My first experiences with indigo that peaked my interest were a bit how I imagine Oz seems to look from the outside. Beautiful. Idyllic. Carefree. I started by taking a few classes in beautiful Brooklyn loft spaces and community gardens with perfect vats and vivid blue results. Once I began my own trials, however, it was much more like going behind the scenes and meeting the Wizard behind it all. My false sense of indigo-security was evident from my first vat experiment.
I decided to start with a dye recipe from one of the workshops I took, which contained vague details at best. But if it worked for them, why shouldn’t it work for me?! Oh! how wrong I was. I started by dyeing my first shibori tester that I’m still afraid to wash in case the color rinses out. This very pale blue was enough to move forward with my weaving project and I left with a sense that, “I know nothing, Krista Snow.”
After Try #1, I ventured to seek out instructions from a well-known indigo master, Michel Garcia. I read several articles online on how to use his vats, and chose to try the fructose fermentation vat again but with his instruction this time. Slightly more details but evermore questions on my end. I realized I was beginning to think like a scientist in my approach and no amount of online searching would satisfy my quest for knowledge. For some reason, this vat was also a bust. I started wondering if the indigo I bought was the problem, if my water source was corrupt, if my yarns weren’t scoured enough, if I was too impatient with dipping, if too much air got into the vat, etc. Endless wonderings on my part. I had dyed the yarn for my Cosmonaut scarves, which is the reason it’s an indigo hit-and-miss. It looked beautiful as yarn (though a bit more steel blue), which promptly washed down the drain during processing. At this point, my indigo obsession was in for the slow-burning long haul. I tried an iron vat and still received the same dull, washed-out blue. Every defeat put me off trying for another 2 months…when in reality, those vats might have been good in a few days had I known how to deal with them.
At some point, I was sick of the buckets of failed dye taunting me in the studio and ordered the “Natural Dye Workshop with Michel Garcia” dvd. I started a new vat with a gallon of spring water, used henna instead of fructose and followed his instructions explicitly. This means I re-watched his indigo segment 5 times before even taking notes. I realized it’s only since things have gone wrong that I’m hyper-attentive to the process now. With my first attempt at the henna vat came that beautiful green-to-blue oxidation that is so captivating. Also, a lot of screaming could be heard from my apartment. I, of course, didn’t believe I succeeded until after I tried washing it all out. I’d finally got it!! Since then, I’ve reused the same vat for at least 5 months and revived it last week. I’ve stopped praying and crossing my fingers when I heat it up again. This is huge.
Now from my year + of experience and heartache, here is what I have to share about indigo dyeing:
With Michel Garcia’s 1-2-3 henna vat recipe, you’ll use 1 part indigo, 2 parts lime, and 3 parts henna. For me, I like a dark vat so I use 50g indigo, 100g lime, and 150g henna (generally a “brown” shade though this doesn’t matter).
Basic instructions and my notes:
- Add indigo to a small jar with a handful of marbles. Add enough boiling water to cover indigo. Shake for 2 minutes. Indigo must be crushed before entering the vat.
- Add henna to a larger jar and mix with enough boiling water that it becomes the consistency of split pea soup. Work out those clumps!
- You can work a few different ways. You can either do a small jar with all of the vat-goodness and later transfer to a pot to dip, or you can start in the pot you later dip in. I choose the all-in-one pot.
- Add a decent amount of water to your dye pot, maybe a gallon or less. This is where I use bottled water in case my tap water is working against me.
- Add the boiling water/henna soup to the pot. Rinse out the extra henna into the pot.
- Shake the indigo/boiling water combo a few more times before adding to the pot. Rinse out extra indigo into the pot, don’t waste it!
- Add the lime. Stir gently, add as much water as you need to dip your yarn/whatever.
- Wait either 15 minutes or the next day. As painful as it is, I wait until the next day.
- The materials you dip should be scoured to remove grease/dirt/etc. and to dye an even shade. If you don’t care about that, dip away! Your items should be wrung-out but damp (not dry) before dipping.
- Have a bowl of cold water sitting next to your vat. Once you take items out, you’ll want them oxidized and cold water is the perfect step between the vat and rinsing.
- Hold items in the vat anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes, depending on depth of shade desired, then squeeze as much indigo out as you can before removing. Put in bowl of cold water and/or watch that color change! It might look really dirty so rinsing in cold water will bring out the cleaner, brighter blue. Rinse until water is clear. Pat yourself on the back.
- If you use the vat the next day, just stir first, wait 15 minutes for it to settle, check the pH. It should be in the 10-12 range for cotton (sources I’ve read have varied on the pH). You can dip it cold or warm, but I try to recreate the initial vat situation (boiling water warmth). I put the vat on medium for 30-40 minutes and if it’s comfortable for my gloved hands to be in it, it’s perfect. Too hot is not beneficial and will potentially shock your fibers and burn your hands. I’ve read it shouldn’t go over 120 degrees, some people say less than that. I’ve ruined several vats (I’m sure) by having them too hot.
- Whenever you add henna (to lower the pH), always mix it with boiling water to create a henna soup before adding to your vat. Never put dry henna straight into the vat.
- Always do a tester first. It could be a little bundle of yarn, piece of fabric, etc…but it should be wet beforehand. You’ll see the quantity of indigo left in the vat pretty quickly with a tester. If it’s in there for 1 minute and is very pale blue, it may be time to revamp it unless you like it pale.
- In several vats I’ve done (even slightly successful ones), I haven’t had much of a “flower.” I’ve had no problem with this in the henna vat, but I suspect it might have to do with adding things/adding air to the vat. Just a theory.
- If you are troubleshooting, be very careful with adding lime. A little goes a long way!
Reviving a vat:
- Start with the cold vat. Stir the vat gently. Wait about 15 minutes for it to settle. Check the ph, the normal range for dying cotton is between 10-12. If it’s too high (above 12), it is too acidic and you will need to add more henna. Do this by mixing henna with boiling water before adding to your main vat as it must be activated first. Add the soupy henna mixture to your vat. Stir. Wait until the next day. Stir. Wait 15 minutes for it to settle. Check the ph again. Note: The amount of henna added will depend on the strength of your vat, size, etc. With mine, I usually add about 3-4 tablespoons of henna mixed with enough boiling water that it’s like split pea soup.
In conclusion, my adventures in indigo have really just begun! I hope you all try it out and get your hands dirty with blue! If you have any questions or indigo-related toddler-like fits to share, please do so as I love troubleshooting and sympathizing with members of the Blue Hand Society.