Ice-Cold Blues


We love indigo. We are not alone in this. When you consider that indigo blue wasn’t chemically synthesized until the late 19th century, it’s not hard to understand how desirable a plant rendering blue dye would be among textile producers, and indigo certainly has a rich history of innovation and use across time and space.

Happily, we have a bumper crop of Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, at the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden  this summer, and boy do we have plans! John Marshall is coming to visit, talk, and lead a few workshops in September, and we hope to supply his fresh indigo needs. We’ll also get a few vats going for colors resembling blue jeans, ranging from the dark, stiff, right-off-the-rack variety to that holey, comfy, faded pair you can’t bear to part with.

Here though, we’re trying a cold bath method with our fresh leaves that results in a unique turquoise color. Instructions are available in a variety of sources; we referenced Garden to Dye For by Chris McLaughlin and John Marshall’s Dyeing With Fresh-Leaf Indigo.  Guidance is also available online on Wildcolours’ Japanese Indigo Dyeing page.

Our early bird volunteers got to work clipping branches before the day heated up and stripping leaves — about eight pounds in all. Many, many leaves, about four times the weight of goods to be dyed, are needed. The fresh leaves were put in a blender with ice and pulverized. A note on the “why’s” and “how’s” of it all: despite much animated discussion of what makes this process tick, we have no idea. At the end of the day, it comes down to the vague-if-obvious statement that it has to do with a chemical reaction precipitated by low temperature and agitation. (We’re not satisfied either.) Post-pulverization, the icy mixture was strained through a cloth into a container sitting in a bed of ice.

Pre-wet fiber — we used silk and wool — was submerged in the bowl and, with hands increasingly numb from cold, moved around for about ten minutes. The color’s quite green at this point but, once removed from the liquid and exposed to air, the blues arrived. Rinsing in cold water only made it better!

Linda, our extraordinary basket maker, took the opportunity to dye some reeds as well, with good results.

This was our second year of fresh-leaf dyeing with ice water, and the shine hasn’t begun to fade. Dyeing with plants is an adventure, with the dyer’s skill often contributing as much as the climate, soil, water, and genetics that produced them. We have fun and, to celebrate the arrival of our new picnic tables, we also have cake!