gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

Exciting days over here, friends: I’m finally dyeing with indigo! I’ve been dreaming of the deep, rich blues of this amazing ancient dye plant, and the possibility of creating them right here in my own little dye workshop, for a long while now. The truth is that I tried the indigo dyeing process once before, back when we were living in Portland, and it did not work. What consoles me is that that’s not uncommon: dyeing with indigo is entirely different from other dyes in that it requires a living fermentation process that takes about a week and that only succeeds in certain conditions, most importantly, a steady temperature of 100-120 degrees. I suspect that Portland in January — especially with our frugal habits when it comes to turning up the heat — contributed to my indigo vat not fermenting properly last time, in spite of the heat-generating contraption I created.

Not being one to give up easily, I tried again, this time in a warmer climate. And this time I made sure to do everything right. I found a perfect-sized (3 gallon) enamel pot for a few dollars at an antique store. I used only filtered water for the dye bath, because too much chlorine in tap water can kill the ferment. I studied the instructions that came with the the indigo dyeing kit from Aurora Silk as for an exam. As I got ready to “set” the vat, I spent some time just admiring the finely ground, pure indigo powder before mixing it with the other ingredients. In embarking on this process, I was partaking of a practice that goes back thousands of years. Every culture has its own indigo fermentation recipe. This particular one — indigo powder mixed with washing soda, ground madder root, and wheat bran — is based on the European recipe, and was among the standard arts of an ordinary farmhouse both in Europe and in colonial America until synthetic indigo was introduced in the late 1800s. indigovatTo maintain a temperature of 100-120 degrees, I placed the dye vat in a cardboard box lined with aluminum foil with a heat lamp placed above it. The pot needs to have a well-fitting lid to keep as much oxygen out of the vat as possible. Beyond that, for the first week, all you do is stir once a day. The vat does develop a, shall we say, earthly smell of fermentation after a few days. (My husband started referring to it affectionately as “the stinkpot,” but I think he’s exaggerating. Besides, I told him, one of the main ingredients of the indigo vat in the olden days was stale urine. Imagine that.)indigovat-2The vat is ready for dyeing when it develops a coppery film on the surface.indigovat-3The process of dyeing itself takes place over several days, because the vat needs to rest and recharge overnight after each dyeing. Today, my (gloved) hands deep in the warm thick dye, moving silk and wool carefully under the surface while singing songs about the color blue, I found myself saying: “This is the most magical thing I’ve ever done.” This time, maybe I was the one who was exaggerating… But it is home-scale alchemy at its best. I will share with you what emerged out of that dye vat in a few days. For now, just a little teaser…indigovat-5

One thought on “My indigo fermentation vat

  1. I had no idea this was so complicated! Love the colour on the gloves – look forward to seeing what else you dye!

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