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    The term indigo has many meanings. It can refer to a mood, a color, a textile product, or a dye source. We'll be dealing with it today as a dye source used to enhance textile products.

    The component that makes up the dye color we call indigo is indigoten. I once had a man who represented himself as a colonel telephoning from India ask me if I used “God's only true indigo”, Indigofera tinctoria. Idigofera is the most commonly used natural indigo dye, however the fact of the matter is that many, many plants contain indigoten and all seem to fall under God's care.

    Due to divergent evolution, for some unknown reason many unrelated plants around the world have come to produce this pigment. This includes woad (Isatis tinctoria) which is the dye used by the Celts to dye themselves and scare away the Romans in ancient times; it includes Anil (Indigofera suffruticosa) and Natal indigo (Indigofera arrecta) found in Latin America; and of course it includes the dyer's knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum) - the most commonly used indigo in Japan.

    In the pure state, the pigments derived from all of the above plants give exactly the same color. The subtle variations between sources is due to the other pigments each plant uniquely contains, along with other inherent impurities. Many people around the world prefer the warm glow found in Japanese indigo.

    The Japanese use natural fermentation vats to create the color. The plant must be harvested, composted, and eventually mixed with nutrients and water in a vat. While in the vat the dye is actually green. It is in what is called a “reduced state” (the oxygen has been removed). The yarn or yardage is dipped into the vat to absorb the liquid. It is only when the fiber is removed, and exposed to air, that it turns blue, fixing the color to the threads. With each dip more color is absorbed and oxidized darkening the yarns. Eventually, after fifteen or more dips, the yarn or yardage becomes the deep rich navy color with which we are all familiar. Of course, with fewer dips, very beautiful pale indigo shades may also be achieved.
    Indigo, because it is a very alkaline dye, has a great affinity for cellulose based fibers, so we see it most commonly used with cottons and linens. Indigo also has a very distinctive aroma - an aroma that seems to repel insects and other vermin. It is for this reason that it is quite often used in association with baby clothes, bedding, and summer wear.
Indigo on cotton yogi (kaimaki) with rice paste resist. Although “kimono” shaped, the yogi functions as a top quilt for nighttime slumbers.

Notice the two shades of indigo. To achieve this affect the paste is applied to keep the white areas white. The fabric is then dunked until the medium shade of blue is achieved. More paste is applied - this time to protect the areas to remain a paler blue. Several more dunks to darken the background and the paste is then rinsed away to reveal this energetic depiction of a palownia leaf crest and tabanenoshi. Sometimes “miai” (a high quality Prussian blue) is brushed on for the medium blue instead of the initial dunkings.
Again, indigo on cotton with rice paste resist. This particular variety of katazome is called “chuugata”. True chuugata has paste applied to both sides of the fabric with matching stencils. This insures there will be no bleed through from the back when the cloth is dunked into the indigo, ensuring a crisp, stark white pattern as a companion to the rich blues of the indigo.

Notice in the detail shot how the indigo has wicked (traveled) along the woven thread creating a beautiful tonal variation. It is this variation in indigo tones that adds life to every piece.
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with John Marshall
Welcome new friends and old! I've often been asked to write about a variety of Japanese textile and culture related subjects. This page allows me the opportunity to address your requests and to ramble off on side subjects wherever my whim and imagination lead.
Ichiroya has graciously allowed me to use images from their site to illustrate my ramblings. This is not a financial arrangement I have made - I simply believe them to be wonderful people with whom I enjoy doing business, and wish to support their endeavors. Ichiroya is a web based treasure trove of Japanese textiles, antiques, and information. If you haven't visited them in the past, just click on the icon to the left! Or, click on any of the images below to be taken directly to their page for more images and information.