Dealing in the divine

My world collided last week. What serendipity! Kim and I had the good fortune to attend a daylong symposium about indigo at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

There we were among leading scholars, curators, thinkers, and practitioners of the art of indigo. The goal was to clarify the intellectual underpinnings and artistic priorities of an intervention, planned for 2021, for the museum’s Charleston, S.C., period rooms, two rooms removed from a house once owned by Col. John Stuart. The colonial made his fortune off the labor and wisdom of enslaved people, some of whom likely brought with them a tradition of indigo from West Africa. Grown for export to Britain, indigo was a major industry before the Civil War.

Mia curators Nicole LaBouff and Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers assembled the leading lights of indigo scholarship, along with members of the Minneapolis-based Cultural Wellness Center, local natural-dye artist Annabella Sardelis of Indigo and Snow, and two fine artists from Mali and Chicago, respectively: Aboubakar Fofana and Folayemi Wilson.

There’s still much to be worked out, but it’s likely that Fofana and Wilson will create original pieces to animate the unseen stories behind indigo at the Stuart house. I have every confidence this intervention will be revelatory, both in illuminating the stories behind and also the beauty of indigo.

To Fofana, indigo is a spiritual substance. In Mali, where he runs an indigo farm for his art practice, the plant is a “divine tree,” he said, which his grandmother used in traditional healing for its antiseptic properties. “I’m trying to preserve and maintain a lost tradition,” he said. “Because losing that is like losing my soul. And it keeps [my grandmother] in my life.”

Meeting Fofana fulfilled a dream of ours. His palette of indigo reaches to 12 shades, and he has a lovely name for each of them. He is gentle, thoughtful, generous and inspiring.

After the Mia event, he held a trunk show at the Textile Center. An enthusiastic audience eagerly embraced him. Minnesotans love their textile makers.

Stay tuned for future sightings of Fofana and Wilson in Mia’s galleries. Let there be indigo!

Bloomin’ indigo summer

I can tell you where summer went: to work. Kim and I both added new jobs to our lives, and that left precious little time for our Sun-dye routine. But recently, we fired up a pot for a few personal projects.

Project one: The white linen dress
Kim’s new boss, Sarah from the luscious wee fabric store Lakes Makerie, asked for a dip. Linen is fickle, but after four dips, the color deepened into a hypnotic blue. A particularly fetching detail was the resistance of the internal cotton piping to shift. The result (lower left) resembles a morning glory.

Project 2: My big dumb sweater
A year ago, I bought this big dumb sweater jacket. Made of wool and white as a NoDak blizzard, it needed an intervention big time. I’m nuts about the minimalist color-blocking of Ellsworth Kelly, so I summoned the master and dyed a blob. Here I am, modeling it in the appropriately named Minneapolis boutique, Show and Tell, another of Kim’s gigs.

Project 3: Bloomin’ bloomers
Only Kim would buy vintage bloomers, then decide to dye them. When I asked, “What on earth are you going to do with those?” she answered, “Wear them in winter!” Well, OK. I’d reach for Smartwool first, but that’s Kim for you.

Ho, Ho! Holiday Sale at the Textile Center
Five leather and one vegan leather jackets by mndigo will be featured in the show/sale. The Textile Center is the best place in town for any textile addict. We’re incredibly pleased to be in such fine company. Below are our featured goods.

Shout out to Kris Thayer for the stunning mndigo tags!

Khmer golden silk + Kampot pepper rum

How many silk garments do you own? I bet I have at least 70 silk shirts, scarves, dresses, coats, even pants. Probably more. Next question: Where does silk come from? Intellectually, I’m sure most of us can identify the Bombyx mori, the silkworm first cultivated in China. But have you ever seen a silkworm feed on mulberry leaves? Spin a cocoon? Get cooked in hot water and be spun into fiber? Neither had I.

So it was a lucky day when I got to escape Phnom Penh’s midday heat for a trip to Silk Island. My guide was Yoen (below), a father of three sons and survivor of the Khmer Rouge with a list of American friends as long as his chopsticks. If you ever find yourself in Cambodia and need a guide, he’s the guy for you.

Yoen drove me on his tuktuk through horrible traffic, over a bridge, then across a river on a ferry to the island, where Golden Silk is King. FYI: head-to-toe pjs is street-style chic.

