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The Organic Indigo Vat

For more than three thousand years people from many cultures all over the world have used indigo to color fabrics in vivid shades of blue. Its roots can be traced to India, and indigo became extremely valuable  as a result of the African slave trade. In the book Indigo, Catherine McKinley states that in Africa, indigo “was used literally as a currency. They were trading one length of cloth in exchange for one body.”

Indigo was introduced to the American Colonies before the Revolution by Eliza Lucas Pinckney. At that time, Indigo was a very difficult crop to grow, and the extraction process was complex and extremely labor intensive. Pinckney grew her first successful crop in 1744 and gave seeds to her neighbors, which began an indigo revolution in South Carolina.

By 1897, indigo was synthesized by German chemists, which brought about an era of mass produced synthetic indigo. It is more challenging to dye with indigo, because it is not soluble in water and must undergo a chemical change in order to bond to a fabric. Toxic chemicals are needed to dye with synthetic indigo.

Today, the organic indigo vat has been reintroduced by master natural dyer, Michael Garcia.  His method is based on the traditional vats of Morocco and India in which organic materials such as sugar, plant, or minerals are used in place of toxic chemicals.

I recently took a three day class with Catharine Ellis on woven shibori and the organic indigo vat. It was an amazing experience, and I have since started an organic indigo vat of my own.


My lovely organic indigo vat with a bucket of rinse water nearby.

Making and maintaining an organic indigo vat is more complex than other natural dyes. The vat must be alkaline, so I have used pickling lime in my vat to keep the pH between 10 & 12. The vat must also be reduced, which is to remove all oxygen from the water. I used dried powder from the henna plant which reacts with the lime to reduce the vat. The fabric is pre-wetted, then dipped in the vat for ten to fifteen minutes and hung up to oxidize the dye. When the fabric first comes out of the vat is is a pale green, and as it oxidizes it turns beautifully blue. It can be dipped as many time as needed to achieve the desired shade.

indigo jar

As indigo reduces, it turns a pale shade yellow green. This jar is not completely reduced…

I wove a bamboo scarf/shawl as the first piece to be dyed in my indigo vat. (See this previous post for more information on the weaving process.) I pulled some of the pattern threads out to make a blue border at the selvedge. I had woven the pattern threads, in brown, all the way to the edges of the fabric.


Brown pattern threads pulled out to make a blue border.

After two dips in the vat, with time between each dip to oxidize, the fabric was a gorgeous blue. It then had to be neutralized in a vinegar/water bath. The vinegar bath also serves to brighten the color and prevent it from going into a state of reduction again.


The cloth is oxidized after each dip in the vat.

After letting the cloth dry overnight, the pattern threads are removed the next morning. The knots at the edges must be cut very carefully…


It’s exciting to see the pattern emerge as the knots are cut & threads are removed…

The final step is to let the indigo cure on the cloth for about a week, then it is boiled in soapy water. Boiling removes the excess dye particles from the cloth and strengthens the indigo molecules, further bonding them to the fiber.

indigo scarf

Finished, and the borders are my favorite part…



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Printing on Paper and Cloth

The changing light of autumn is making me feel like I need to hurry… Soon the leaves will all be on the ground and blowing away, and I need to get outside and collect  a lot of them while I still can. There is a treasure trove of flora in the woods behind my house, so the other day I gathered several buckets full of leaves, geranium blooms, and a few pokeberries that the birds had left behind.


After assembling the materials needed to print on watercolor paper and several scarves, the cloth was left to soak in an alum mordant solution.


The watercolor paper was also soaked in the mordant, then leaves/flowers placed on the paper and stacked into bundles.



Bundles ready to steam

Bundles ready to be steamed

paper prints5

After steaming

After waiting, not so patiently till the paper cooled completely, the bundles yielded some beautiful images. Some very distinct, and some more ghostly…




The same plants, rolled into cloth bundles and steamed produced some different results…


Unwrapping a cloth bundle








It’s another beautiful sunny day, so back outside to forage for more interesting plants…


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Woven Shibori

Next month I will be taking a 3 day class in woven shibori with Catharine Ellis. She adapted traditional Japanese shibori into “the language of weaving.” The Japanese shibori pattern called mokume is made by stitching parallel lines into a piece of cloth, then gathering the stitches tightly.  When the cloth is dyed, the folds resist the dye to form a pattern. On the loom, pattern threads are woven into a ground cloth in regular intervals. When taken off the loom, the pattern threads are gathered, as in traditional shibori, and knotted. The cloth is dyed, and the compressed areas in the folds resist the dye to form the woven pattern. After dyeing, the pattern threads are pulled out, and the ground cloth remains.

Weave Draft for the First Piece

When I was a weaving student at Kent State, we had to draw weave drafts on graph paper, which was extremely time consuming and tedious. Fiberworks PCW is the program I use now, and it makes life so much simpler. The next step is to thread the loom with 16/2 bamboo threads according to the draft.

Threading Plan

Threading bamboo yarn in 8 shafts.



The lighter threads are the ground cloth, the darker are the pattern threads that will be gathered when the piece is finished.


The red thread on the right marks the first row of my pattern repeat. If I don’t mark the beginning of each repeat I would constantly be losing my place because when I’m weaving I am daydreaming/listening to an audio book/singing along with the music. The green thread near the bottom right is a marker that I place every 20 inches woven. When the piece is finished and off the loom the fringes are twisted. This is my least favorite part, but it helps to put on an old movie.


