Last weekend I ran a workshop on indigo shibori dyeing for the London branch of the International Feltmakers Association, of which I am a member. I’ve attended previous IFA workshops on felting and natural dyeing, and the participants are always enthusiastic and engaged, so I knew I was in good hands!
I wanted participants to experience the difference between synthetic and natural indigo, so we began on Saturday by setting up three vats. The first was what is known as a 123 vat, popularised by natural dye guru Michel Garcia – this was made up of 1 part indigo, 2 parts lime and 3 parts fructose. The other two vats were made of synthetic indigo in different concentrations.
To start with we focused on clamping and binding shibori techniques, and soon everyone was having fun with pegs, marbles and lolly sticks, while the more adventurous grappled with some plastic pipes and string to produce arashi shibori.
In the afternoon we moved on to stitching. Because this is more time consuming, it meant that keen students could take their pieces home to finish stitching in the evening so it was ready to dye the next day.
There was time at the end of the afternoon to undo the first bound and clamped pieces and the makeshift washing line outside soon began to fill up!
On Sunday the we continued to experiment with different techniques (sometimes combining more than one) or fabrics, learning how the same technique can look very different on different fabrics.
We also found a more photogenic place to hang our work. 😉
At the end of the day everyone had a good collection of samples to take home and seemed very happy!
Last year the Victoria & Albert Museum in London had a display of some stunning naturally dyed silk by Sachio Yoshioka’s dyeing workshop in Kyoto, Japan. Below you can see four short documentary films made to accompany the display.
When Sachio Yoshioka took over his family dyeing workshop in 1988 – the fifth generation to do so – he decided to eschew the use of synthetic dyes and use only natural plant-based materials.
Through extensive historical research he tracked down plants and dyes used as far back as the Heian period (794 – 1185) and has encouraged Japanese farmers to grow previously rare or forgotten plants such as gromwell, whose roots produce a beautiful purple dye.
Kasane are layers of colour combinations found in the garments of aristocrats during the Heian period. The formal kimono worn by women of the court showed layers of different colours at the neckline, cuffs and hems. Changing the colours to reflect, for example, plants in season was seen as a mark of good taste and education.
Kasane were also used with paper: poems and love letters would be enclosed in several sheets of seasonally coloured paper.
The exhibition at Japan House is arranged by season, starting with kasane for spring, such as cherry and willow.
The deep red silk of the cherry kasane is dyed with safflower; placing a translucent white layer of silk above it produces a pale cherry blossom pink. The green layer representing mountain scenery is produced with indigo overdyed with yellow from amur cork.
The willow kasane has white at the bottom to represent the white underside of willow leaves, while the green comes from light indigo overdyed with yellow from Miscanthus tinctorius.
Summer kasane include wisteria, with beautiful purple coming from gromwell.
The delicate patterned silks also produce lovely shadows on the different layers.
And of course there are indigo kasane.
There are also samples of the plant materials used in dyeing on display.
And some of the tools and equipment used in dyeing.
I was also lucky enough to attend a talk by Sachio Yoshioka and a demonstration by his daughter Sarasa Yoshioka, the sixth generation of the dyeing family.
Sachio Yoshioka believes it is the duty of his workshop to continue producing beautiful bright colours from plants. “Study the old to discover the new” is his motto. He has produced a “dictionary” of 260 colours, all produced by layering plant dyes. The mordants he uses are all traditional too, including camellia ash, smoked plum, alum and iron.
His favourite colour is purple, the colour of nobility – it can take 8-9 days to get a satisfactory shade.
Sarasa Yoshioka demonstrated how they paint paper with dyes (in this case yellow kihada from the amur cork tree on top of indigo to produce green).
Their most famous use of this technique is using red pigment extracted from safflowers to paint paper that is used to make camellia flowers for a Buddhist ceremony at the Todaiji Temple in Nara. You can see this in one of the films above.
Extracting red pigment from safflower is an extraordinarily complex process – I’ve written about this before. And it takes 1.5kg of dried safflower petals to produce enough dye for a single sheet of red A3 paper!
The main point of my visit to Turin was to attend the Slow Food Convention (Terra Madre Salone del Gusto) – mainly an excuse to gorge on so many delicious things! However, I encountered a surprising number of textiles on my trip so thought I’d share some of them with you. 🙂
The Japanese stand at Salone del Gusto offered several workshops, including the chance to dye a T-shirt with Commelina communis, aka Asiatic dayflower.
Well, I’d never heard of this flower so of course I had to sign up!
Fumiko Fujii, the dyer running the workshop, explained that the flowers are collected and then pressed flat on to paper, which is soaked in water to extract the blue colour. However, it is not fast when washed! For this reason it is used to paint the initial designs on kimono and washed out later.
So Fumiko had added some indian ink to the dye so that it wouldn’t wash out, and I used this to draw my practice design on paper – the snail logo of the Slow Food organisation.
