Earth Tones

Rust, Brown and Gray

Neutrals, unsaturated colors – these have never been my favorite positions on the color wheel, but I am finding them more intriguing as I get older and I want to explore this palette which is completely new to me. They are the colors of stone, sand, clay and mud, very earthy. But I feel that blue is an earth tone also. After all, our blue marble of a planet is mostly blue with hints of desert brown when viewed from a distance of 18,000 miles.

Last fall and winter I took another online class from Maiwa, this time on Tannins, Oxides and Indigo. It is all about creating those very browns and grays on cloth with tannin and iron, as well as an oxide. Since I do my dyeing outdoors in summer, I have been waiting the better part of a year to practice what I learned in the videos and how-to procedural texts. Now is the time!

It seems like we went from winter damp and cold to summer heat in a matter of minutes. Or perhaps it’s just that perception of time speeding up as we age. In any case, I finally set up my outdoor dye studio, revived one indigo vat and am working on reviving a second. Then I got out the iron sulfate, a variety of tannins, and calcium hydroxide (pickling lime, aka calx) and set to work on the neutral palette. I dyed skeins of cotton yarn, pieces of cotton fabric and cotton socks. And indigo blue goes so nicely with the earthy browns!

Cotton fabrics dipped in various sequences of tannin, iron sulfate, calcium hydroxide and black tea. Indigo should need no explanation.
Cotton yarns in (L to R) indigo, iron + calx, tannin + iron, tannin + iron + calx, tannin + cochineal + iron + calx
Cotton socks in indigo, tannin + iron + calx + black tea

The online class had several modules on using rusted or rusting metal to make prints on fabric. I gathered many interesting metal pieces that would create great texture and imprints, but decided against using the metal for the time being. It is very destructive to the cloth and while I know that is part of the iron oxide aesthetic, I wanted to preserve the integrity of the fabric as much as possible, so I used solutions of tannin, iron sulfate and lime to dip the fabric and get the rust, gray and brown colors. I hope this will be less damaging to the cloth than contact with rusty metal would be.

We still have a month or two of decent dyeing weather ahead; I can’t wait to see what else I can do in this range of earthy colors.

Weaving a Time Warp

Every now and then I like to poke around on the web and look for news about prehistoric textiles. Because fibers decompose so quickly, they are very rare compared to prehistoric artifacts made of more durable stuff like stone, metal, or bone.

The oldest known textile fibers, microscopic ones from flax, came from Dzudzuana cave in the Republic of Georgia and date back more than 34,000 years. They were most likely not woven into cloth, but twisted into cord and rope for a variety of useful and decorative purposes. Fast forward almost 30,000 years to a point in time where humans were weaving threads into cloth on some sort of loom. Weaving yarn into fabric and using it for clothing was likely an innovation on the use of animal hides for warmth and probably followed from the weaving of fibers into baskets.

Several years ago I found a picture online of a pair of 3,000 year old wool pants, worn by a mummified man excavated from a tomb in the Tarim Basin in China. These pants have made the news again recently after a collaborative project by archaeologists, weavers, fashion designers, and others recreated the wool yarn, the woven cloth and the tailored pants designed for a horseback-riding nomadic warrior.

Thanks to the Folkwear Patterns newsletter for pointing me to this fascinating video. Links to other recent articles follow.

V-Shawl Woven in a Single Layer

Quite a while ago (years, actually) I read an article online about weaving a V-shaped shawl in double weave. On a 4 or more shaft floor loom, you wove two separate layers for a distance, then joined them together in a V shape by cutting the warp threads of one layer and weaving them as weft across the other layer. The V was to cover your back and the two long parts come over the shoulders and tie in front. I bookmarked the article, meaning to get to that project some day, but the day never came.

Now recently I find that quite a few people have been posting articles and videos about weaving the V-shawl (or smaller cowl) in a single, not double layer. I was intrigued and started looking for how-to information. The quality of online instruction varies, but I did find a couple of postings that helped me understand how to proceed and they all use a rigid heddle loom.

