Inspiring indigo

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A dyer uses a metate to grind the indigo the traditional way in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Indigo was one of the most sought-after ingredients of the New World. But the plant, Indigofera tinctoria, is grown on at least five continents, and textile artists have long used it the world over.

This list is a tribute to those indigo-istas who dye it so well today.

  1. Indigo and Snow, home of the Minneapolis-based artist Annabella Sardelis, a fixture at the Mill City Market and always up for a convo about indigo.
  2. Aboubakar Fofana, Malian-born and France-based artist whose earthy work totally floors us.
  3. Flextiles, a blog operated by a U.K. shibori artist who always has something interesting to say.
  4. Bouaisu, a Bushwick, Brooklyn-based workshop focused on traditional Japanese indigo techniques.
  5. The artists of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, who take the time to show their passion.

What if…leather and indigo tango?

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I ran into this Eileen Fisher bone-white leather coat at a local discount retailer. Oh, I tried to resist. I’ve never been a “leather-coat” wearer. But I was curious about how it would do in a dye bath. So Kim and I gave it a shot.

First, I used laundry clips to create a shibori effect I’ll call fireflies at night. My hope was to keep a smattering of dots white against the blue background. It worked! In my excitement, I neglected to wear gloves, so my hands were blue for a good two days. After about seven soaks, the leather bloomed a stunning deep navy.

Novices that we are, we ran into two big problems. One, leather shrinks when dyed, then dried. After about six hours in the sun, I put on the jacket and it barely fit. Yikes! So I re-wetted it and wore it soggy for a few hours. Even now, it’s probably 20 percent smaller than its original shape, and no longer has the fluid drape.

Odor was the second problem. Something about the hide when dyed (too nice a rhyme to skip) makes for a seriously pungent garment. My husband made me keep it out of the house. I’ve since tried leather conditioner, bought at Schatzlein Saddle Shop—the coolest Western wear retailer in Minneapolis—to restore its suppleness and reduce the stench.

Our experiment had a nice coda. At the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca, one of the speakers was Stefani Mar, senior textile designer at Eileen Fisher. She talked about two corporate programs: Green Eileen, which allows people to return their used EF goods, and Remade in the USA, which upcycles those goods to reduce waste. Mar has since featured it in an company newsletter as an example of experimentation.

 

seeking the authentic

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I love this momento mori. These boys are lending a hand to the traditional work of indigo-dyeing. Far in the mountains and plains where indigo is traditionally extracted and used as dyestuff, dyers used what was nearby for their vats. Well, urine tends to be plentiful no matter where you are.

A traditional recipe calls for using the urine of prepubescent boys, free of all the testosterone and other hormones that somehow might influence the vat. A friend with twins offered up a week of their drippings, which we allowed to ferment for two additional weeks (!!!) in Kim’s backyard. To make things even worse, we were told the container must be kept at about 120 degrees. South Minneapolitans, if you remember a particularly gruesome stench about two years back, it was all in the name of science.

So, did it work? Did the indigo, fermented with boy urine, turn our cloth a mighty deep blue? I wish I could say it did. Sadly, the only result was good fabric doused in  eye-stingingly ripe pee.

waiting for the white

It’s been a long, cold few months without my hands looking blue as a cadaver’s. Yes, I know I should wear gloves. But sometimes it just can’t be helped! (Nice use of passive voice, yes?)

I’m eager to try out what we learned in Oaxaca at the 10th Annual Shibori Symposium. We met some of the leading practitioners of natural dyeing—Michel Garcia, Katharine Ellis, to name a few. We’re giving up our lye and getting the religion of the three-two-one vat.

Until then, Kim and I are going to watch the documentary “Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo” by Mary Lance, whom we met over the world’s best breakfast at Casa Bugambilias in Oaxaca.

a long time coming

Some things are worth the wait. Others, not so much. You decide. If you’re a lover of people passionate about textiles—making them, dyeing them, wearing them—you’ve come to the right place. If a blog can be considered a place.