Dyeing with dried indigo leaves

Because we had such a long hot summer in the UK last year my homegrown Japanese indigo lasted well into the autumn, and I didn’t have time to use all the fresh leaves for dyeing.

I’m always reluctant to waste anything so at the end of the season I cut the remaining stems, tied them into bunches, and hung them in my airing cupboard to dry out. Quite a few of them had flowers on, so I snipped these off and dried them separately in a paper bag to save the seeds.

bundles of indigo leaves

Within a few weeks the leaves had dried out and gone slightly blue (dried bunch on the right).

dried indigo leaves

I stripped all the dried leaves off and stored them, hoping to find a method of making an indigo vat with dried leaves.

I then managed to acquire a copy of John Marshall’s excellent book Singing the Blues, which contains lots of ideas for using fresh indigo leaves, as well as a method of making a vat with dried leaves. Eureka!

John’s method involves heating the leaves with soda ash (alkali) and thiox (thiorea dioxide – reducing agent), but I didn’t really like the idea of heating thiox, which produces harmful vapours above 40ºC. So I decided to try making the vat with lime as the alkali and fructose as the reducing agent. This is how I make organic indigo vats, following Michel Garcia’s 123 recipe (1 part indigo, 2 parts lime, 3 parts fructose).

The problem, of course, is that I had no idea about the quantity of indigo contained in the leaves. It was at the end of the season, and some of the plants had flowered, so the level of indigo was likely to be low. When I extracted indigo from fresh leaves earlier last year, I obtained 4g of solid pigment from 215g of fresh leaves – but I don’t know how pure the indigo was.

dried indigo leaves in pot

Fresh leaves weigh more than dried leaves so I decided to assume 4g of indigo in my dried leaves, which was probably on the optimistic side!

Here’s what I did:

  • I simmered my 104g of dried leaves in 5 litres of water for 20 minutes to remove impurities, strained the leaves and discarded the liquid.

dried indigo leaves in water

  • I simmered the same leaves in another 5 litres of water with 8g of lime and 12g of fructose for 20 minutes. John Marshall says a dark blue film should form on the surface, but I didn’t see this. The liquid was a very dark yellow. I strained it and kept the liquid anyway.

straining dried indigo

  • I then repeated the previous step three times. The second time I got a little blue, but by the third and fourth times there was significantly more blue and even a little indigo “flower”.

  • I combined the second, third and fourth extractions and decided to discard the first extraction, as it didn’t look as if it contained much indigo.
  • I let the extractions cool down and then added a couple of pieces of cotton – one plain, one with shibori bindings. I left them for five minutes, wrung them out and hung them to oxidise.
  • There was barely any colour at all after the first dip, so I repeated this three more times. The final result is shown below. The colour in the photos actually looks a bit darker than in real life.

shibori in dried indigo leaves vat shibori in dried indigo leaves vat

So the technique does work. The pale colour is probably due to low indigo levels in the leaves at the end of the season.

It is quite time consuming, but may be a way of preserving indigo leaves for later use if you don’t have time to use them fresh or don’t have facilities for composting.

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Indigo shibori workshop for felters

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.

stitching shibori

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!

shibori washing line

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.

pole wrapped shibori unpicking shibori

We also found a more photogenic place to hang our work. 😉

indigo shibori indigo shibori indigo shibori indigo shibori indigo shibori

At the end of the day everyone had a good collection of samples to take home and seemed very happy!

ifa shibori samplesIFA shibori workshop

Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations

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.

Now Yoshioka is back, this time with a bigger exhibition at Japan House called Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations.

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!

Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations runs at Japan House until 19 May 2019.

Textiles in Turin

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. 🙂

Disappearing dye

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.

Egyptian dresses

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.

Fabulous felt

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.

A week of indigo

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!

Extracting indigo from homegrown plants

A couple of years ago I grew Japanese indigo in my London garden for the first time, and tried dyeing with fresh leaves as well as making a reduced vat.

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.

indigo harvest

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.

indigo fermentation start

A couple of days later I could see an oily slick on top of the water – a good sign that fermentation was happening.

indigo fermentation middle

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.

indigo fermentation end

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.

indigo precipitation

So I decanted most of the liquid from the bucket, adding it to my current indigo vat.

indigo decanting

Then I poured the sludge at the bottom into a coffee filter.

indigo filtering

After filtering and drying, I was left with 4g of homegrown indigo.

indigo pigment

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!

indigo rooting

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! 🙂

Marbling on paper and silk

About four years ago I did an evening workshop on marbling paper. It was fun but the results were not fantastic. So I thought I’d give it another go on a three-day workshop at City Lit with Royston Haward.

marbled paper

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.

suminagashi samples

We also tried it on rice paper.

suminagashi 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.

suminagashi on silk suminagashi on silk suminagashi on silk

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? 😉

Hand dyed ribbons

A friend of mine, Ruth Eaton, who designs beautiful contemporary embroidery, had an idea a couple of months ago about producing naturally dyed ribbons.

So we looked at what was available online, and I ordered some silk to start doing some samples.

These three were dyed with, left to right, avocado, nettles and dried hibiscus flowers, with an alum mordant.

ribbons natural dyes

With the avocado and hibiscus I strained the dye to remove the vegetation before adding the ribbon, but I left the nettles in with the ribbon, which left interesting mottled marks on the silk.

ribbons nettle dye

During my research I noticed that although there are quite a few people already selling naturally dyed ribbons, there are not many selling indigo shibori ribbons.

Always preferring the path less trod, I tried some marbled indigo and arashi indigo designs. 🙂

marbled indigo ribbon arashi indigo ribbon

These are now available in my Etsy shop. Thanks Ruth!

indigo marbled ribbon

indigo arashi ribbon