The basic idea is to warp your loom, then leave a portion unwoven, wind that onto the front beam, then start weaving the scarf about 16 or so inches from the beginning. You weave to within 16 or so inches of the end, then unwind the cloth from the front beam and untie the knots on the front rod. You then bring the unwoven warp around to the right or left side and weave it across as weft. Simple, right? Simple but not easy, as I always say about weaving. Creating tension and weaving with a consistent beat is tricky, but luckily I found some good advice and will share that later in this post.

Folded cowl is a continuous loop with the angled portion creating the V shape.

Most of the posts and videos describe the project as about 10 inches wide and 2.5 yards long, woven with DK weight wool yarn in a 7.5 or 8-dent heddle. The V shape portion of the cowl is roughly 10 by 10 inches and it is usually depicted as being worn in the front, not the back. The long circle of warp stripes can be twisted and worn around the neck for a warm and cozy winter scarf.

I made mine with rayon chenille in a 12.5-dent heddle. I have a cone of chocolate brown chenille and one of a variegated chenille dyed in rust, navy, purple and teal. I alternated stripes of the two yarns in the warp, then advanced about 20 inches before beginning weaving with the chocolate brown yarn as weft. I intended for the striped loop to be small, not long enough to twist around my head since I don’t like anything wrapped tightly around my neck. I intended it to drape in a U-shaped cowl which I wear in front, with the V in back.

I wove to within 20 inches of the end, then unrolled the part I had woven and untied the knots on the front rod. Slowly and with some difficulty, I found each successive warp end of the front and wove a row across the warp at the back end. The dark colored yarns, fuzzy quality and my rather poor eyesight made it hard to see, but I managed to weave the intersecting warps in a slightly flattened rectangle, which became a perfect square after wet-finishing. I am debating whether to make another one with a slightly longer warp, so as to loosely twist the drapey chenille scarf over my head, or just go back to the original idea of a wider shawl done in double weave on a floor loom. I would say I am leaning toward the latter.

Front end of warp crossing back end of warp from left to right.

Now for credit where it is due. I first read about this project in a post by Weft Blown. Then I looked for videos and found this very good one by Kari Fell. There are lots of other posts and videos out there, too many to mention, but I would like to thank my sources for their good information and encouragement.

Weaving with a Handspun Warp

A month or so ago, one of my weaving students, a spinner, gave me a zip-top bag with 8 smallish balls of handspun yarn. They are a mix of wools from different fleeces, bits of silk and rabbit hair and all are plied yarns showing off a variety of natural-colored neutrals, from pale gray to dark brown, with bits of blue, purple and teal showing up here and there. I wanted to weave them into a scarf, but I did not want them in the weft. I wanted to see the beautiful lengthwise stripes of the different colors in the warp. But wait, are we allowed to use handspun in the warp?

I don’t spin, but wish I did. I know only a little bit about spinning – for example, the difference between s-twist and z-twist, and how weaving yarns are spun more tightly to accommodate the tension of the loom. Handspun, being more loosely twisted and stretchy, seems destined for weft applications only. Yet I frequently read of spinners breaking the rules and using their handspun in the warp. If they dare try it, why not I?

The yarn in question is probably what would be considered “bulky” weight, not something I typically use. I decided I could not use it on my rigid heddle loom since I do not have a 5-dent reed. The 7.5-dent reed I have would seriously abrade and damage the beautiful handspun. I decided to weave the scarf on my Baby Wolf floor loom, using a 6-dent reed, which posed no risk to the yarn. The tricky bit was the metal heddles on the shafts. They really are a little too small to allow the yarn to smoothly advance. There was going to be some pulling to coax the yarn through them.