There I got an education about the 38-day lifecycle of the Cambodian golden silkworm. I’ll let the photo montage above do the talking. One of the high points was seeing this weaver at rest (below). Love her!

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Later, I went to the capital city’s Russian Market, where I met this vendor of local silks. Cambodia’s silk industry is rebounding now, 40 years after the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge. So naturally I was moved to support it. The intricate ikat patterns astound me.

Phnom Penh is a vibrant, fascinating, rugged city. While its past is very present, given the recent crackdown on press freedom and democracy, it has a lot of love to share. A new rum distillery, operated by two Venezuelans and a Latvian, warmed my soul. Samai Distillery infuses Cambodia’s legendary Kampot pepper into its rum, which I relished at the tasting room. I was desperate to bring a bottle home, but no luck: it was sold out!

A few nighttime scenes. Yes, that’s a tarantula. I ate a leg. I can still feel it in my mouth.

Here are a few daytime street shots: chic cafes, saffron robed monks, school kids and a sculpture that reminds me of our French bulldog.

Lower pics: heart-stopping street murals of ’60s & ’70s pop singers murdered by the Khmer Rouge and a bride posing for wedding photos in front of the National Palace, only about 2 blocks apart. Past and present remain fused together in Phnom Penh.

Next up: Indigo and kimono in Tokyo.

Thailand wears blue—but is it true?

I recently fled our soul-crushing Minnesota winter for Thailand, Cambodia and a few days in Tokyo. Allow me to report that indigo has swept the backpackers’ haven of Bangkok’s Khao San Road and at least one sunny island: Koh Kood.

This ersatz “indigo” is about as authentic as that $20 Rolex watch or that $15 Gucci purse. As lovely as the couple above is, the blinding blue of their T-shirts failed to win me over; neither did the display of cheap apparel at our resort. It was all too much!

Enter Indigo House, a Bangkok repository that lives up to its name. Located in the Siam Paragon, a swish Western-style mall, Indigo House has bolts of hand-spun silk ikat on display. I was immediately paralyzed by so many choices.

I learned about Indigo House from Sarah Shaw’s informative blog, Wanderlust and Lipstick. The store combines readymade goods with material by the meter. Ikat is its specialty: Thai indigo and shiny Thai silk in a cacophony of colors. Ikat (EE-caht) describes a complicated technique in which the fiber is dyed before it is woven. The result includes the mind-blowing patterns shown above and below.

I really couldn’t see for all the color, so I put my money on another painstaking technique: sashiko stitchwork embroidery. This issue of Seamwork does a nice job explaining sashiko. I bought two shirts stitched in sashiko by Thai women—I’m sure it is done by women—who will never realize how much I admire and celebrate their talents.

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Coming up in mndigo’s next posts: a trip to Phnom Penh’s Silk Island, where the process of raising butterfly cocoons to spinning silk to weaving is on view. Also, signs of spring—and sashiko (also called boro) and kimono—in Tokyo.

Black and (the new) blue

Several months have passed since our last post. Kim and I kept dyeing, but it was a death that kept us from writing. Just couldn’t muster the words.

Our friend Claudia Cornew, textile artist and human extraordinaire, died in August in Mexico City. Vivacious, generous, creative and smart as hell, she died of breast cancer in her early 50s. Last February, we had spent five magical days with Claudia and her family at their home in Polanco, DFE. The day we worked in her studio was one we’ll remember forever. Our final glimpse of Claudia was after attending the cochineal show at the Belles Artes; she was flipping her long elegant leg over a bike rental to cycle home.

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Kim and Claudia near the San Angel market in Mexico City. Claudia holds a purse she made.

In Claudia’s honor, we dyed. And we cried. For every great vat we got, we hailed Claudia. Here’s a glimpse of some new ideas: Kim dyeing white leather sandals and my wool cake.

 

We’ve continued to have great success with “Lyle” our lye vat. A reminder of that recipe (doubled, as is our habit):

2 T organic indigo powder, combined with 
2 t washing powder, dissolved in hot (not boiling) water.
Add to a 5 gal. bucket of water, then stir in:
2 oz. sodium hydrosulfite (aka Rit color remover)
1/4 t sodium hydroxide (lye)
Wait 30–35 minutes: don’t rush the vat (open wine now)

This summer, leather and vegan leather (pleather) consumed our attention, like this jacket we dip-dyed for the indigo-loving Brooklynite Angela.

