I have a fascination with indigo. The long history of this plant-based dye and the deep, rich shades of blue drew me in. But the mysterious process by which it is fixed to fiber without the use of a mordant intimidated me. My love for the color was not enough for me to take the deep dive into learning how to create a vat. Until I had some motivation!
For the last several years I've enjoyed working with the students in my daughters' classes each spring on a project to be auctioned in support of the school. The classrooms are named for colors and I like to use the color as a starting off point for the project. When my older daughter learned she would be joining the Indigo room, I knew I had the inspiration for her class auction project and I set out to learn how this dye process works.
We began by taking a workshop with the talented L.A.-based artist, Graham Keegan, on block printing with indigo. The year prior, we had really enjoyed his workshop on Shirbori dye methods using indigo. This one promised a new resist technique and discussion on how to build and maintain an organic indigo vat.
I took what we learned in the workshop and ran some experiments of my own over the Christmas break. I wanted to find a recipe that would yield good results and be easy to create with 23 3rd- and 4th-graders. I made the cold iron vat that we used in his workshop but I also tested three other vats - each with a different reducing agent: henna, fructose crystals and madder root. As suspected, the colors varied in each and I ended up with skeins of yarn dyed in a variety of blues. Happy with the results, and clear on my recipe, I set this yarn aside and continued preparations for the school project.
The School Project
The class auction project was a big success! Each student measured their own skein of yarn. A small group worked with me to create the vats we would use. Each day we would attend to their temperature and check their pH, making adjustments as needed. I worked with groups of 6 children at a time to tie their skeins and dye them such that each would be unique.
The yarn was arranged on the loom in a striped pattern so each child could identify their work. With this warp, I created a throw blanket and set of pillows in a pointed twill weave. The weft I used was a natural cotton yarn.
I still had 3 lbs of indigo-dyed yarn at home to play around with. It remained in a bin until a sweet mama contacted me with a custom she had in mind. She mentioned loving blues, special hand-dyed fibers and images of splattered paints. I wondered if this might be the warp for her and she agreed!
Along the way, she sent me this inspiration image. To create something with the same level of delicate detail, we chose to work with an 8-shaft crackle draft.
The skeins were wound and sorted by color. We wanted to create a gradation of blues from one rail to the other.
I set about beaming the loom.
We knew it would be a short warp - just 15 yards - and we hoped it would yield two wraps and possibly a ring sling piece. She chose a sister for the second long piece and we looked at wefts, including a number of natural yarns and one dark blue tsumugi silk. In the end, Egyptian cotton and seacell/silk were chosen - in addition to the tsumugi for the third piece.
So 15 yards did not get us as far as we had hoped. But we did end up with one 4.8 meter wrap with Egyptian cotton weft, one 3.6 meter wrap with seacell/silk weft and one lovely shawl with Tsumugi silk weft to add to my collection!
I find it so crazy that such beauty is derived from the muck in these jars!
I'm calling this one version 1 as I know I'll be doing this again. It is slow, slow work. The indigo vat is like a living thing. It needs to be crafted with care and attended to. It must rest between use and requires patience to maintain. But it's a very rewarding process. I'm hoping to be diving back in again soon.