There was enough yarn to make a 2.75-yard long warp of 42 ends, for a 7-inch wide project at 6 ends per inch. That left 8 yarn remnants from .75 yard to 1.5 yards long, which I wound into little yarn butterflies. I warped the loom, noting the excessive elasticity of the yarn and hoped for the best. Keeping decent tension was difficult, to say the least. To show off the beautiful warp stripes to best advantage, I made a weft yarn of 3 strands of 10/2 Tencel and bamboo rayon, all in different shades of brown. The scarf wove up quickly in plain weave and whenever I needed to advance the woven cloth onto the front beam, I grasped the warp yarns with both hands, pulling gently and evenly to get it all through the heddles at the same rate.

I was able to weave fairly close to the end of the warp, minimizing waste and making for quite a long scarf; the woven part is fully two yards long! I wet-finished and trimmed the fringe, leaving one end longer than the other. A barely warm iron smoothed everything into place and now I can’t stop admiring it. Having always been attracted to bright colors, I surprise myself with how much joy I get from looking at grays and browns! And the texture is unexpectedly thick, soft and warm – perfect for a cold winter day.

The remnants amounted to only a few yards of handspun, which I decided to combine with a white and brown thick and thin wool yarn in the weft of another project. I chose a tweedy dark brown silk noil for warp and put another 7-inch wide project on my loom, this one set at 12 ends per inch. I wove blocks of all the different yarns varying in width from 1 inch to 2.5 inches with the white wool. After finishing, it is only 64 inches long excluding fringe, and it’s way too scratchy to be comfortably worn around a neck. It will make a fine little runner or dresser scarf.

What I Dyed This Summer

Summer of 2021 – the online studies continue. These last few months I have been learning and practicing the art of natural dyeing. Up to now I have always sworn by synthetic dyes for their speed, convenience and reliable colors, especially on cellulose fibers like linen, cotton and rayon. I long ago committed the whole routine to memory: soak fiber in vinegar or soda ash solution, paint with acid or fiber reactive dye, heat or batch cure for up to 24 hours, rinse and soap, admire the beautiful color!

For a long time I have respected dyers with knowledge and experience of natural dyes because they are so nuanced and more complicated than synthetics. So many factors influence the colors: fiber type, water minerality, pH, mordant type and quantity, not to mention tannins. The process is long and laborious with many more steps and time involved in each one. I cannot yet remember without referring to my notes which dyes want a dose of calcium carbonate or calx, nor the ideal ratios of tannin, mordant or dyestuff to weight of fiber. Additionally, natural dyes work best on protein fibers like wool and silk, while my preferred fibers are cellulose, which require extra steps and time.

Since until recently so many of us were still home-bound and unable to move around freely, it seemed the time was right to learn something new, so I signed up for an online course. As with everything else, there are both costs and benefits to learning this way. No travel is involved, thus saving time and money, but also limiting the ability to experience new sights, tastes and smells. The course of study can be done on one’s own time, allowing one to keep pace with instructions or take one’s time. We watch informative and instructional videos as many times as needed, and there is time for Q & A with instructors at the end. We can experiment and perform the assignments on our own time and in our own space, after the necessary chores of life are done and out of the way. Of course we don’t get to meet and hang out with like-minded students, except by email and/or Zoom, but students can join the course from anywhere in the world. There is both freedom and limitation – sort of like life in general.

My course, Maiwa’s Natural Dye Workshop, offered the option of purchasing a package of supplies or sourcing our own materials. I chose the latter, using a lot of what I already have and ordering the rest from trusted local suppliers. I went through the studies as my time allowed and I followed instructions with my own level of attention to detail. While I am very satisfied with what I have learned and accomplished, there is a lot yet to master and commit to motor memory. I expect to continue experimenting into the foreseeable future.

The first dye I worked with was walnut. Although it was not in the course curriculum, I had acquired several pounds of green walnut hulls from local trees as they were starting to ripen just as I was beginning my study. I put all of the walnuts in a large pot of water and cooked them for a few hours, then left the whole thing to steep overnight. The next day, I removed the walnuts then dyed a few skeins of yarn and a large piece of linen fabric. The wool and silk noil yarn absorbed the color beautifully. The linen was tannined with gallnut and mordanted with alum, but it took on only a light brown color. I performed additional processes on the linen; more about that later.