However, when it came to painting the design on the T-shirt, I decided to use the pure Asiatic dayflower extract – and not wash it! 🙂 I added some red highlights with dye made by soaking hibiscus flowers for three days. It was much trickier painting the T-shirt because the absorbent fabric caused the dye to spread.
But it was lovely to meet Fumiko and learn about another Japanese dye.
The best-known textile in Turin is of course the Turin Shroud. But in the city’s wonderful Egyptian Museum are some garments that are far older and definitely authentic. These pleated linen dresses, for example, are in amazing condition for fabric that is around 4,000 years old.
There were also some great examples of Coptic weaving and embroidery from the 3rd to 11th centuries AD.
And this is the remains of a design for weavers to follow, drawn on papyrus.
I also loved the patterns created by the bandages on mummified animals.
There was some great weaving too.
And the patterns caused by some of the displays turned them into mini installations.
Finally, we made a trip out to the suburbs to the Leumann Village. Rather like Saltaire and Port Sunlight in the UK, Leumann Village was built by enlightened entrepreneur Napoleon Leumann to house workers in his cotton mill. The village included a church, a school, public baths and a railway station.
Today the factory is home to various factory shopping outlets, but there is a small museum where you can see how the workers lived.
The day we visited there was also a textile fair and exhibition, which included some fabulous sculptural felt work by Esther Weber.
It was definitely a blue fingernail week last week! It started with a couple of days in Hove with a wonderful group of textile friends who try to get together every couple of months to do a little felting or stitching.
This time, Barbara was rash enough to offer her garden to do some indigo dyeing – though some parts (usually featuring pale limestone!) were definitely out of bounds to people carrying dripping blue fabric. 🙂 The weather was glorious – the last two days of our prolonged heatwave – and the food and drink was plentiful and excellent. Barbara even baked a belated birthday cake for Carol, my partner in Women of the Cloth.
In between the eating, drinking and laughter we even found some time for dyeing, and everyone produced some great work.
When I got back home, it was time to filter my second indigo extraction from my homegrown indigo, which I’d fermented and left to settle while I was away. This produced another 4g of indigo.
Then on Friday I harvested 75g of indigo leaves, blended them with iced water till it was bright green and strained it through silk.
I used this to dye two silk scarves, one plain and one ecoprinted. Interestingly, some of the leaf prints seemed to resist the dye, while others changed colour as they were overdyed.
Also interestingly, the silk I used to strain the vegetation shows a range of colours, from the expected turquoise, through pale green to red from indirubin.
All natural indigo contains indigotin, the blue pigment, and indirubin, a red pigment – the indirubin is usually hidden by the indigotin, but shows up once the indigotin is exhausted. Fascinating to see it separated out here!
This year I planted more Japanese indigo – I got the seeds from Ashley Walker of Nature’s Rainbow at the natural dyeing workshop I did in January. He said that there were two variations – broad leaved and narrow leaved, and that he had found that the broad leaved variety contained more pigment. So I planted them in two separate patches, and thanks to the wet spring and summer heatwave they have grown really strongly.
I’d read about extracting pigment by drying and composting the leaves, but this seemed to be quite a large scale process – I got the impression that I would need several years’ worth of leaves before this became worthwhile! But then I joined a Facebook group on indigo pigment extraction methods, whose admin Brittany Boles published a description of aqueous alkali precipitation extraction and also linked to a detailed account of the process by Fibershed.
So last week as our heatwave reached its peak I took the plunge and had a go at fermenting some of my homegrown indigo.
I cut about half the broad leaved plants down to 7-8 inches and stripped off the leaves, ending up with 215g. I covered them with bottled water (chlorinated water is a no no and there wasn’t much rainwater around!) and kept the leaves submerged with a couple of stones.
A couple of days later I could see an oily slick on top of the water – a good sign that fermentation was happening.
Then only a couple of hours later the water had turned bright green and there was a characteristic fruity smell – bingo! I decided to remove the leaves, because if you leave them for too long the yield of indigo pigment apparently drops drastically.
I added lime (calcium hydroxide) to reach pH 10 and then whisked…and whisked…and whisked until the liquid was a deep indigo blue.
Because I’d used a dark grey bucket, I decanted a bit into a clear jar so I could get an idea of how the pigment was settling. Two days later I could see a dark blue line at the bottom of the container where the indigo had settled.
So I decanted most of the liquid from the bucket, adding it to my current indigo vat.
Then I poured the sludge at the bottom into a coffee filter.
After filtering and drying, I was left with 4g of homegrown indigo.
I also saved the stripped stalks of indigo and stuck them in a jar of water. One week later they have developed new roots – ready to replant for the next round!
I don’t know how pure the pigment is – apparently this method produces fairly low grade indigo, with bits of leaf and other impurities. But it’s a great feeling to have grown and extracted my own indigo pigment! 🙂
We started by learning about the history of marbling and saw examples of different patterns.
