Friday, 4 September 2015

Trying to Tie Dye in a Japanese Indigo Plant Extraction Vat.

Japanese Indigo plants are frost tender annuals and need sowing under cover and bringing on under glass to survive in Wales.  I treat mine like tomatoes, they sit in grow bags in the greenhouse, getting the same amount of food and water.  With the cool, wet summer we have had, my tomatoes have been a big disappointment.
Barely any of them ripened til mid August and sitting green on the vines for so long, their flavour is little better than the ones from the supermarket.  Japanese Indigo are supposed to be ready by July and I'd like to say I held off harvesting after careful consideration of the prevailing conditions affecting probable dye content, but the truth is, though the plants have been growing right through the work bench, I just
didn't get round to them til mid August.  In any event, waiting has paid off handsomely.  I have already had two goes at dyeing, with big pots full of leaves and chopped stalks steeping for 24 hours in a sort of bain marie in the sink.  Following the instructions on the Wild Colours website, I have been using the extraction vat and spectralite method.  Despite so much rain, there is plenty of indigo in those plants, better than last
year, I think, though perhaps I am getting more adept with the preparation.  Not that much more organised though.  I can reassure anyone whose leaves end up steeping for 48 hours instead of 24, this doesn't seem to cause problems.  On top of getting a good strong range of blues on plenty of sheep fleece and yarn, I've been having a go at tie dye on cotton and silk fabric.
I thought using an indigo vat
would be the absolute classic method with online instructions easy to find.  In practice, I turned off the computer late one night with unresolved questions. I found lovely videos of shibori being done, some nice professional tutorials sponsored by dye manufacturers and this fascinating documentary from Arimatsu, where the technique originated.  Deeply disappointing to find that in that heartland
Arimatsu, after exquisite and painstaking work on the cloth, they now use artificial dyestuffs, though it did give me a giggle to hear the voice over explain that 'shibori is Japanese for tie dye', having read a few snippy exchanges between crafters about the authenticity of claiming a method of tie dye to be
'shibori'. Running stitch effects looked good, so I spent a pleasant hour sewing in curving lines, then ruching up the cloth in a way that I hoped would turn out as a sort of stem and vine tracery, joining up the yellow blobs on this uninspiring result from a past plant contact dye on silk.  I also tried folding some silk  I accidentally dyed beige around a section of plastic drainpipe, winding string around it and
shuffling the fabric down the 'pole', though doubtless, this was not truly a shibori arashi dye method. All of the pieces came out worse than they went in. I had soaked the running stitch silk before dyeing and it took up an equal amount of blue throughout, no pattern added at all. I put the pole silk into the vat dry, and though it looked blue, once unfolded, only a few little strips of the outer layers had taken up any indigo at all.

As well as the effect of presoaking, the weight of the silk weave must have a significant impact on how much dye penetrates folded layers.  For my second attempt at arashi, I used a square of silk chiffon and made pleats like a curtain, so that the maximum number of layers would be three and across the full width, some bits would end up
in the outer layer with maximum dye exposure.  A fiddle to wrap around the pole, but manageable with a couple of strategically placed elastic bands.  Spiralling the string tightly round is a labour of love.  The finished wrap had two good ten minute soaks in the indigo vat. 
Very exciting to unfold. Once the pleats were out, the fabric folded inside was only palest blue, but luckily, so far as I am concerned, the scarf itself turned out lovely.  Next time, I will wrap the chiffon in advance and soak the whole pole before dyeing.

Looking closely at one video, I decided the running stitch technique was being sewn with two lines of stitches in parallel, then the two ends of the thread were pulled tight and knotted together, forming a narrow, closed loop. Hoping this would exclude the indigo better than my single line of stitches, I tried a few short curving double lines to make stems, adding some old school tie dye using little loom bands to strangulate the silk pinched behind some chick peas, hoping this would give a blossom effect.  The silk went into the vat dry and only had one 10 minute dip, to 
minimise the amount of indigo soaking under the stitches. This did leave a clear pattern, though utterly lacking in oriental sophistication, or indeed, any style at all.  Unless I can dream up a better design, I shan't bother with that again.  What has fired my imagination are the random surgings of uneven dye uptake on dry silk.  More lovely and much less effort.  


  1. What! I see chiffon but no Elinor... What has occurred?

    Once again Fran those scarves are outstanding. Are you stocking up for Christmas?

    1. Long story short, Elinor got chatting with a cyclist, drinking tea at the cafe next to the craft shop that I mind on a Sunday afternoon. Next thing, she tells me she's off to talk tactics and ride in the support car for one of the teams in the Tour of Britain. I've been taking advantage of her absence to squander reams of silk, normally she keeps me on a very tight rein.