My Love Affair with Indigo
A bit more than half a century ago I set off for Japan to study. I think of myself as a practical optimist. That is, I always expect the best to happen while planning for the worst. I was seventeen at the time I went and initially planned to be there only a year. Armed with savings from my newspaper route, baby-sitting and lawn mowing jobs I was faced with a choice–spend it all during this first year with the assumption I would never make it back, or be a bit more parsimonious hoping that I would stay much longer.
It was the middle of the Vietnam Era with all its uncertainty for young people. I decided to spend it all, supplemented by teaching English part time, and let the future deal to me what it may. This spending spree wasn’t on wild times–I invested in dye supplies, textiles, and most importantly, books. Books for now, books for the future. How-to books, photo essays, and limited editions with actual textile samples included. This was the peak period of the revived arts-and-crafts period in Japan and exquisite books were available with every paycheck.
I wound up spending five years in Japan studying, with many later visits and exhibitions. The future did take care of itself and I still have the books. But it is only in recent years that I have been able to take time to revisit my treasured investment.
I teach in my studio and give my students access to my full library, most of which is in Japanese. Not long ago one of these students pulled a book from the shelf and asked me to translate the activities taking place in the photos.
Ah! What a flash back! Decades earlier I was exposed to indigo dyeing in combination with rice-paste resist. I was so enamored that I promptly went out and bought every book I could find on the subject. The book before me now was one of those clasped to my chest so long ago. The subject: fresh-leaf indigo dyeing. It sent me off on a reading binge–revisiting these long neglected printed friends.
John in 1974, Asahi Newspaper, Japan
How many of you were fortunate enough to have spent time with Dorothy Miller? She was a delightful researcher and dyer who helped to spread knowledge of Japanese indigo in the US. Dorothy wrote the classic book, Indigo from Seed to Dye, 1982, and even supplied Persicaria seeds to help spread her gospel. Since that time many others have done a great deal to keep interest in indigo alive and growing, most notably Rowland Ricketts, who keeps information available on-line in his on-going research.
I loved the idea that Dorothy gave out seeds with her book, which nodded to the mind-feast found in Japanese sample books. There are basically three categories of sample books available from Japan, most of which are no longer produced. They include the samples a salesman would take door to door to show potential clients the newest in patterns and colors available for special-order kimono. This “book” was actually a bolt of silk that included many colorways of the patterns being offered. Next would be the reference books produced by a dye or weaving house in which snippets were pasted to keep track of each year's production, or record favorite samples from outside sources. And in more modern times, books that include samples for the researcher, historian, or artist. It is this last category that is nearest my heart, and that Dorothy touched on with her seeds. Hmm, I could do something like that…
Well, if I’m going to translate the text for this one student, then why not for others? My plan developed into translating a given topic from many sources, test the information and re-present the topic in a logic and manner palatable to the West. I decided to start with the question at hand, fresh-leaf indigo, and wrote off to Rowland for seeds, which he generously supplied. The end result was a limited edition book on the subject.
Rear view of John’s studio in Covelo. Indigo patch in foreground.
Dyeing with Fresh-Leaf Indigo
limited edition (sold out)
I live in a very rural, mountainous part of Northern California, at the end of the highway and a long way from sympathy. The soil in my yard is rich with a high level of ground water I pump from a well.
We can have frost and even snow well into May, so I planted my seeds indoors the first week of March and set them outside in mid-May. The area is only about 900 square feet, a raised bed with good drainage, under a
massive black walnut tree. I get very good sun from late morning to early evening, and the indigo thrived.
Every year I have an older friend, Mrs. Kanematsu, come from
come from Japan for the summer. A neighbor of hers, whom I knew forty years ago, sent a present of a bolt of silk shot with gold threads. I decided to use the silk to make a blouse for each of them.
