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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 Dyed Prints Clockwise from top-left:  1. Indigo-Dyed Kaya ::  Sri Threads 2. DIY Shibori :: Honestly, WTF 3. Shibori-Dyed Japanese Cotton Scarves :: Sweet Georgian Yams 4. Shibori Print Close-Up :: nara blog

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.

Growing IndigoClockwise 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.)

Shibori Prints Ready to DyeTied 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.

39 Responses

  1. Nice article. I'm loving the color of the month! :)

  2. Kayla@HGTV says:

    You're making me drool, Liz! We were supposed to be indigo-dying this week! Maybe we can make up for it when the weather clears. I will literally dye anything I can get my hands on, so this post is the perfect inspiration for when fall arrives.

  3. Karli_HGTV says:

    Great post, Liz! If it weren't raining buckets this week, I'd be dying some sheets to go with my indigo-ish bedding!

  4. Briana@HGTV says:

    Those scarves are gorgeous! Subdued psychedelic chic. :)

  5. [...] Indigo Dyes + Shibori “Tie-Dye” HGTV Design Happens Wed, September 7, 2011 12:30 PM UTC HGTV Design Happens Rate this story Share this story [...]

  6. Victoria says:

    Love INDIGO!! Thank you for your inspiration to try this myself!!!

  7. Marianne@HGTV says:

    I am in love with this post! Shibori has been catching my eye for weeks and now I'm "dyeing" to try it. I know. I am sorry. I can't help myself.

  8. morrighu says:

    There is a blue that is likely even older and it's also a vegetable dye – woad. It's a weed in most places but it makes a magnificient blue dye, paint, ink, etc.

  9. [...] more flattering adjectives. Indigo falls somewhere between blue and violet and is named after a dye used in India and other countries around the world. When it comes to entertaining with indigo, [...]

  10. wonderfulcotne says:

    Love that the natural indigo is more vibrant than the synthetic! Gives us hope that some things are best left alone, doesn't it? :) Nice article.

    -Courtney <a href="http://www.wlittlethings.etsy.com” target=”_blank”>www.wlittlethings.etsy.com

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Liz GrayLiz is a Senior Editor at HGTV.com. She lives in a midcentury tri-level that’s stuck in the ‘70s…for now. When she’s not working on remodeling projects with her boyfriend and...

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