Shibori in glorious action

We started this experiment before Kim’s big adventure abroad. It was a rainy, cold, crap day in May, so inside time was just the thing. Below are the three types of shibori using clamps, called itajime in Japanese, we explored: kikko (tortoise fold), bomaki (pole wrapping) and trellis fold, which is a square fold using a diagonal stick as a resist.

A month later, we set up our vats. After dunking away, this is what—bah dum bum— unfolded.


A Handbook of Indigo Dyeing by Vivien Prideaux

This 2003 how-to has several recipes for indigo vats: zinc and lime, hydrosulfite, and bio-vat (with dates!). I found the explanations for shibori-tying techniques very clear and a good starting point to try to understand some of that beautiful work we saw in the Mary Hark -Indigo Swatchbook show we saw at the Textile Center. I also like the simple pattern for “the Bog Jacket.”

Crumpled key to the shibori kingdom


Here’s our roadmap for summer fabric-folding fun! Lovely Claudia from Mexico City slipped me this guide in Oaxaca. (Regrets to the copyright owner.)

But first, May Day and Shepherd’s Harvest.


Kim and Dan the Man at last year’s Shepherd’s Harvest. You can always count on Kim to bring the goods—culinary and otherwise—including an indigo-dyed tablecloth!

India Freehand

This came across my screen, just as we are searching for ways to use surface design in our Indigo Tablecloths. Fascinating freehand drawing, with dot guides.

Isabella Whitworth

kolambull Sketchbook pages from Madurai showing kolam designs recreated after photographing in situ

I’m recently back from a few weeks in Tamil Nadu, Southern India and this post strays from dyes and textiles to celebrate kolam. Kolam are the daily drawings drawn freehand at the threshold of houses by women, using rice flour. Designs are sinuous or angular; sometimes figurative, but usually abstract. They incorporate lines enclosing series of dots called pulli. Kolam can be found in many parts of India, where they are known by other names, such as rangoli and muggulu.

Kolam have religious and ornamental significance and there are several websites devoted to explanations on their history, making and meaning – as well as their complex mathematics. I’ve put some links below but I warn you, it’s addictive stuff.

I began to photograph kolam in Tamil Nadu because I was instantly attracted to them for their apparent simplicity, only to find them much too complex to sketch accurately in a busy, scorching street…

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A super scientific Sun-dye

On our first dye-day of 2017, Kim and I posed the question: How to de-uglify a tablecloth? We spent Sunday exploring the possibilities while sampling the popular 1-2-3 method.


Cotton-blend tablecloth from Ax-Man. Note: Kim’s red clogs.


Our indigo stash after overwintering in Kim’s garage.

The 1-2-3 vat is credited to Michel Garcia, a natural dyer and a visiting artist guru at the Textile Center. Other dyers also praise it, including Jenny DeanCatharine Ellis and Annabella Sardelis of Indigo + Snow.

As natural dyer Catharine Ellis writes: “Observe carefully.
One must be patient with the indigo vat.”

In years past, we had been pleased with the intensity of our blue obtained through James Liles’s Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing indigo recipe, which calls for tiny amounts of lye, along with sodium hydrosulfite (color remover) and washing soda, to deoxygenate the vat. But participants at the World Shibori Network conference in Oaxaca, which featured workshops by Michel Garcia, convinced us his method was the one to try. So we bought a kit at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca and gave it a shot.


Kim holds the Michel Garcia 1-2-3 indigo kit. Ace bucket is filled with old indigo from last year.

1-2-3 stands for:

  • 1 part indigo
  • 2 parts lime
  • 3 parts fructose. Remember it with the (not) handy mnemonic ILF.

Because the kit was stingy on its fructose, we also made a vat using succanet, a natural sugar found at the co-op.

After assembly and ample time waiting—taking care to not rush the vat while we ate leftover Easter ham—we dipped in our tablecloths and another project for our friend, Kris. We dipped and we dipped and we dipped again. All we got was a dusky blue, best captured on Kris’s shirt torso.

So we revived last year’s vat by goosing it with color remover, and…


Voila! Some bad cloth-management handling, yes, but a blue as deep and intense as the ocean. Which is the indigo dyer’s quest. At least, it’s ours. We won’t give up on Garcia’s 1-2-3, but we won’t apologize for choosing the method that pleases us best.


In the air


Mary Hark’s work at the Textile Center of Minnesota

You know how when you learn a word, you start to read and see it everywhere? That’s how I feel about indigo.

Recently, I was purchasing items that evoke those traded in the 1760s for my job at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. My to-buy list was deep—garters, sugar nippers, escutcheons, cloves—but my colleague, a graphic designer, felt we needed one more thing. She suggested “French indigo.” I said, “Why not?” So I hopped on Botanical Colors and bought a pack. I should receive it by midweek, and it’ll add a vivid blue to our display.

Then yesterday, while sitting at my home office, I saw this display float past. It was Friday prayer at the local mosque, and the local Somali women were headed over. Note the one on the right, an indigo lover if ever I saw one.


View of Somali women from my window

My same work friend, Kris, suggested we knock off work early. It was a beautiful, sunny Friday, so we crossed the Mississippi River to the Textile Center of Minnesota. What did we find? An exhibition of Mary Hark’s indigo dyeing work, drawing from the richness of African shibori techniques. There is much here for Kim and me to learn!

Outside, the robins are singing, the crocus are poking their purple heads through the earth, the joggers are gamboling around on bare legs, and indigo is definitely in the air.

The frustration of fugitive fabrics


Indigo drying on linen (left) and wool

IMG_4230Kim and I joke that, to maintain a garment dyed in indigo’s deep, luscious hues, someone needs to follow us around with a water spritzer. Truth is, some fabrics simply don’t take indigo. When wet, they may start out an inky azul, and we get smug. Then, by the time we crack open the wine, the material fades to the color of your mother’s dungarees, c. 1977—a baby blue that looks like the pale sky I see out my window right now.

The white linen sleeveless dress, pictured here, is a perfect case in point. I have dyed it no less than a dozen times, over numerous days and successive years. I’ve tried everything: left it in, dunked it repeatedly, dried it between dips, dipped it in quick succession. No matter what I do, it doesn’t take. Once it dries, it’s boring baby blue. Blah.

So, what’s the reason? Bleached linen might be too processed to accept dye. Note, I’ve had terrific success on raw linen, below (see navy near Kim’s nape). Experts say, and our own experience confirms, that protein-based fibers—wool, mohair (!)—are a dyer’s dream.


Then again, silk—also a protein—can also fade to nada. And, yes, we’ve tried to “set” the dye using baths of either salt water and white vinegar. More experimentation on fabrics is definitely in our plans.