Next up, madder. I used chopped up madder root pieces rather than an extract. I dyed two skeins of wool yarn which took up the red color intensely, then dyed a piece of linen in the leftover dyebath. I did not add additional madder for the linen, effectively dyeing it in an exhaust bath, hence the lighter orange color.

Wool yarns dyed in madder, linen fabric dyed in leftover madder exhaust bath.

Cochineal. These little bugs live on prickly pear cactus in the southwest U.S., Mexico, parts of Central and South America. If you squish a live bug, it appears to bleed, but its body is full of carminic acid, a red colorant used in foods, drinks, lipstick, etc. I bought whole dried bugs, which resemble grain, and ground them in a mortar and pestle, although you could buzz them into fine powder in a coffee grinder too.

The dye is very sensitive to pH, giving a more true red in an acidic environment and a more magenta hue in an alkaline environment. I used water out of the tap to make the dyebath and did nothing extra to affect the pH. My projects all came out purplish-pink. In a future experiment I will try to get a redder hue with some kind of acidic assist, but I’m happy with my results. I dyed the yarns first, a wool and soysilk, which is a protein fiber made from soybeans, a plant source. I added a small amount more of cochineal to dye the linen.

Yellow dyes: weld and myrobalan. I tried without success to use marigold and himalayan rhubarb; they gave only a dirty beige color. I’m not sure if it was something I did or a bad batch of plant material. The weld gave a brilliant bright yellow on linen and a gold on silk. Myrobalan gave a soft creamy yellow on linen. Someday I will try again with the other yellow dyes as they are supposed to yield bright colors.

Cutch gives a warm medium brown, which shifts to a rusty reddish brown with a calx afterbath. A piece of cotton fabric and a skein of linen/rayon yarn took on a nice brown color. The linen fabric shifted to a reddish brown in an afterbath of pickling lime (calcium hydroxide).

Logwood gave me a deep purple dye on a multitude of different fibers. Interestingly, the dye almost completely exhausted into my various projects, leaving nothing for a later exhaust bath. I’m not complaining as I got great color and used every bit in the dyepot. Very efficient!

Eastern brazilwood, or sappanwood fine sawdust, gave a great intense red dye, leaning slightly toward orange or brown. This is from an Asian tree, not the one that gave the country of Brazil its name. I got good saturated reds on all my fibers: linen, cotton and silk.

Indigo, alone and overdyed with weld for a light green color complete the cool part of the color spectrum. I did three dips in a weak indigo vat for a light clear blue and green on linen.

Indigo and indigo overdyed with weld on linen.

Using iron, or ferrous sulfate, after dyeing makes colors go darker or grayer. I wanted to see how dark I could make the piece of linen fabric I originally dyed in walnut. I overdyed it in a dark tannin made from chestnut bark, then did an iron afterbath and got a steel gray.

Finally, an exhaust dyebath made of leftover dyes. One bath contained leftover madder and cochineal, giving light pink colors; another contained all the leftover dyes: red, yellow and brown, yielding a terracotta color.

What a satisfying way to spend the summer – outdoors in a shady spot with simmering pots of mordant, tannin and natural dyes. It really does take all summer, as these are not speedy processes. The cotton and linen go through three steps, each involving soaking overnight to achieve the deepest colors. I probably would never have tried this if not for the required down time and isolation after the pandemic began. I am thankful I found an upside to an otherwise terrible time. And there is still so much more to learn!

Indigo: Direct Application

This has been a kind of holy grail for some dyers. Can we paint or print indigo directly onto cloth and make it adhere as a dye rather than a pigment? Until recently it was thought to be somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible.

In my latest studies of contemporary and old-is-new-again techniques, I found descriptions of two methods of direct application of indigo to cellulose fiber textiles. One, an older industrial process, requires more caution and effort in working with caustic chemicals and multiple steps to steaming the final product. The second is simple and non-toxic. This is the one I had to try.

