Dong indigo gets the limelight

Today’s New York Times features an eye-popping, jaw-dropping article, “Chinese Village Keeps Alive a Tradition of Indigo Dyeing.”  The timing is sweet, because the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s exhibition “Miao Clothing and Jewelry from China” just opened, offering a firsthand look at these Miao masterpieces.


Yang Xiukui, 55, prepared fabric to be coated in an extract from cowhide to help give it a glossy sheen. Credit: Bryan Denton for The New York Times

How I envy the article’s author, Amy Qin, and what I would give for a similar chance to immerse Kim and me among those textile artists of the Dali village.

One thing I loved is how the Dong explain away an uncooperative vat, blaming bad-vat feng shui or women’s woes: periods or pregnancy. The glossy surface comes from treating the dyed fabric with cowhide extract—I had heard pig’s blood—and hours of banging away on it with a cudgel.

About this time last year, Todd and I went to China—Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu—where my eyes feasted on silks (while he discovered some unorthodox Santas).


The closest I came to Dong indigo was at Beijing’s mega market, Panjiayuan, where our friend, Max Deng, led me to these Miao women.


The Times article claims, ““You can’t buy this type of handmade cloth at the market.” On that, I beg to differ: I bought three gleaming rolls, and they’re precious to me for their raw beauty, their story and their possibility.

Dyed in the wool + cotton

Our last Dye Day of the season consisted of dyeing skeins of wool and cotton. Which means we have all winter to knit. (Read to the end of the post for a celebrity surprise!)

Kim, you might know, has a room devoted to her stash. I myself have a few vintage suitcases stuffed with it.

Some we did in straight-up indigo; others, we dyed with sumak and tansy, then overdyed in indigo.

One innovation was to create our own ikat pattern, formed by dyeing before knitting or weaving. To do that, we dunked about a third of each skein, then left the other two-thirds natural. Kim has made a few stunning pieces that use the improvisational pattern. Below is a taste, along with a pic of Gary Cooper, who makes knitting look classy.

You can’t always get what you want

In dyeing, as in life, the Stones said it best. Kim’s fuzzy total-eclipse acrylic vest didn’t take to indigo. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. She gave it numerous dips over multiple dyeing sessions. The result: baby blue. Still, I think she rocks it. What do you think?

Total eclipse in indigo is an eyeful

Every now and then, we run out of fabric to dye. Recently, I purchased a weird cream-colored faux-fur vest at a thrift store. Kim instantly saw its potential, wanting to replicate the eclipse totality of last week. You go, Sami-tribal-woodland-creature girl!

To make her eclipse, she took a glass lid from a big jar, wrapped it tight against the faux fur with nylon string, then dunked, dunked, dunked it. I’ll include a pic next week once it’s dried and fluffed out.

Also, a shout-out to our guest dyer, Parker! She’s behind that beautiful six-moon piece.

A note on our ever-evolving vat strategy
We’re proceeding with three vats: henna, fructose and lye. Our results were great using the henna and lye vats; the fructose was a bore.

Latest innovations: Like nurses, we now take the temperature of our vats (no hotter than 105 degrees), heating with a new immersion heater designed to keep cow water troughs liquid in winter, and also their pH (optimally about 10, depending). This has introduced another layer of fussiness, but ultimately we hope we can dial in a recipe that consistently works.

On using henna
Upside: will keep producing with care and tending, showing the beauty of a natural vat.
Downside: sometimes produces a sludgy gray-blue.

  • Henna recipe: Following M. Garcia’s recipe, as interpreted by a million other dyers, we combine 1 part indigo, 2 parts lime and 3 parts henna. Let sit. Voila.

On using lye
Upside: yields fantastic, deep indigo color.
Downside: gets exhausted, not much hope of replenishing/restoring.

  • Lye recipe: 1 t. washing soda, mixed with 1 T. indigo powder, stirred in hot (not boiling) water. In vat: add water, add 1/8 t. lye (sodium hydroxide). Add 1 oz. Rit color remover (sodium hydrosulfite). Add indigo blend. Wait 30–45 minutes.
  • Don’t rush the vat! (Open wine now.)

Has Kim lost her marbles?

Another excellent thing about Kim is, between her and Dan, they have everything. You need a scale to weigh slaked calcium hydroxide in grams? She has it. Need a second propane tank for another vat? In the garage. You want to use marbles in a shibori technique? Yep, hold on just a sec. Clamps—you want clamps? Which type?

It makes some dye days easy breezy. Others, like yesterday, were frustrating, but not because of lack of materials. After four hours of translating recipes from Spanish and monkeying around with the chemistry of our vats—another attempt at Michel Garcia’s 1-2-3 method; the other one with lye (sodium hydroxide)—we got our hands really, deeply blue. Looming Jane does a nice job describing our Garcia bio-vat approach.

To dye her kuno shibori, Kim stitched in marbles and two types of dried beans. Here’s a great how-to article in Seamwork featuring shibori techniques you might want to try. Using tablecloths, I was going for graphic patterns on a big scale.


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.”