Then we started to get our hands dirty with suminagashi, a marbling technique used in Japan. This uses sumi calligraphy ink or other permanent inks, just floating on water, no size. These are some of the small samples I did.
We also tried it on rice paper.
And I’d read that it works on silk too, so I took some unmordanted fine habotai silk in to try – it worked beautifully.
Then we moved on to Western marbling. Unlike suminagashi, this mixes carrageen moss (a kind of seaweed) with the water to thicken it and support the colour. Patterns are created with toothpicks, combs or spatulas – sometimes a combination.
We tried with acrylics and gouache – most people seemed to get better results with gouache. The colour of the paper also affected the final result. Below are some combed patterns.
Below left is another combed pattern; on the right is a freeform pattern.
Below left is an antique straight pattern; right is a freeform pattern.
Below left is Spanish Moire pattern, made by rocking the paper as you place it on the size – close up it looks like folds of fabric. On the right is Italian pattern (nearly! – I should have added more wetting agent).
Below left is ghost marbling – one pattern marbled on top of another. On the right is a combed pattern.
I did have a go at marbling silk with gouache, but this came out very faint. It may have been better if I’d mordanted the silk first. (Paper for marbling requires mordanting with alum, unlike suminagashi.)
We also learnt how to make our own brushes and combs, as well as about polishing the paper afterwards, so it was a busy three days!
I have since washed the suminagashi silk and the pattern remains very clear. Could be another new product line? 😉
On day 2 we turned to red, looking at madder. Madder is very invasive, so Susan advised growing it in an enclosed area, like a tractor tyre. It also takes around three years before you can start harvesting the root, where the colour resides, and then after digging it up, washing it, drying it and snapping it into pieces she leaves it for another year in paper bags.
The root contains around over 15 different pigments, ranging from yellow and orange to coral, scarlet and brown. Some of these pigments emerge more quickly than others – for example, yellow and coral come out first, but alizarin, which gives the red colour, is not very soluble and is the last to emerge.
For this reason, despite traditional instructions that say madder should not be heated above 60°C, Susan and Ashley have found that working the bath quite hard for at least a week, cooling it and reheating it, produces the best reds. You can also add an alkali modifier to shift the colour from orange towards red.
The Liles recipe involves over three days of heating and straining to extract the best red pigments from the madder. The Ethel Mairet recipe by contrast is a very low effort method where the dye is extracted in the dyebath (no preparation required). They gave very different results.
Ashley and Susan had prepared the Liles method in advance and brought a madder dyebath which combined three days of extract. The Ethel Mairet bath was created by adding dry madder root to the dyebath (contained in an old paid of tights to prevent pieces getting caught in the wool and silk fibre).
In both recipes the wool was added to the dyebath at room temperature and heated to 82°C (simmering temperature) for 1.5 hours (Liles) or 1 hour (Mairet). Liles then instructed us to remove the wool, cool it and rinse it before putting it back in the bath at 70°C for 10-15 minutes. Then it was drained, cooled and gently rinsed. By contrast, after simmering the wool for an hour Mairet recommended boiling for the final five minutes before removing the wool, cooling it and rinsing.
In both dyebaths we resisted the temptation to agitate the fibre lest we felt it. We carefully turned the fibre over once in the Mairet bath.
We also used a dyebath created by vigorous boiling of the madder root left over after 3 days of the Liles madder extraction process. Ashley called this his surprise “4th extract”.
The results were interesting. The Liles recipe, extracted over days 1-3, gave the strongest colour (seen in the two samples on the right), followed by the Liles fourth extraction (sample bottom left). The Mairet recipe resulted in a very patchy sample that was much paler (top left).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, overdyeing with indigo some of the yellow samples dyed the previous day continued, and soon there was a splendid range of greens hanging outside.
The buttery mid yellows gave the brightest greens when overdyed; more orangey yellows gave a more olive green.
Ashley also demonstrated how multiple dips in woad helped get a deeper colour. The wool on the left has been dipped in woad five times while the wool on the right has been dipped only once.
Susan showed us a sample card of how acid and alkali modifiers after dyeing can change the colour, depending on the fibre and the mordant.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to overdye the madder samples with indigo to see if we could get purple shades, but we had quite a lot to take home already! We spent the last hour of the workshop splitting up all the samples so that everyone had a good collection to take home.
Suan and Ashley were very generous, offering us more weld, madder roots and all the leftover dye baths to take home. Many of us also bought seeds to start our own dye gardens!
There was just time to take a final photo of the beautiful rainbow of samples before heading back out into a grey January evening.
And here is the collection of plant-dyed wool and silk that I ended up with.
Huge thanks to Sally for her organisation and to Susan, Ashley and Brian for such a wonderful colourful weekend!