Method 1, found in Joy Boutrup and Catherine Ellis’ book The Art and Science of Natural Dyes, gives recipes and procedural methods for old-fashioned printing with indigo. Their recipe calls for an alkaline print paste containing indigo and lye to be applied to a sugar-coated textile, which is then steamed to reduce the indigo. Read all about it and follow the instructions in the book!

Method 2 can be found in Michel Garcia’s latest Natural Dye Workshop video No. 4: Beyond Mordants, wherein M. Garcia demonstrates a technique inspired by “spherification“, a technique of molecular gastronomy. I am not spilling many beans here because his demonstration is deliberately vague on measurements and quantities, meaning that if we wish to duplicate his process, we will need to do a lot of trial and error experimentation. No problem – this is what I live for!

In this simple and non-toxic method, indigo is mixed with sodium alginate, a common thickener and print paste ingredient, then applied to fabric. Next the fabric is dipped in a solution of calcium chloride, which corrals the alginate in place so it will not bleed out of the desired area on the cloth. In a culinary application this creates a gel membrane around a liquid center of something edible, e.g., fruit juice.

Lastly the textile goes into a lime/fructose reducing vat, which is the 2-3 part of the 1-2-3 vat (this one has no indigo in it). After a few minutes of immersion, the cloth with the reduced indigo print is brought out into the air to oxidize.

Et voilà! A dark blue print stays in place on the cloth.

Painted and printed designs: freehand turtle resist, stenciled fish and flowers, stenciled dragonflies. These have been immersed in the reducing vat, rinsed, oxidized and dried, but not yet washed.

Now for the trial and error portion of the lesson. In my experiments quite a bit of excess indigo washed out after painting/printing, leaving a light gray-blue print or mark. Not the beautiful blue hue I had hoped for. I will need to try different solution concentrations, amount of time in the various dips, and perhaps different temperatures. So many variables to experiment with!

Lots of indigo washed out. Back to the laboratory!

My Winter of Online Learning

A year into the pandemic now, in-person meetings, classes and workshops are still canceled or postponed. We are still staying home more than ever, shopping in-store infrequently, ordering take-out food rather than dining in restaurants, working or learning remotely and spending lots of time in front of screens.

This past winter, several opportunities came up to take online courses, join Zoom meetings of like-minded folks and learn by watching videos until my eyes wore out. The weather outside was cold and wet, my studio was cold, so what else could I do? I signed up for Slow Fiber Studios‘ streaming Conversations with Cloth. I enjoyed Season 1 so much, I signed up for Season 2. What a great opportunity to hear and learn from the world’s leading experts on shibori and artful dyeing! There are only two episodes yet to stream, but if you missed the series, you will be able to download the entire program later this year. Check the website and/or get on the mailing list to be kept up to date.

At about the same time, I was perusing the offerings of Maiwa School of Textiles, which always has fascinating workshops, and discovered they were offering online courses, so I signed up for their Journey into Indigo. It’s a detailed set of how-to videos accompanied by Q&A between instructors and students from all over the world. Even experienced dyers will find there is always something more to learn. Another set of online workshops starts next month; mark your calendar if you are interested and try to register early.

My local weaving guild has a wonderful lending library of books and DVDs. Following pandemic protocol rules for checking items out, I am able to “try before I buy”. Just recently I have been reading Liles‘ and Boutrup/Ellis‘ books on natural dyes, as well as watching Michel Garcia’s Natural Dye Workshop No. 4: Beyond Mordants. It is 4 hours of DVD lecture/demos, with many “why didn’t I think of that?” moments, as well as almost more information than you can stand about “green chemistry” and sustainable production methods. Having now tried this one, I am sure I will buy.

Spring has sprung now and soon I want to be outdoors, planting my garden and later up to my elbows in indigo. While many states are starting to open up, giving us hope to resume our normal lives soon, there are undoubtedly going to be restrictions in place for a while longer, so you may want to make note of some online or distance learning opportunities you have yet to take advantage of. Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of organizations that have traipsed through my email inbox lately. Don’t ever stop learning!


