Ever wondered why blue jeans are blue? We all know that jeans are made from denim, but did you know that denim is actually a centuries-old type of fabric that's traditionally dyed with the leaves of the indigo plant? The heavy-duty cotton twill is named for its’ birthplace in Nîmes, France, once a leading producer of indigo-dyed textiles. In the 17th and 18th centuries, indigo dye was so popular across Europe and Asia that the indigo crop played a huge part in the world economy. These days most jeans are dyed with synthetic indigo, but the deep blue color of raw denim reminds us of the once ubiquitous influence of natural dyes on art and fashion.
Now, if you’re anything like us here at Queen Bee, you’re probably thinking, “yeah, but can I DIY it?” And you might not be surprised that Rebecca had the same thought. After a natural indigo workshop at Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, Rebecca shared her great photos and experience with us, and let us know that YES you can totally DIY it! And you might just have all kinds of fun along the way.
Step One: Sow the Seeds of your Indigo Fortune
I mean, how DIY do you wanna get here? There are dozens of varieties of indigo plants that flourish in every climate, so if you’ve got the yard space, you could start from scratch. Textile artists Rowland and Chinami Ricketts make stunning creations from their homegrown indigo crop, and they have lovingly detailed the growing and harvesting process.
Once the indigo is harvested, it is then processed into cakes for storage. But hey, that sounds like a lot of work! Maybe you want to grab one of these indigo dyeing kits from the natural dye wizards at Earthues, or some organic fair-trade indigo powder from Botanical Colors.
Step Two: Mix It Up!
In order to dye your fabrics that beautiful shade of blue, you will first have to treat the indigo to facilitate release of the pigments into the fabric. Traditionally, this was done using fermentation (or..ew..using pee! but we won’t go there..), but many modern dyeing kits use a small amount of household lye. If you'd like to stick with traditional methods, you can actually ferment your indigo using fruit scraps. Check out this method developed by French dye master Michel Garcia, or if you're local to the Portland area you can take one of the great classes offered at OCAC. Part of the magic (and challenge) of indigo dyeing is that once you have prepared the vat, your dye bath will no longer appear blue. The blue color will come later as the dyed fabric is exposed to oxygen.
Step Three: The Art of Shibori
The Japanese perfected the art of exquisite tie dyes centuries before the first VW bus rolled up to a Dead show. In feudal Japan, silk was forbidden to commoners, so Japanese artisans developed serious dyeing skills to take their cotton cloth to the next level. Shibori dyeing employs a variety of techniques to create a dizzying array of patterns, and is traditionally done using white cotton cloth and indigo dye.
There are many more dye techniques to explore as well. Your indigo dye bath can be used to dye yarn or raw fibers. Your naturally fermented indigo vat can also be stored at a low temperature and then "woken up" for future dyeing projects. Indigo dyeing is an all-natural way to bring color into your life!