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Jan 16

An Ode to Indigo

This is what happens when two long-term fiber friends, who don’t see each other very often, get together–we talk natural dyes, especially indigo, and weaving. We utter the words of “remember when”, and “what is she doing now”, and talk about the wise ones who are no longer with us.

A fermenting indigo dyepot with its trademark scum.

A fermenting indigo dyepot with its trademark scum.

What a pleasure it was spending a few days last week with Dagmar Klos, natural dye expert and teacher. (She was here in Colorado making a video on natural dyes for Interweave. Our acquaintance stems back to Chicago grade-school days and was rekindled in the 80s at a weaving conference.) So when our conversation turned to indigo and who first introduced us to it, Dorothy Miller’s name tumbled from our lips.  She taught any number of workshops on indigo, safflower dyeing, and shifu (paper spinning) at the Textile Arts Centre in Chicago.

Dorothy gathered information on indigo dyeing over most of her life after first seeing the process while living in Japan during the 1950s. In 1973, after almost 25 years, she returned there and studied indigo in earnest. In 1975, she brought back seeds to the U.S., from Mr. Kitajima of Ibaragi-ken who grew indigo of the Polygonum tinctorum variety, a member of the buckwheat family. Many indigo growers/dyers here in the U.S. are probably using seeds that are direct descendants of these.

This small book by Dorothy Miller is still a go-to source for planting, growing, harvesting and dyeing indigo.

This small book by Dorothy Miller is still a go-to source for planting, growing, harvesting and dyeing indigo.

Her little book, Indigo from Seed to Dye (Indigo Press, 1984), takes you through the stages of growing, making, and dyeing with indigo. It was one of the very first English-language books on the subjects and is still used by many dyers.

We talked about what we learned from Michele Wipplinger of earthues and how, now, I quick-step the indigo-dyeing process by using her indigo dyeing kit. (If you want to read more from Michele and use her indigo dye recipe, read this Hand/Eye Magazine article.)

Then Dagmar and I moved on to talking about the new, visually-lush book by Catherine Legrand, Indigo: The Color that Changed the World (Thames & Hudson, Inc. 2013). There’s an inspiring two-page spread on the ai calendar (ai is the Japanese word for indigo), starting with the planting of the seeds on an auspicious March day and ending in February with sukumo, the final dyestuff that is packaged into sacks or sometimes into concentrated balls called ai-dama.

A concentrated ball of indigo.

A concentrated ball of indigo.

I, of course, have my other go-to sources for inspiration and information, just as Dagmar does. I can be washed over in blue while watching the documentary, Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo,  by Mary Lance. Or be swooped up in the growing and processing of Polygonum tinctorum indigo here in the States with the IndiGrowing Blue participatory art project, started in 2010 by Rowland Ricketts III.

Or I can sew using the already-dyed indigo cotton or hemp fabric, prewashing it to release any excess blue. The excess blue comes from unattached particles that have not been dissolved. These particles do not dye permanently. Dagmar Klos recommends washing indigo-dyed fabric in really hot water with a neutral or mild soap.  The hot, soapy water should remove most of the excess indigo. But, if in doubt, repeat again or wash your indigo fabric with your blue jeans!

Thanks to Dagmar for conjuring up so many memories. What about your indigo remembrances? Stories from the dyepot? What are your favorite go-to sources for indigo? Post them here to share with us.

And in remembrance to Dorothy Miller, here’s a poem she wrote in 1981:

Ode to Indigo

Leaves of green what does your future hold?
Blue of the sky for baby’s robe?
Blue of the sea for the coat of the lamb,
waiting to be carded and spun?
Blue of indigo, deep as the blue of the woods at night.
Leaves of green with holes tinged with blue,
the insects bite,
what does your future hold?

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