Saturday, November 5, 2011

Natural Dye - Indigo

We did our tenth natural dye sample set a couple of weeks ago.   This was the last dyestuff for our study group on natural dyes and we ended with a bang:   Indigo!

Ahhh, indigo.

The color of the sea and sky.   American fashion's great neutral. 

We had been reading for some time about different types of indigo vats and let me tell you, there's a lot of variation out there on how to do one.  

Indigo must be in an oxygen deficient dyebath if the color is to chemically adhere to the fiber.   This means that we had to dissolve the indigo into the water, then add a reduction agent to remove the oxygen.

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, indigo vats were reduced with urine.   Apparently the urine of young boys and pregnant women is the preferred indigo vat urine.    Now you know. 

We decided to forgo the urine.   [Just thinking about it activates my gag reflex and everyone else's, too.  Ick.]

I had chunk indigo and another of us had instant indigo.   We decided to go with the instant indigo, but we had some RIT color remover on hand just in case we needed some reduction boost.

Instant indigo [available from many places] is made so that the indigo, which is already ground and easier to dissolve, is combined with a reduction agent.   All you have to do is put it in hot water and you're ready to go.    

We added a tablespoon of instant indigo to about 3 gallons of hot water in a bit stainless steel dyepot. 

This instant indigo was older and had already been used a bit.    The reduction agent was too weak to fully reduce the vat so we added a teaspoon of the RIT color remover.    It worked beautifully!

You can tell if an indigo pot is reduced enough by looking at the color of the water.   If it's green, it's reduced.   If it's aqua or blue, there's way too much oxygen in the vat and you need to reduce it. 

Stir carefully, disturbing the surface of the water as little as possible.   Lift and dunk your fiber carefully and slowly.  Keep the temp at about 120 degrees.  

Put your fiber in and leave it for 5 or 10 minutes.   Lift it carefully out of the water and hang it up.  You'll see the color develop fairly quickly.   

If you want a darker color, it's best to do several dips, rather than one long one.   One long dip often results in 'crocking'.   Crocked dye is dark, but rubs off very easily.   It's messy and hard to rinse because it keeps bleeding.  Don't go there!  Do multiple dips instead.  

Troubleshooting:   We'd love to be able to say that we followed all the directions and things turned out perfectly, but that's never the way it happens.  

This instant indigo had clumped and we didn't realize it wasn't dissolving right until we'd added a couple more tablespoons of it to get a reasonable amount of color in the water.    Since we were trying not to stir to energetically, we didn't notice the rather copious quantity of sediment on the bottom until we put in a test sample.    It came up covered with indigo bits.  

We've done bits before.   Bits are a pain.   We prefer to strain the bits out of the dye bath.   So we did.  

We lined a colander with polyester quilt batting and poured the entire dye pot through that to strain the bits out.   Then we put the bits in a jar and added boiling water to try to dissolve more of it.   That worked reasonably well and we got quite a bit more color, which we poured into the dyebath, but we still had lots of bits.   We saved them to dry and use again later.  

When we got the right amount of color in the water, we reduced it again and put our bigger sample bundles in.    

Beautiful, glorious color!   

This was one of the most fun natural dye experiments that we've done. 


  1. So, I'm confused....what is "natural" about an instant dye? I thought "natural" meant, like, throwing walnuts in water and using that to dye. I'm confused.

  2. JE - good question! Instant indigo is finely ground indigo combined with a chemical you'd have to use anyway to get the color out of the indigo. They've already cut, dried and ground up the plant for you and added the chemicals. It's still natural, just ground up for you. Does that make sense?

  3. You certainly got lovely results. Does the Indog dye take equally well on plant and animal fibers?

  4. Hi Kitten - The indigo did pretty well on both types of fibers, compared to a lot of the other natural dyes that we've tried. A bit better on the proteins, though.

  5. I will never look at my jeans the same way again. Urine . . .

    And who the heck first came up with the dying process? Sheesh. Go you!


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