We picked some of the leaves from the garden, cooked them up a bit like spinach, strained them, added thiox and washing soda and had a vat ready in no time. In preparation I pulled a couple of stencils I carved years ago, and applied rice paste to the area that would later be the shoulder and sleeve of the blouse. Several dips later we had beautifully dyed silk. After rinsing thoroughly, I applied a coat of soymilk, allowed it to cure, and had two unique blouses sewn up by the time Mrs. K had to go home.
Indigo after first dip.
Indigo after several dips.
Detail Of Mrs. K’s blouse.
Mrs. Kanematsu and Mrs. Sakamoto in Tokyo
Project for You
The fresh leaves also give a beautiful robin’s egg blue if used with cold water and no chemicals. The leaves may be dried and used to make a reduced vat using Thiox and washing soda. Or the reduced dye may be converted into a dry pigment to be used whenever convenient. Let me walk you though a project using all three in combination.
In preparation, I collected the aibana (bubbles) from the top of a reduction vat and allow it to dry, creating a pigment. I picked leaves at the peak of the season and allowed them to dry for later use (just store them like onions skins or any other dry herb). I scoured some fine-quality Japanese silk–a leno weave to allow for good penetration of the dye.
I don’t iron my scoured yardage. Instead I stretch it moist on traditional Japanese equipment, called harite and shinshi. This allows the fabric to dry wrinkle-free, with the maximum amount of surface area exposed for dye absorption.
Aibana (indigo bubbles) ready to be collected.
Using a blue-pencil (a Chinese version of aobana, disappearing ink) mark off guides on the silk. Using the dried aibana (bubbles) mixed with soymilk, improvise a stamp-pad by saturating a kitchen sponge with the mixture. I’ve chosen a carved block from India and use it just like a rubber stamp to create a repeating pattern within my guide marks.
Pleat the yardage following the guide marks. To keep the pleats lined up neatly, stitch the edges at key points. Pinch with C-clamps covering the printed portion with washers.
Pick fresh indigo leaves from the garden, the cool of the early morning is best. Place them in a blender with ice water and churn until the leaves are finely ground and you have a frothy mixture. Strain. Repeat until you have enough liquid to immerse your clamped piece.
Submerge your clamped silk in the fresh-leaf, ice-cold liquid, swishing occasionally to encourage the dye to penetrate. The longer you leave the silk soaking, the deeper the developing color will become. This can take from one to three hours. Remove from the bath and allow to dry, or at least stops dripping.
Remove the clamps and replace the washers with larger washers or circles – large enough to cover the printed area as well as some of the robins-egg blue dyed in the previous step.
After the first dunking, remove the washers protecting the printed area and replace with a larger set.
Dried Fresh-Leaf Indigo, Reduced
Cook up a batch of fresh-leaf indigo leaves, prepared earlier, on a low simmer for about ten minutes. Pour off and dispose of this water (you were just cleaning and preparing the leaves for the next step). Replace the water and again bring to a low simmer for about ten minutes. Add washing soda and Thiox at about a 2:1 ratio to reduce the dye. Strain out the vegetable matter and save aside. Repeat this process up to three times, combining the liquids. (You’ll notice as you remove the cooked, reduced leaves from the vat that they will appear yellow, but turn blue as exposed to the air.)
Your vat is ready. It may be used in this very warm state or allowed to cool.
Dip the clamped silk into the reduced vat and swish it gently under the surface.
Pull the silk from the vat to expose to air and allow oxidation to take place. It helps to gently open up the pleats to allow air to penetrate for good color development. Repeat this process until a deep blue develops. Allow to dry, or at least stops dripping.
Remove the clamps and the washers. Clip and remove the threads. Open up the pleats and allow to dry for a day. Add about a tablespoon of vinegar to a five-gallon bucket of water and rinse the dyed yardage. The vinegar will help to neutralize the alkalinity introduced to the silk when dyeing with the reduced vat. Allow to dry.
I always give my yardage a final coat of soymilk. This helps to set any dye from the reduced vat that may want to crock, helps reduce the potential for fading, and helps to reduce soilage over time.
And there you have it!