue jeans I have ever owned has been dyed with a synthetic version of true, blue indigo. The original indigo dye comes from a plant. The complex process of distilling the thrilling range of blue hues from its leaves has been around for thousands of years and was almost lost when less labor-intensive synthetic blue dye was created in about 1900.
Thanks to the excellent roster of classes at the Textile Center I had the opportunity last Saturday to study organic indigo with Annabella Sardelis, a textile designer who specializes in hand-dyed clothing and accessories made using natural indigo dye and a Japanese technique called shibori. Check out her lovely website Indigo and Snow.
The first big thing I learned was that, much like baking bread, creating a vat of indigo dye involves working with materials that are cultivated, processed, mixed and fermented. To learn just how indigo starts out I found a neat website that shows the growing and processing of indigo by Rowland and Chinami Ricketts on their farm in Indiana. Basically the leaves of the indigo plant are harvested, dried and composted for 100 days. Annabella starts with a packet of powdered natural indigo that she orders from Dharma Trading Company.*
Annabella demonstrated the method she uses to mix up a fermenting brew. Like bread, there are many recipes. She uses a pretty simple one from Michel Garcia, renowned dye chemist and botanist from Provence, France; it is called 123 Organic Sugar Vat. By the way, Garcia will be at the Textile Center in July to conduct workshops!
To start, we all popped on surgical masks masks to protect our lungs from airborne indigo powder (additional precautions included removing water bottles and lunch bags from the room and switching on the ventilation fan. Annabella also wore rubber gloves). Otherwise the process is non-toxic. We wore gloves to protect our hands from getting stained.
To create the indigo “mother,” Annabella emptied the indigo powder packets (four ounces total) into a two-quart jar. She then slowly added two cups of water heated to 120 degrees, stirring until the indigo was dissolved. She used a thermometer throughout this tricky process.
- Then she added 12 ounces (weighed on a scale) of fructose crystals to act as the oxygen reducer. Interesting side note, Annabella mentioned that some people use bananas, pears, figs or other fruits.
- Last, she gradually added 8 ounces of Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime to act as the base. This thickens the mother quite a bit. Stirring with a wooden spoon felt like mixing dark cement. Mixing must be done very gently so as not to churn it and introduce oxygen, remembering that to get a good bond between dye and fabric the key is to keep oxygen out of the mix.
- Annabella finished off by adding more hot water (at 95 degrees) to fill the jar and then she screwed the lid on. It would sit for more than an hour to get the chemical reaction going.
We then turned our focus to shibori, an ancient Japanese technique of creating patterns on dyed fabric using resist techniques such as folding, clamping, tying, etc. She had a canvas tote for each class participant to dye plus we brought additional items from home. I brought a couple of pillow cases, old cloth bags and a linen blouse. These had been put in water when we first arrived to make sure they were well “wetted-out” and ready to take the dye.
I tried out a shibori technique called arashi, by winding my tote around a PVC pipe and binding it with twine and scrunching it to create creases. There are many other types of shibori. Annabella showed us her beautiful book Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing by Yoshiko Wada, Mary Kellogg Rice and Jane Barton for some ideas.
Everyone tried out different things. The table was covered with a variety of bits and bobs for resist such as clothespins, clamps, marbles, poker chips, pieces of wood, twine, rubber bands, etc. I had no idea what to expect in the end which gave me a sense of freedom to experiment.
Once we had our pieces composed for the dye vat we took a look at the mother fermenting in the jar. By now it was supposed to have settled showing the characteristic demarcation of sludge on the bottom topped by a yellowish green liquid. Ours looked mostly dark brown which Annabella said is also fine. We set that aside again to work with a vat she had already prepared.
The six-gallon vat was set on the floor and we sat on overturned buckets so that we could immerse our items carefully one at a time and sit there with our hands in the dye for ten minutes. It was important to slide the item into the vat smoothly so as not to churn or aerate the dye. While immersed, we used our gloved hands under the surface of the liquid to open the loose folds of our items and gently move them so that they got exposed to dye as evenly as possible. Annabella explained that indigo is a large molecule (chemically speaking) and needs the encouragement of gentle manipulation to get it into the fabric.
It is ideal to dip each item at least five times. Annabella recommends: ten-, seven-, five- and two bouts of three-minute dips. We did not have time to do more than three dips for the six or so items we each had. Such is the wabi sabi (imperfect) nature of indigo dying. There are many variables: the vat, the fabric, the number of dips and more. You can see in my results that the final blue is a sky blue. More dips may have deepened the hue to the dark navy end of the indigo spectrum.
We sat and dyed each item as prescribed and then, when time was up, quickly immersed the item in a bucket of clean cold water and then holding it over a drip basin watched for the magic. At first the dyed cloth was a dull turquoise color. It took only seconds of exposure to the air for it to begin to turn blue. We peeled apart fabric layers with our fingers to encourage the oxidation in every little fold. We had to wait a minimum of 20 minutes between dips.
Half way through the six hour day we watched as Annabella prepared the second vat with the mother she had mixed up in the morning. A six-gallon non-reactive dye pot, two thirds full of water heated to about 95 degrees, sat on a large hot plate. She very carefully tipped the two-quart jar of the mother into the water, scraping out the sludge at the bottom. She stirred slowly, careful not to agitate it any way to introduce air. About 30 minutes later we checked the color of the vat. It was somewhat brownish-green with a coppery, iridescent scum on top. That is called the flower. When the flower looks good, the vat is “happy” and ready to use for dying.
Before we used the new vat, Annabella carefully skimmed about half of the flower off the vat’s surface, setting it aside to seal up the vat at the end of the session. She explained that the vat can be kept for a long time, months maybe, but it will occasionally need replenishing by stirring in a new batch of the mother.
I asked about disposing of the dye and Annabella said that she tosses the spent dye out on her flower garden (not the veggies). It is also safe to dispose down the drain after modifying the mixture’s pH by adding a half cup of vinegar.
- We were sent home with our unfolded and damp items which required further processing. I hung them on a drying rack overnight to help cure them.
- The next morning I gave them all a 15-minute soak in vinegar water to help remove excess dye. (Half cup of vinegar to a gallon of water)
- I then rinsed the items in cool water until the water ran almost clear (three to six times).
- I hand washed the items in a bucket filled with hot water and a capful of Synthrapol (pH neutral detergent). With my gloves on–because there was still a lot of dye coming out–I gently agitated the items for ten minutes.
- I rinsed them all out in cool water several more times.
- For good measure I ran them through a cold water, gentle cycle on the washing machine. Annabella cautioned that the color would be stable but she would not wash a pair of white pants with indigo dyed items. Also keep them off the clothes line, indigo will fade out in the sun.
Once my fabric pieces were dry, I ironed them and admired the intricate light and shadow effects of the dye, the wonderful surprises of the shibori methods–the twine lines that suggest ripples on water, the wrinkles and bunches that resisted the dye making shapes like clouds against a densely blue sky. My pillow case came out like a piece of origami paper unfolded. I have a new fascination and respect for indigo dye. It’s the stuff of treasure.
*Correction: the original blog post incorrectly stated that Annabella uses pre-reduced indigo. She uses natural indigo which is a big difference. My apologies for the mistake.