Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Inspiration - Indigo

I've always been fascinated with indigo - there's a certain amount of magic to taking a plant, manipulating and fermenting it, coming up with a yellowish liquid that dyes fabric a green that then turns to blue!  Different cultures around the world and through time have also seen indigo dyeing as something with varying degrees of magic attached to it.  The people, often women, who knew how to make this transformation actually happen were sometimes viewed as possessing knowledge from a spiritual or magical realm.

The tropical plants from the genus Indigofera have historically been the source of indigo dye.  Ancient civilizations from Asia, Europe, Africa, and the New World had indigo dyeing traditions - sometimes from native grown plants, sometimes from trade with other cultures.  In Europe, blue from the indigo containing plant woad (Isatis tinctoria) was used and Japanese dyers still use what is commonly called Japanese Indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) as these plants grow in cooler climates.

Indigo has some interesting properties that make it both a wonderful, easy plant to dye with and also a very challenging one.  It does not require a mordant - you just dip fabric in and you get a beautiful, long lasting blue.  However .... indigo is not soluble in water.  And it doesn't adhere well to fabric.  The motivation to have blue fabric must've been great to overcome these two problems!  To get around the first, the plant is usually fermented and then dissolved in an alkali solution, such as lye, urine, or ash.  To get around the second, the oxygen needs to be removed to produce what is known as "indigo white."  Without oxygen, there is no blue color.  Sometimes this was done with minerals or bacteria (urine also helped with this) - as the mixture fermented, the oxygen was depleted.  When the fabric is dipped into the solution, the indigo white will adhere to it.  The fabric is then taken out and turns blue when it hits the oxygen in the air.  

Some of the greatest fabric traditions used (and still use) indigo dyeing as part of the process.  In Africa, adire fabric is made by painting a resist onto the fabric, dyeing it in an indigo vat, and then scraping off the paste to leave a white or lighter blue area.  The piece below is Yoruba and can be seen at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

And this clip from a movie on Yoruba adire shows how the dye is traditionally prepared.

Shinsui Ito, Cotton Kimono, 1922.

In Japan, the tied and sewn shibori resist method used indigo dye.  This early 1900s woodcut print features a woman in a shibori indigo dyed kimono.

And the modern fabric tradition of denim has its beginnings in indigo dye (now synthetic dyes are often used).  This Discovery +1 video shows how a pair of jeans is made from the cotton field to weaving and dyeing the fabric to the sewing and final "distressing."  Very interesting!

I've been working on some indigo dyeing with freeze dried indigo crystals - very easy and lots of fun!  And still very magical.  I'll be sharing my results and some how-tos in coming posts.

Happy Creating!  Deborah

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