 

Indigo brought another new friend into our lives: Denise. We met at Stout’s Lodge, where I admired her Superior stone rock jewelry. Turns out that wasn’t all we had in common. She joined us for a dye day and brought along an impressive array of books and utensils, based on her earlier experiments and trip to Japan:

 

 

If our adventures in indigo dyeing have taught us anything, it’s that great friendships form over the dye pot.

Secret sauce: time to add the sticky

Shh, don’t tell Kim that I’m sharing the recipe of our secret sauce.

Come closer, so I can whisper it in your ear: KARO syrup.

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Yep, cheap, nasty Karo syrup has made an appearance in our bio-vat. Searching for a substitute acid for henna, we hypothesized that corn syrup might do the trick to feed our hungry indigo. So in place of henna or white powdered fructose, we added a solution of Karo, rounding out the 1-2-3 vat with indigo (1), pickling lime (2) and “sacred syrup” (3).

This is still in the testing phase, and we’ve never seen anyone else admit to using it. Nevertheless, our results yesterday weren’t too bad. (No saying whether our vat will develop Type 2 diabetes, though.) At least it’s locally sourced!

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We also experimented with cochineal—the season’s first attempt. I used a mortar and pestle to grind the desiccated insects into a powder. Then we mixed 50 gr of the bugs with tartaric acid, which Kim’s man just happened to have a bottle of (thanks, Dan!). We mixed the paste with water and started dipping.

Unlike indigo, cochineal requires a mordant. Also unlike indigo, cochineal doesn’t mind some slopping around. Introducing oxygen into the vat isn’t a problem. Kim had wonderful success with a few wool skeins (samples above, rinsed in vinegar). And we’re leaving a buff-colored pleather coat in the vat for the next two weeks, in hopes it takes on a deep russet.

On my bus ride home, I ran into sisters with identical flossy cotton-candy hair. When I showed them pictures of our cochineal vat and told them the color came from insects, they said: “For real?”

 

Tale of 2 pots: Henna & lye face off

Yesterday, in 96 degree heat, Kim and I cooked up two indigo pots—one using henna and Michel Garcia’s 1, 2, 3 recipe and the other using a traditional lye-based recipe. It was a face-off.

What follows is a step-by-step pictorial explanation of the henna vat: “Hannah,” in the white bucket. The 1, 2, 3, means 1: 50g indigo, 2: 100g lime, 3: 150g henna/fructose. (Here’s another good resource, courtesy of Seattle-based Botanical Colors.)

 

Now, here’s Lyle (orange bucket). It uses indigo (approx. 25g), lye (1/8 t) and sodium hydroxide (Rit color remover, 1oz). The recipe comes from Jim N. Liles’s book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing.

While Hannah simmered, we hopped onto Botanical Colors to buy more henna and lime. An hour or so later, we were hot and flummoxed: Hannah was giving us nothing—no indigo blossom, no color imparted on the fabric, no signs of frothy goodness! We swizzled it, we heated it, we prayed to the indigo gods over it. Still nada.

Guzzling down kombucha, we put palms to forehead and said, “Doh!” We asked ourselves: Why are we cajoling Hannah when she’s so damned stubborn and, when she obliges, gives us such dingy blues? So we canceled our order and got mixed up with Lyle. Here’s a comparison of our results.

I’ll take better comparison shots in the future. But what we saw was a strong, clear blue from Lyle and a dingy gray that didn’t even stay from Hannah.

In the dyeing community, everyone exalts Garcia. We’ve spent two years trying to achieve results from his method. Of course we’d prefer to use a less toxic solution. Of course we want to maintain and nurture our vat over time. Who wouldn’t?

But we love the bright blue that Lyle reliably gives us—at half the indigo intake Hannah requires. So we stuck her in the sun and hope to have better results next week. If anyone wants to show us the error of our ways, send us a note or meet us at the Kingfield market.

Next up, Dyers on the dark side: How pleather plays with indigo (see top-most image).