Weaving Sakiori

Am I the only one who has had a lot of “free time” during the last few months of lockdown/stay at home/shelter in place, and done nothing much with it? I feel like I should have woven 1,000 yards of cloth and/or dyed hundreds of pounds of fabric by now, but I have had very little productive output during the last 7 months. Why has it been so hard to get and stay motivated?

So I’m not sure whether or not this is cause for celebration, but I finally took a project off my small floor loom after several months. Last March our weaving guild was going to offer a workshop on weaving sakiori, but it was canceled, like so many other events this year, when the pandemic ruled out travel and gathering indoors.

The finished project.

Sakiori is the Japanese term for weaving with torn or cut rag strips, as is done for making rag rugs. The word is a compound of “saki”, meaning to rip or tear and “ori”, meaning to weave. Sakiori is a way of recycling worn-out garments or fabric into new ones. You warp your loom with cotton or bast-fiber yarn, then weave the narrow fabric strips as weft. The new fabric can be fashioned into a new wrap, vest, jacket, etc. and is a way to extend the life of a treasured but time-worn item.

I had already done the preparation for the workshop by cutting two worn-out cotton yukata and one silk kimono-style robe into strips approximately 3/8 inch to 1/2 inch wide. They filled 3 bags and I did not want to wait another year or two for the workshop to be rescheduled, so I decided to teach myself sakiori. I obtained a copy of Weaving Western Sakiori: A Modern Guide for Rag Weaving by Amanda Robinette, and it inspired and encouraged me to get started.

Silk strips, cut approximately 3/8 inch wide.

Had the workshop taken place as planned, per the instructions, I would have threaded my rigid heddle loom with 10/2 cotton yarn at 20 ends per inch (using two heddles), and I would have started with the strips from the cotton yukata. But since I was going to work at home alone in my studio, I opted to use my small floor loom. I decided to work with the silk strips, so I threaded the loom with 10/2 and double-stranded 20/2 Tencel yarn for its luster and softness, and put on a little over 3 yards of warp. I alternated a light blue 10/2 Tencel thread with two strands of 20/2 Tencel in red violet and blue violet. The silk fabric had been dyed, stamped and printed in those shades as well.

Tencel warp and silk strip weft on the loom.

The book recommended alternating strips of rag weft with two picks of yarn between the strips. Using 2 picks of the light blue 10/2 Tencel yarn in between the rag strips in the weft produced an interlacement alternating between the two warp colors, which I found to be a pleasing effect. It was slow going, splicing the strips together, and I only managed to weave a few hours per week. I had to take occasional breaks to weave a (yet unfinished) project on my big loom, as sitting and using my body differently at the two looms prevents over-straining certain bones and muscles.

Light blue 10/2 Tencel yarn, and double strand of 20/2 Tencel yarn in violet shades.

Finally, after countless months (no, 7 months to be honest), I wove as far as I could and then took the project off the loom. Before wet-finishing, I knotted the fringe and machine-stitched all the edges of the piece because it felt slightly unstable. I soaked and dried it, ironed it on the silk setting, and now I have to figure out how I will make it into something new. I think I actually need another piece so I can make something with sleeves, and I have plenty of silk strips left over. Maybe a year from now I will have a completed vest or jacket to write about. Wish me luck.

Close up of alternating blue and violet warp threads over silk strips.

Purple Dye from . . . Carrots?

Confession: I am not a natural dyer. I tend to be all about speed and convenience, so synthetic dyes and the usual auxilliary chemicals are what I typically go to for quick color on fiber. Yet I truly admire and respect people who study natural dyes; they are so much more nuanced and influenced by mordants, pH, etc. They are more complicated and require much more study and experimentation.

Recently when I harvested some carrots from my garden that I had planted from a mix of colored-carrot seeds, I was surprised and pleased to get a rainbow variety of shades: white, yellow, orange, red and purple. I sliced and grated them for soup and salad and noticed that the purple carrots are almost midnight black all the way through and they stain my fingers when I handle them. By contrast, the red carrots have a thin red skin and ordinary orange flesh inside.

