Hello dear readers! I figured that it was about time that I do some straight up indigo shibori dyeing for you! I will walk you through setting up your indigo dye vat and doing a very simple shibori technique on a beautiful piece of fabric – with spectacular results (if I do say so myself). 🙂
But first, let’s chat a bit about indigo. Ah, indigo…sublime indigo. It’s such an amazing color! If you have ever toyed with the idea of dyeing with indigo, I say DO IT! Dharma Trading sells a kit for $8.49 that includes everything you need for one 5 gallon vat that will dye up to 15 yards of fabric. Ridiculous.
But I digress, back to indigo for a minute. Indigo is an ancient dye that has been in use for thousands of years. In fact, in September of 2016 Smithsonian.com reported:
Archaeologists recently uncovered several scraps of indigo-dyed fabric at the Huaca Prieta ceremonial mound in northern Peru. Believed to be about 6,200 years old, this find pushes back the date for the earliest known use of the dye by roughly 1,600 years, Cynthia Graber reports for Scientific American.
You can find a nice summary of the history and use of indigo on Design Sponge. Here are a few excerpts:
Indigo is a colorfast, plant-based dye that can come from a number of different plants, but it was primarily found in Indigofera, a tropical plant that was cultivated and became a staple agricultural crop. There are three steps to the traditional process of extracting the dye from the plant. First the leaves are fermented in a steeping vat. Then a liquid is extracted and oxidized, and from that, a blue solid forms in the bottom of the vat that is collected and dried. In the 19th century most indigo was made in British-run factories in India.
Indigo is different from all other natural dyes (apart from shellfish purple) in that it needs no mordant (a substance used to set dyes on fabrics); it is insoluble and is deposited on the fibers as microscopic particles without needing to form a chemical bond with them. The chemical properties of indigo dye remained baffling well into the 19th century. It was so mysterious and challenging to work with that, in many cultures, folklore arose around the dyeing process. In Bhutan, pregnant women were not allowed near the vat in case the unborn baby stole the blues, and women in Morocco believed the only way to deal with a particularly challenging vat was to start telling outrageous lies. All this trouble was worth the final result. Once dyed, indigo is so colorfast that it can last for centuries or even millennia.
I love the bit about outrageous lies and I love that the amazing history of indigo gives a context for dyeing with and wearing this glorious color.
Please note that the indigo I am using is what’s known as “pre-reduced indigo.” This means that the dye molecules have already been processed so that they are able to dissolve in water without the effort (and chemicals/yeast/or stale urine – seriously) that would otherwise be required. Indigo purists would probably take offense to the pre-reduced version, but this form has the distinct advantage of being incredibly fast and user friendly by comparison.
I had previously been under the impression that pre-reduced indigo crystals were naturally derived. However, I have learned that they are what is known as a “synthetic organic.” This is an organic compound that is synthesized in a lab and that is chemically identical to it’s natural counterpart.
- 5 gallon bucket (I got mine at Home Depot)
- 4 gallons of water
- Reuseable gloves
- Pre-reduced indigo crystals
- Thiox or Color Remover
- Soda Ash Fixer
- Stir stick
- Fabric – indigo works on cellulose or plant based fibers like cotton or linen and protein fibers like silk and wool. I’m using a silk and wool blend scarf/shawl from Dharma Trading.
- Mild detergent – I use Synthrapol
- Acrylic circle
- Rubber bands
- Various containers (see below)
Please be sure to work outside or in a well ventilated area. Also, please be mindful that indigo is a DYE and it will stain whatever you are working on or around, so take appropriate precautions. Wear gloves and don’t use any bowls or measuring cups from your kitchen! All tools should be dedicated to dyeing – so if this is not already the case, run to the dollar store and pick up a few bowls, cups, measuring spoons and containers.
1. Fill your five gallon bucket with four gallons of water. The water should be cool to the touch (between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 15-21 degrees Celsius).
As you can see, my bucket has been used many times for indigo dyeing. By adding chemicals and/or indigo you can actually keep a vat going for many months. My last indigo vat went for about a year! Here are directions for tending an indigo vat (scroll down to the bottom of the page).
If you are using the kit mentioned above, you don’t have to weigh or measure anything! Since I generally purchase my dye and chemicals in larger quantities, I will need to weigh it all out. If you don’t have a scale you can convert grams to tablespoons or cups online.
2. Weigh your Thiox (Color Remover) and add it to your bucket. The recipe I’m using calls for 160 grams.
3. Weigh your pre-reduced indigo crystals and add them to your bucket. The recipe I’m using calls for 50 grams. I wanted a really strong vat, so I’m using 100 grams. I have read that your fabric will be more colorfast if you use a “regular” (i.e. 50 gram) vat and dip your fabric multiple times to darken the color (rather than using a strong vat and fewer dips). So far, this hasn’t born out to be true for me. However, I have predominantly dyed scarves that are washed very infrequently. So perhaps this is more critical for garments that need to stand up to repeated washing?
4. Weigh out 240 grams of soda ash. Next, add a little hot water to your soda ash to help it dissolve (mine looks blue in the pic below because there was some indigo residue left in my jar). Your soda ash won’t dissolve completely but not to worry, your vat will be fine!
5. Time to stir the pot…or in this case, the vat (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!). Use a dowel or a large stir stick (I used a paint stir stick from Home Depot) to stir your dye. Stir it in a circle in one direction about 10 or 15 times and then slow down and go the other direction the same number of times. Before removing your stick, drag it along the outer edge of your bucket. This will bring the foam to the top. The foam is referred to as the “flower.” Underneath your flower, your mixture should be yellow-green in color.
