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.”

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.