It turns out that purple is the default carrot color; the orange variety was developed later. The plant was originally grown for its seeds and leaves, and later on for the tap root we consider an essential kitchen vegetable. How wonderful that we are now re-discovering the original colors.

The dark purple carrots in my garden got me wondering if I could dye with them, so I performed a very unscientific and non-reproducible experiment. I made a couple of butterflies of wool and silk yarn and cut a couple of scraps of fabric. One is a commercial silk crepe and one a fragment of my handwoven alpaca and wool crepe with a silver metallic ply. I grated and chopped a few small purple carrots and put them in a pot with water, white vinegar and potassium alum. I did not measure anything! I brought it all to a simmer, submerged my yarn and fabric samples and let it cook for about 30 minutes, then took it off the heat and let cool to room temperature.

After dyeing, the water in the pot, as well as the leftover carrot debris, was still very dark purple. This rather surprised me, as my purple beans turn green when I cook them. Presumably the purple carrots retain some anthocyanin nutrition after cooking.

I rinsed the fabric and yarn samples and picked out carrot bits, then hung them up to dry. I ironed the fabric pieces and fluffed the yarn and found it curious that the silk absorbed more color than the wool, and the silk tends to be a bluer color, while the wool is a redder, pink color. It’s just chemistry, I guess! I don’t know yet if the colors will be light- and wash-fast, but these samples are unlikely to see much daylight.

I did a little research on using natural dyestuff from the garden, and found that the ratio of plant matter to yarn varies from 2:1 to 4:1. That means you might have to use up to 4 pounds of plant matter to dye one pound of yarn or fabric. My garden is so small, I don’t think I would be willing to sacrifice that much food to make dye! It was fun to experiment, but I don’t think I am ready to call myself a natural dyer yet.

Partly Sunny with a Chance of Indigo

In a normal year, I begin my outdoor indigo dyeing season in mid-summer, when the days are warm and nights don’t get too cold. This year is anything but normal, with a global pandemic keeping us all at home, every day indistinguishable from another. It’s so incongruous to have news of the infection and death counts rising sharply every day, while here in the Northwest we are having an unusually pleasant early spring. Blooms, green leaves, partly sunny days; it all seems like the perfect staging for a glorious garden party! Instead it is contrasted with dire economic forecasts and scary public health statistics, as well as the by now familiar guidance for social distance, mask-wearing, hand washing, etc.

But since we are in a spate of warm days now and I have a lot of time on my hands, I decided to revive my indigo vat early this year. Having no proper indoor space for the vat and the messy dyeing process, I must leave it outdoors in a spot that will receive a good amount of sunlight and heat. I can control the addition of ingredients like indigo, alkali and oxygen reducer fairly easily, but the vat temperature is the hardest thing to control. Night temperatures are still falling to a range from high 30’s to mid 40’s F, so reheating some of the vat liquid is necessary almost every day. In spite of the extra time required for heating and resting afterward, I wanted to give it a go.

I enjoy waking up a tired and sleepy indigo vat with heat, fresh indigo and chemicals. I’m using lime and fructose so it’s not as Frankenstein as it sounds. The vat bubbles to life with a dark, shiny flower and the aroma of warm, fresh indigo. I love that smell as much as baking bread!

The indigo vat with a healthy flower in a sunny spot outside.

My first dyeing effort was a fold and clamp project on a runner I wove from an interesting stiff ramie yarn. It absorbed the dye beautifully and turned a beautiful blue with just four dips. Then I got out an old T-shirt I had previously dyed with a stitch resist. It has always looked unfinished to me, so I just dunked it in the vat a few times to darken the pattern and lower the contrast. I think I’m ready to wear it now.

As long as our nice warm weather holds, I will continue indigo dyeing. I plan to do a little every day, and hope to update this with more photos.