6. Let your vat sit for a bit before using it. I prefer to let mine sit overnight but according to several sources you can use it 15-30 minutes after you are done adding everything. You will want to be certain that the dye is yellow-green in color under the flower. If it’s not, wait another 15-30 minutes and check again.
7. Time to prepare your fabric! I’m using a gorgeous silk and wool blend (63% silk and 37% wool) scarf/shawl from Dharma Trading. This fabric is super soft and warm but incredibly lightweight. It’s truly a beautiful fiber and it takes indigo dye extremely well. It’s very important that you always wash your fabric before dyeing it. Even fabric that is PFD (prepared for dye) may have “schmutz” on it that can affect your final result. I use Synthrapol to wash my fabric but any mild detergent will work. Simply give it a quick wash and wring it out before moving on to the next step.
8. Now it’s time for some shibori! My fabric is 36 x 80 inches so it required quite a bit of folding. First, I folded it in half widthwise. Next, I accordion folded it lengthwise. Finally, I accordion folded it until I had a neat little folded stack of fabric. This actually sounds much more complicated than it is. I Promise. The most challenging aspect in this case was the shear size of the fabric and the fact that the fabric was wet. But, wet fabric is KEY. You never want to put dry fabric into an indigo vat (or any dye bath for that matter) and you don’t want to wet the fabric after it’s folded because the folds interfere with the fabric’s ability to absorb water evenly.
If you have never done this before, you may want to practice with a piece of paper first. You can even dip your paper into your vat to get an idea of the pattern you will create with your folds! Here’s a diagram that should help you get the idea.
Here’s my little my stack of folded fabric…
9. Now it’s time to add a resist. I’m using two 4 3/4 inch acrylic discs that I got here. Apparently, these are intended for cake decorating, but they work great for this purpose and they are affordable. I had actually intended to use a 3 inch circle for this project, but I inadvertently ordered the bigger size, so I decided to go for it! I simply placed a disc on either side of my pile and I used rubber bands to secure it in both directions.
10. When you are ready to dye, you will first need to remove the “flower” from your vat. I scooped mine out with a plastic dollar store strainer and I put it in a plastic dollar store container (you must save your flower because you will put it right back onto your vat when you are done). Now grab another container so that you will have someplace to set your fabric bundle when it comes out of the dye. Did I mention the dollar store? 🙂
11. Grab hold of your fabric bundle with a gloved hand and give it a dunk in your vat. I held mine under for about a minute before pulling it out.
Okay, so the green leaves that look like they’re growing in and floating on my dye are actually just a reflection of the leaves that are growing up the fence behind my vat! So crazy!!!
12. Pull your bundle out and place it in a container of some sort. Let it sit for 20 minutes to oxidize. This is actually one of the coolest parts of this process. Your fabric will look green when it comes out of the dye bath and as it hits the air and begins to oxidize it will turn blue!
Unfortunately, my bundle has already oxidized a bit in this pic but you can still see some green on the right side. If you look carefully at the bottom you can also see the clouds above and the leaves on the fence behind my container reflected in the acrylic disc. 🙂 🙂 🙂
13. You will need to continue to dip your bundle until your reach the color you desire (bearing in mind that the fabric will look several shades darker when wet). Depending upon the strength of your vat, this could take four or more times. Since my vat is very strong, I only dipped my fabric two times. Be sure to allow your fabric to oxidize for 20 minutes between each dip.
14. When you have reached your desired shade of indigo and your bundle has finished oxidizing, it’s time to rinse. I like to keep my bundle intact and rinse it until the water has a very small amount of blue left in it before I open it up. I do this in order to prevent the indigo from dyeing the fabric that I want to keep white. After you have opened up your fabric, rinse it until your water runs clear. Giving your fabric another quick wash with detergent will also help to remove any excess dye. This can take a little while so try to be patient (says the incredibly inpatient woman).
By the way…opening up a shibori bundle is one of the greatest joys of this process. It really is like opening a present! You never know exactly what you’ll get, which is part of the beauty and mystery of dyeing.
15. Hang your fabric to dry and iron if necessary.
16. Put the lovely “flower” that you removed from your vat right back on top. This will help to seal your vat and keep oxygen out. This is important because too much oxygen will negatively affect your indigo vat. Next, stir your vat in the same back and forth circular manner described above and put the lid on.
Here’s my result! You might have thought that I would get a circle shaped pattern…but as you can see, it turned out to be more like a square or grid pattern. I’m sure that this was due to the fact that the circle shaped resist was large in relation to the size of my folded fabric and because I secured my stack with rubber bands (which made for a slightly looser hold).
If you are looking for a more distinct circle or square…here’s the secret. Once you have folded your fabric place your resist (acrylic/wood circle or square – or whatever) onto your fabric and clamp it tightly with a c-clamp. In the first example below, I added some rubber bands after I clamped on my shape. The next two scarves also employ clamp resist shibori (itajime) techniques and the last piece was dip dyed into my vat. A few of these babies are still available in my etsy shop.
If you have an questions or if you have dyed with pre-reduced indigo and you have something to add, please feel free to comment!
Last, but not least, as I mentioned previously, a properly tended indigo vat can last a very long time so this is by no means the end of your indigo journey! Even if you just buy the little kit that I mentioned you have lots of dyeing to do before your vat is exhausted. Also, setting up your vat really is the hardest part. Once that’s done it’s simply a matter of prepping your fabric, dipping/oxidising and then rinsing. Believe it or not this is actually WAY easier and less time intensive than many other types of dyeing. So have at it!