I try to make Spinning and Dyeing classes at Place des Arts very flexible and adapt what we learn based on what the students are most interested in learning. This time around the students were keen on putting together an indigo vat and seeing what that was all about.
Even though I’ve made my own indigo vats before, studied indigo dyeing with Kathy Hattori and Michele Whipplinger at Earthues in Seattle, and also visited an indigo dye studio in Kyoto, the thought of making an indigo vat with other people still makes me so nervous! There are so many steps where something could go wrong… luckily the indigo gods favoured us (at least initially).
We used the lovely instructional handout from Maiwa to make our indigo vat, and supplemented with additional details from Earthues. We chose the “lye-thiourea vat” instructions and used the natural indigo from Maiwa. As well, I had a supply of hide glue (made from rabbit skin… not all natural dyeing is vegan!) and we added this to our vat as a protective coating for the wool and silk we were dipping. The lye makes a terrifying hissing sound as you enter it into the boiling water and conversations about that scene in Fight Club started up. Oh my two great loves: dyeing and Fight Club, united at last.
Indigo is magical. The dye vat is murky and swampy looking (and smelling), and it looks greenish-yellow… not at all the “blue jeans” blue that we all recognize. This is because the indigo vat is supposed to be devoid of oxygen. The lye (strong alkali) and thiourea dioxide (reducing agent) modify the vat so that it is basic and free of oxygen. You dip the yarn and fabric into the indigo vat, and only when you bring the dyed material out of the bath does it get exposed to oxygen and the transformation takes place. The oxidation of the indigo causes the colour of the yarn to turn from greenish-yellow to blue. You can then gently rinse the dyed yarn in a plain water bath which helps speed the oxidation process. It’s this transformation of colour that makes indigo dyeing seem so mysterious.
One thing indigo dyeing does need is a lot of time. We had only a scant 2.5 hour class from start to finish, so we all got a chance to dip at least once in the indigo vat. But after so much “commotion” we basically re-introduced a lot of oxygen into the vat, making it ineffective. Ideally, we would have had time to sit around and gently heat up the vat a little and let it “rest” and reduce again, but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time.
Overdyeing in indigo can be a rewarding practice. Taking anything from coloured commercial yarn to naturally dyed handspun, you can dip nearly anything in indigo (paper, cotton fabric, silk, etc.). Heather had previously dyed some golden yellow fibre using acid dyes but wasn’t happy with the colour she got. So she spun it and dropped it into the indigo vat to get this lovely green colour she had been chasing all term.
I think of indigo vats like I do about sourdough starters. They are alive. You feed them and watch them. Over time, you become masterfully aware of what the vat needs and when. I think in the future, indigo dyeing might be best done as a full-day or two-day workshop rather than a quickie primer like we did. But I’m glad we got the chance to try it.
This term, our spinning and dyeing goals have been about progression and pushing our own boundaries. Many of the students started at zero and chose fibre, dyed it themselves, and spun it with an eye towards knitting (or weaving) something at the end of it. We’ve just finished this term, but the next term begins again in a couple weeks on April 9th, just after I return from Japan. Maybe I’ll find some new things to share.