Friday, July 29, 2011

The Indigo Weekend

block printing on cotton

Zoe brings out her block printing samples at orientation

we had a beautiful weekend to dye outdoors

samples drying on the line

materials for the block printing portion of class

Zoe discusses the methods we'll work with

Mary applying rice resist paste with a cone bag

resist samples drying 

Kate demonstrating the use of the urine vat

Tricia and Marjory working the urine vat

Marjory's urine vat pieces drying

Mary's silk shibori sampler dyed in the copperas vat 

Zoe setting up samples for discharge 

fermentation vat samples drying on the line

Zoe after two days

We had a really fun weekend at the Indigo Dye Intensive. The class was full; Marjory and Mary came from the local Vermont area, Eleanor was here from southern New Hampshire, and Tricia came up from western Massachusetts. In addition, we had two visitors from Winterthur in Delaware who were here to work with Kate and Zoe to see if they could figure out an historic recipe for indigo discharge dyeing.

Saturday morning we were crazybusy getting the vats going, getting everyone squared away with the fabric and yarn samples that each of us was responsible for dyeing in one of the seven different indigo vats, and scouring all the fabric and yarn.

After a lovely summer potluck lunch out at the picnic table, we dyed samples in three different modern chemical vats:

Lye Hydrosulfite, which uses lye as the alkalizer and thioureadioxide as the reducer.
It works particularly well with wool fibers, and will dye silk, cotton, and linen as well, just not as readily.

Copperas, which uses lime as the alkalizer and ferrous sulfate as the reducing agent.
It's primarily well-suited to dyeing cotton and linen (and silk), but since it's extremely alkaline is much less kind to wool.

Zinc-Lime, which uses lime as the alkaline and zinc as the reducer.
It's most commonly used for cotton and linen, although it dyes a softer more grey-blue than the copperas or thiox vats.

Then Zoe presented the segment on resist dyeing; rice resist paste piped onto cloth using a simple plastic cone bag, water-based glue applied directly from the bottle, and using a copperas resist paste on antique wooden blocks to print fabric with. Everyone spent time making samples of each so that they'd have an overnight to dry before dyeing the following day.

After a cake and raw milk break at mid afternoon, I introduced several basic, classic shibori ties and stitch patterns and we spent the remainder of the afternoon preparing samples of each of these to be dyed on Sunday.

Sunday morning Kate gave a talk about the four different traditional fermentation vats she had previously prepared:

The Urine Vat, which uses fermenting stale urine to provide the microbial action which reduces the vat and produces ammonia as a by-product, which is the alkalizing agent. It is very gentle on wool, as its alkalinity is relatively mild, and one can readily produce very subtle and deep shades of indigo.

The Artificial Sig Vat, which by-passes the use of urine entirely, and relies on household ammonia and/or urea to provide alkalinity, and naturally airborne yeasts or bacteria or commercial yeast to ferment the vat and reduce it, fed with the sugars from molasses, madder, bran, sugar, or dates.

The Appalachian Vat, which uses drip lye from wood ashes for its alkalinity, and madder root or bran to kick start the fermentation process from airborne microbes.

The Saxon Vat, which uses a raw, unscoured fleece soaked in water in a warm place to start a fermentation process. Sugars can be added to accelerate the reduction of the indigo.

All of these vats can dye any natural fibers, but they are generally best suited to dyeing wool, as they tend to be weaker and less alkaline than the chemical indigo vats. As they all need the action of microbes feeding on sugars to induce the reduction of indigo, they must be warm to work well, so generally, setting up fermentation vats outdoors during summer's heat where the ventilation is generally better is a more congenial arrangement. Fermentation vats also require a fair amount of regular tending and attention to be at their best, so they are not a great vat to use unless one wants to develop an ongoing and slow relationship with understanding the chemistry and the signs present in the vat. They are commonly used in indigenous cultures where the pace of everyday life is more suited to this sort of ongoing process, and more suited to the availability of these simple, natural materials to produce fine indigo blue.

The rest of the day was devoted to everyone being able to dye as much of their own samples and piece goods as they liked, and to experiment with all seven of the vats. Late in the afternoon, we assembled sample books for each participant to take home, a record of the recipes for each vat as well as bits of yarn and cloth dyed in all these different ways.

It was a pretty jam-packed two days, during which the solution to the discharge dye conundrum was not found, but much inspiration and discovery abounded, and everyone had blue hands to boot!

(and we won't say anything about what happened to Zoe's underarms.)


  1. JEALOUS!!!! :-D I hope you'll do this class again next summer.

  2. hi barb! we'll definitely do the indigo class again next year, expanded and deepened, of course, by another year's worth of research and experimentation. and we can add a fresh vat of polyganum tinctoria to the mix, as kate had great luck growing it this summer. such fun!

  3. For Appalachian Vat, do you have to use Madder roots or madder powder will also do the same job?