When I was little, I loved to pick the magenta-hued poke berries from my parents’ yard and smash them up to dye rags, doll clothes and, usually, sections of whatever I happened to be wearing that day. But as a (mostly) grown-up girl, I haven’t experimented much with natural dyes. So in honor of September’s Color of the Month, I’m trying one of the world’s oldest, richest dyeing techniques: indigo. From growing the plant to making the dye, here’s how you can create your own vibrant indigo piece.
Indigo has a history as rich as its midnight hue: It’s mentioned in Indian manuscripts from as far back as the fourth century, and its vibrant hue was the impetus for the centuries-old textile trade in West Africa. And there’s a reason the natural version is still popular worldwide: It creates color that’s brighter than the synthetic stuff and doesn’t fade.
Growing and Harvesting Indigo
To really get to the, ahem, root of this tradition, do as the traditionalists do: plant and harvest your own indigo plants. The deep, dark hue actually starts as an unassuming green plant. There are nearly 300 varieties of indigo, but all are easy to grow and the nitrogen the plants release even makes it easier for edible crops like corn and wheat to grow nearby.
Clockwise from top-left: 1. Indigo plants :: Britt Browne 2. New indigo seedlings :: Britt Browne 3. Indigo powder: Britt Browne 4. Kenichi Utsuki stirring up one of three dye vats :: Sweet Georgia Yams 5. Moroccan indigo :: Britt Browne 6. Making indigo balls :: Henry Drewal
When the plants mature, the leaves can be dried or turned into long-lasting “indigo balls” — the harvested leaves are pounded into balls and left in the sun to dry. When you’re ready to make dye, draw the color out of the leaves by soaking them in alkaline water, draining and paddling to separate the indigo solids from the liquid. The sediment that’s left is pure indigo powder, which can be pressed into cakes for later use. Get the full indigo recipe and how-to at Hand/Eye Magazine.
If you can’t fathom growing your own indigo like LA artist Britt Browne details on her blog Growing Indigo, let someone else do that part for you. Pick up an indigo tie-dye kit or some instant indigo and follow the directions to make it into a thick, dark mixture. Don’t worry, your shirts and scarves will be just as vibrant as if you’d spent hours forming indigo balls.
What to Create
So you have the dye…now what? Go traditional and try shibori dyeing — the traditional Japanese version of tie-dye. Or, experiment with your own fabric and technique — linen, netting and cotton take fewer dips, while fabrics like silk need to spend more time in the vat to develop a deep, rich color. (Check out Erica Chan Coffman’s step-by-step on the blog Honestly…WTF.)
Tied fabric for DIY Shibori Dyeing :: Honestly, WTF
Whatever you create, you’ll have plenty of time to experiment — the dye keeps for several weeks and one tie-dye kit can color more than 5 pounds of fabric or about 15 shirts.
Have you made your own natural dyes? Would you ever try shibori dyeing?
Tell us in the comments below.