When the fringes are finished, the pattern threads are pulled tight and knotted



You can begin to see the pattern that will emerge after the cloth is dyed. The first dye bath is a red fiber reactive dye made from Procion MX Basic Red mixed with MX Watermelon.



The cloth was dyed a second time in a vat dye. The Procion dye penetrates into the cloth more than a vat dye, so I was expecting to see finer details of the pattern with the second dye bath, which was a combination of red and violet. When the cloth comes out of the vat dye it has to oxidize to reveal the color and bind it to the fibers, and it was a beautiful fall afternoon to hang the cloth outside.


After oxidizing for at least 10 minutes, the cloth is washed in hot soapy water to remove excess dye particles.


I left the cloth to dry overnight, and removed the knots the following day.


It’s like opening a Christmas present!


Aaaand it’s finished…




Back to my loom…

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A Short Story About Dead Bugs (with a happy ending)

Cochineal is a traditional red dye dating back to the pre-Columbian period of Mexico. The dye is obtained from the cochineal insects that live on cactus plants. The pigment comes from the little dead bodies of these bugs, which contain a bitter chemical called carminic acid. It is a very effective repellent to predators and also produces lovely shades of red, purple and pink. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they were astonished and thrilled at the intensity of the cochineal pigment which was better than the dyes used in the Old  World. Needless to say, Spain established a monopoly in its trade and made huge profits from its sale to friendly countries. This did not include England which, of course, was an enemy to Spain and caused great damage to the textile industry there.

Cochineal insect colony on a prickly pear cactus

Cochineal insect colony on a prickly pear cactus

I took and ounce of the dessicated bugs and covered them with water in a saucepan, though not one I would ever use again for cooking. When the water hit the cochineal it immediately turned pink, a very promising sign. I simmered the dead bug concoction on the stove for about 10 minutes, and I can’t even begin to describe the funky smell in the kitchen. I had opened all the windows and back door, and turned on the exhaust fan over the stove, but it took about a half hour to clear the air. The cochineal bugs were left in the pan to soak overnight.


Packet of insects and a food scale for correct weight

Cold water on the cochineal, notice the spot of pink on the newspaper.

Cold water on the cochineal, notice the spot of pink on the newspaper

Funky smelling bug stew

Funky smelling bug stew

I gathered rose leaves, some yellow mum flowers, and walnut leaves and soaked them in my rusty nail solution (an iron mordant.)


The leaves and flowers were arranged on 2 wool gauze scarves from Dharma Trading Co.  Normally they would then be rolled into a very tight bundle to insure maximum contact between the plant material and the fabric. This time, however, I tied them a little more loosely so that the dye from the cochineal would find its way all the way to the center of the bundle.


Bundled wool gauze

Bundled wool gauze

Ready for the dye pot! The bugs, which now looked a little like re-hydrated raisins, were strained out of the dye liquor and added to a pot of water. I let the bundles simmer in the dye pot at 180 degrees F for an hour. After the funky smelling kitchen episode, I went to Target and bought a hotplate to use outside…


Re-hydrated insects

Dye pot... OUTSIDE

Dye pot… OUTSIDE

The bundles looked beautiful after the dye bath, and seemed to contain the promise of some exciting colors and images. I let them cure overnight, and unwrapped them the next day. At some point I must try letting them cure longer… when I have more patience.


The finished piece…

purple scarf


Dead bug story, part 2… coming up!

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To Live is to Dye – Part 2

Day 2 of experiments in natural dyeing began with some research on mordants. Mordants for natural dyes are sometimes needed to help fix the dye to the fiber. The word mordant is derived from a french word meaning “to bite” the fiber, which is how they were thought to work. For my first test I decided to use iron, which will deepen, or sadden the dye colors. To get an iron solution I threw some rusty nails into a jar with some white vinegar and water and let it all steep for a few days.


I clipped some rose leaves from my garden and soaked them in the iron mordant solution for an hour.



The leaves were placed on the silk/wool blend fabric which was then folded in half and rolled up tightly into a bundle secured with string.


I found that, once again, I needed a helping hand to keep the bundle from floating in the simmering water.


Unrolling the bundle after 2 hours of simmering and completely cooling is my favorite part.



The finished piece, dried and washed with a ph neutral soap…



Next time… using alum as a mordant. Here’s a sneak peek.


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To Live is to Dye

The other day I took a break from threading my loom (more on that later) to have some fun with eco-dyeing.


I had read India Flint’s book, Eco Colour (several times) and had worked with vegetable dyes in the 70’s when I was a student at Kent State. Since then I have used synthetic (fiber reactive) dyes, which I love, but I  had a hankering to once again discover the colors found in nature. I ordered some wool and silk/wool blend scarves from Dharma Trading Co. This is so much easier and quicker than weaving fabric on which to experiment. I arranged eucalyptus leaves on 2 wool scarves and rolled them into bundles secured with rubber bands and string’


After steaming on the stove for 2 hours and letting them cure overnight, I had the anticipation of Christmas morning as I opened the bundles…


They looked great when still wet, but dried to a much  more faded tone, which was disappointing.


I decided to dye them again, this time simmering them in the dye pot rather than steaming. Eucalyptus leaves require more heat to impart the beautiful reds that I was expecting. The dye was made by boiling chopped up eucalyptus leaves in distilled water.


When the wool bundles were immersed in the dye, much to my surprise, they floated… I had to employ some helpers to hold them under the surface.


The results from the eucalyptus leaves were much more satisfying.




However, the elderberry and maple leaves produced much less vibrant images. They actually seemed to act as a resist to the dye bath while depositing just a hint of green.


Some stitching helps a little, but I may just cut this one up and use it for encaustic.