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.

Evolution of an Indigo Vat Recipe

Summer 2015 – First, we read and discussed everything we could get our hands on.

We chose a method from Jenny Dean’s “Wild Color.”

Dissolve 1 tsp washing soda in 2-4 T boiling water. Let cool slightly. Add 2-3 tsp finely ground Indigo powder. Mix to paste. Let rest 30 min. Meanwhile, heat water. Add Indigo paste. Add 1 oz Rit Color remover and stir gently. Let vat stand for 30-40 min.

Second try – we refined a bit.

Place a lump of Indigo from Oaxaca in a fine mesh bag . Place the bag in a glass jar filled with enough water to cover. Let sit  for several days (or weeks). With a gloved hand, crush the indigo to help it dissolve.

Heat 3-4 gallons water to very warm but not boiling. Add contents of Indigo jar, bag included.

  • Stir in 1/8 tsp lye (sodium hydroxide), to make the dye bath slightly alkaline.
  • Stir in 1 tsp washing soda (sodium carbonate).
  • Stir in 2 tsp Rit Color Remover (sodium hydrosulfite, sodium carbonate anhydrous)
  • Continue heating gently. Watch for a coppery, slimy, purple, stinky top to form over a greenish yellow dye bath. The Indigo is now reduced.

Don’t Rush the Vat! Let it sit for 30-40 minutes. Drink the wine now.


Perusing Our Early Work -Fall 2015

 Notes on our Recipe

By November 2015 we had achieved our best vat to date.We dyed a bit, with varying results, and put the vats away for the winter. When we fired them up again in May 2016 we revived one vat with 1/8 tsp lye and the second vat with  color remover –amount not recorded. The second vat worked best when we started dyeing.  Here is what we learned:

  • Use stainless steel. Aluminum seems to interact with the chemistry in the vat.
  • Use the indigo ground to a fine powder. A metate

    Metate at work

    works better than our little mortar and pestle.

  • Go strong with the indigo.
  • The color remover is preferred over the lye. Less toxic.
  • Short multiple dips on silk yielded our deepest blues.
  • Best results come when the dyed fiber comes out of vat looking psychedelic chartreuse; not pale yellow, not light blue, not turquoise.
  • Save the vats. They can be revived and fed many times.
  • The blue “schmutz” on top of the vat is the “Flower of Indigo”. Collect and keep it! There is indigo there to be reduced. Thank you, Heather.

We have Questions – June 2016

Fructose?  Mango Skins? Pineapple?


Mango Peel

Diane sent a recipe from Oaxaca! “In case I lose my bag…”

INDIGO RECIPE from Jacobo and Maria Luisa Mendoza-Ruiz:

  • 2.2 lb ripe mango and pineapple PEELS (not pulp or juice) and pits. “The sweeter, the better.”
  • 5% quicklime
  • 4-5 l. h2O, heated to 40 Celsius (20?, heard both)
  • Heat 2-3 hours before adding indigo paste (indigo + h2O)
  • Alt, if ripe fruit unavailable: fructose from Mexico market-
    20% + 5% quicklime
  • Misc: windy day is good.
  • In smaller vat, OK to drop fiber back in.

Find out more about Michel Garcia’s 1-2-3 Indigo Vat Recipe

How does Rowland Ricketts in Indiana do what he does with local Indigo?

How many countries have an Indigo/Blue tradition and what do they name it?

  • Japan
  • France          Pastelle
  • England       Woad, Saxon Blue
  • Scotland       Woad
  • India
  • Mexico
  • Guatemala
  • Egypt
  • Morocco
  • Viet Nam      Miao
  • China             Mud Silk?
  • Sweden
  • Denmark
  • Navajo

Ah, so much to learn…….

Inspiring indigo


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?


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


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.