Friday, 11 July 2014

Japanese Indigo Vinegar Method Dye on Wool, Silk and Cotton

Six Japanese Indigo plants are sharing two grow bags in the greenhouse.  Last year, I only got one survivor in the seedtray, though I did get lots of new seeds by bringing my one and only plant indoors to flower late in autumn. No such trouble with seedlings in the mild spring we have just had. More plants are out in the borders, but they haven't burgeoned as much as the ones under glass. Japanese Indigo is supposed to produce most dye given lots of warmth and food and water.  
Even so, after last year, I was very pleasantly surprised to see blue patches on the leaves as early as June.  Taking this to mean the indigotin was ready, the tops were clipped off four of the plants, which was quick and easy. The lower leaves were picked off two, which was more of a faff.  Have to wait and see which method of harvesting stimulates the plants to grow back best.  
Being rapt by colours I got before from the vinegar extraction method, I had promised myself I would be dyeing silk this year. Still, having the bounty of a glorious first harvest of 400g leaves and all the summer growth still to come, I decided to do a trial of dyeing wool, silk and cotton. No mordant is needed, just a thorough scouring wash with detergent.

My test subjects were two 50g skeins of fingering weight hand spinning of Polwarth fleece, two 30g strips of jersey silk noil fabric, one 100g strip of cotton jersey and a metre of cotton scrim.  The vinegar method gives two dye baths, one from the first soak and squeeze of liquidised leaves and a weaker one from repeating the process.  I processed my 400g plant matter in two sessions, so two primary baths and two resqueezed baths in total. 

Materials have to soak in the baths for about an hour, gradually changing from green to blue.  Just to complicate matters, I thought I would suspend the silk jersey and the cotton jersey in the primary bath, hoiking them up higher every 20 minutes, so that only the far end of each had the full hour soaking time, to see how much difference this made.  The silk, on the left, took up much more dye than the cotton on the right, but the longer soaking didn't have much impact on the depth or shade of colour.  The second strip of silk jersey and the cotton scrim were submerged in the reprocessed leaf bath.  

That session used about 250g leaves on about 200g of material. The other 150g leaves made two baths to dye the two 50g skeins of Polwarth.  Even given that the two sessions did not have precisely equal ratios of leaves to material for dyeing, seems to me that the vinegar method with Japanese Indigo dyes the strongest colour on wool, nice shades on silk and does not take well to cotton.

The second squeeze, reprocessed leaf baths gave a paler, greener blue to wool and silk and had a minimal effect on the cotton scrim.  All the shades are rather lovely, though I didn't get anything in that jade green I had last year.

After dyeing the wool, I poured the two afterbaths into one bowl and left two contact dyed silk chiffon scarves in it to pick up whatever dye was left. The pre-existing pale yellows led to a properly turquoise overdye effect.  After this, an iron water rinse shifted one scarf toward a brooding turbulence of pattern.  I knew these would catch Elinor Gotland's attention.  She has a thing about silk chiffon, it appeals to her dramatic sensibilities.

"Oooo, just like a stormy sea, Beaut.  I'd be the very picture of a mermaid with those scarves on and my fleece down round my shoulders."
"Have you been growing your wool?"  I peered at her topknot, which didn't seem to have changed much from its usual neat bun.
"Didn't bother with a full summer shearing, I just pin it up enough to keep cool.  Silk is very good for all weathers."  Her tiny hooves were busy with the chiffon.
"Alright, you can have the blue scarves, if you want.  Aren't mermaids supposed to be predatory creatures, singing and luring sailors to their doom?"

"Not in Wales, Beaut. Lots of people round the coast have a bit of mermaid in their blood.  Welsh mermaids get captured by fishermen. Sometimes they end up going home with them and having a family."

"Don't they miss the sea?"
"Always.  In the stories, they generally bugger off sharpish once the kids have grown up. There is a terrible curse on anyone who tries to keep them too long.  I've heard that imprisoning a mermaid made the whole town of Conway so poor, if a visitor tried to pay for something with a sovereign, they had to send across the water to Llansantffraid for change."
"I love those sorts of tales.  All symbolic, of course.  Female allure and mystery."
"Not much of a mystery to me.  The message in those legends is as plain as a stone in your hoof.  A girl can adapt to her circumstances, but a menopausal woman has to follow her own nature.  Or else."


  1. Wow! I Love, Love, Love your results. They're like sea glass to me, breathtakingly beautiful.

  2. I agree - mermaids tears as we call sea glass.

  3. Now I shall have to start beachcombing for sea glass. I've not noticed any locally - but, then I've never looked.

  4. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy your blog... keep up the good work.... now.... who do I sent this to...Elinor or Beaut?

    1. "I think we all know who has the razzle dazzle here. Still, I do tell her, stick around and the glitter may rub off on you too, Beaut."