Month: July 2020

Natural blue: Salt and fresh indigo leaves

Frische Blaetter von Japanischem Indigo zum Faerben

I really appreciate this way of dyeing with fresh indigo for its accessibility. You don't need special equipment or ingredients, just fresh leaves from your indigo plants, and some salt to coax the blue out from the lush green leaves of Dyer's knotweed, Polygonum tinctorum,I have also used this method with woad, Isatis tinctoria, and achieved beautiful colors, albeit lighter and more greenish. All it takes is a small amount of salt and the fabric. Compared to the various indigo vats that are used to dye blue, this is a lot simpler.

A Japanese craft, travelling the world

I think the first time I saw this method was in one of my favourite online spaces – a Facebook group of all things! „Indigo pigment extraction methods“ I highly recommend to join the group if you want to grow any indigo plant. A global community sharing experiments, learning, questions. The group is brillant! Whether you are gardening in pots or in a large field, here you will find others who are trying the same, helpful documents and a place for questions that might arise. The group was founded by Brit Boles, also known as seaspellfiber on Instagram.
So that's where I first saw this video, of a Japanese indigo dyer, and her demonstrating this "salt rub method". The dyery, Ohara Koubou, is located north of Kyoto.

How to dye blue with indigo and salt

This method works best on animal fibers such as silk and wool. You can pre-treat vegetable fibers with soy milk if you want to dye them using this method.
Pick the leaves - for a strong color it should be at least twice the weight of the fabric in leaves. Work as quick as possible. This method works thanks to enzymes in the leaves, which are broken down by heat over time.
I tear the leaves once and start adding a tablespoon of salt. Now the leaf mass is kneaded with the salt until more and more liquid comes out - depending on the amount of leaves add a little more salt. Then add the fabric (previously soaked in water and squeezed out) into the mass and massage the liquid into the fabric. When you're dyeing wool, rubbing it can felt the fibers. In that case, just gently knead the liquid into the fiber.

Depending on the time of harvest and the fiber, the hues vary from blue to more turquoise-green tones. My dye results with woad leaves were particularly variable - I only got real shades of blue with the dye knotweed. If you want to dye a more "typical" indigo blue, I'd recommend vatting your indigo.
But you can also use the salt method for deeper shades. To do this, overdye several times. However, you will need fresh indigo leaves for this, unlike a vat, in which you can dip your fibers repeatedly.
I hope give this method a try! I look forward to the time the plants are ready for it every year.

Local colour, global context

I think it's great and important to experience dye plants in a very local and accessible manner. Gardens and even overlooked backyards are so valuable to enable that. And it's so very empowering to be able to dye textiles ourselves with means that are understandable and tangible. For me, this is a very important part of a sustainable clothing culture. At the same time I ask myself more and more – where is the line between appreciation and cultural appropriation is. In this case, too. (There are many interesting thoughts on this tagged with #decolonisethegarden on Instagram.)

The spreading of plants to other places is “natural” and part of their survival strategy. There is also a long history of people who cherished, cultivated and took plants with them and thus spread them. But I want to look closely: How easily is the reality of colonization re-told and made invisible. Like the rest of our world, our gardens would look very different without the extraction of anything deemed valuable by colonizers. Who not only trafficked enslaved people, goods, wealth, foreign plants, but also the idea that the world is their (or our, as I am a white woman) garden, in which they can help themselves to anything. Unjustly, in this image, only some are allowed to help themselves, and others have to to plow, to tend the garden. Cultur, craft, religious practices are part of the self-service buffet. This self image is deeply rooted and practically wears a magic hat to be invisible - that's why I didn't even notice it for a long time. All the more reason to take a closer look now. Do you have any thoughts on that?

To conclude, I want to recommend a book. This is for you if you want to work with fresh indigo: ohn Marshall's „Soulful Dyeing for All Eternity. Singing the Blues“. It's a fantastic ressource.

Dye plants in the summer garden

Collage von zwei Bildern: links ein orangeleuchtender Strauß von Schwefelkosmee, rechts ein Koerbchen voller Blüten von Ringelblume, Mädchenauge und Schwefelkosmee

What better way to start this new blog on a new website with a garden tour? This spring, when workshops were cancelled due to the pandemic, I was happy to ship many dye seeds to plant dye enthusiasts. Instead of meeting in workshops, I found myself starting dye seeds at home and share the process on stories at Instagram. The whole process is saved in the highlights. And this is what became of the tiny plants!

Blue: Indigo bearing plants

Dyer's knotweed or Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorum,and woad, Isatis tinctoriatwo very different plants, both contain precious indigo. The woad plants, first damaged by hail in June, now nibbled on, is still smaller than last year at this time. I already was able to have a first little harvest from Japanese indigo, mainly to encourage the plants to grow back more and bushier.
I'm curious to watch their development this year, because after two very warm summers it has been quite cool and windy a lot of the time this year, not ideal conditions for this plant. Woad, too, contains most indigo when it's exposed to lots of sunshine.

Flowers for dyeing

So my indigo harvest so far was very modest. I hope it will be sunnier again soon and more will follow! In the meantime, however, harvesting of the flowering dye plants has begun - dyer's marigold, Tagetes erecta (two different varieties this year), bright orange cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus, and delicate tickseed, Coreopsis tinctoria.

...and pot marigold, Calendula officinalis, these flowers can also be used for dyeing. But I prefer to make oil extracts from them.

The two yellow dye plants have struggled a bit so far: Weld, Reseda luteola, and dyer's chamomile, Anthemis tinctoria. I did get to harvest a bit of both, but don't expect much more. Many a weld plant did simply dissapear over night, and I'm not sure who snacks on them. Only a handful of plants survived, but I'm determined to try again next year.

The chamomile plants from last year in particular have already bloomed profusely, and then some just died within a few days, heavily infested with aphids. I usually rely on beneficial insects like the ladybug larvae and time to fix issues like that, but this time they weren't fast enough it seems. Crossing my fingers the plants that made it through will recover!

Red dyes in the garden

And lastly, madder, Rubia tinctorum. There might finally be a harvest here at the end of summer, though I got so attached to the plant that I'm not sure I'll actually do it! This is the only one of the plants that I grow for dyeing that stores the coveted dye in the roots. Harvesting is recommended only from the third year. By then the roots are nice and thick.
If you have them in your garden, you could also carefully dig out some roots from under the plant for small tests, but I never did.
The older madder plants are starting to set flowers right now – from many flowers usually get a handful of seeds, and suspect someone nibbles on them when they're young!