natural indigo dye fermentation process


The fibre is worked in the solution, or “vat.” When brought out to the air, it is a bright green. Meat grinders also work. Indigo is a dye different than any other.

It takes time to do the dyeing. With “renewals” the time needed is a bit less, four or five days. A test piece of fibre or paper will emerge green and turn blue in the air. The size of the pot is determined by the amount of fobre you need to dye at one time. This separates the dyestuff from the plant. (See illustration, next page.) First I rinse well just after dyeing, then I let air overnight.
The process “reduces” the Indigo, changing it from blue to yellow. However, many of these cultures now use synthetic Indigo, manufactured from coal tar or petroleum. For purples, dye the Indigo first, rinse well, then mordant and dye over with any red dye.

The vat lasts indefinitely. It withstands well the many washings that work clothes require. For lighter shades, fewer dips are needed.

Stir the vat once a day. Dyeing is begun, with the darkest colour dyed first, then medium, then lights. Indigo dyeing was one of the first speciality professions. It will start to turn blue in the air immediately. TIME is very important. Next day I soak in two successive waters for about an hour each time, rinse again, wring and dry. A Corona Corn mill is what I use. Allowing it to rest lets it re-reduce that Indigo. A zip-loc baggie cinched over the grinding plates catches all the powder and keeps blue dust from getting everywhere. The Indigo plants are harvested and brought to a central location.

The less air between surface and lid the better. If more heat is needed, pits for burning charcoal are placed between clusters of the vats. As much as twenty percent of the dye may be a violet tone called Indigo Red. Do this squeezing as close to the surface as you can, as dropping liquid will bring air into the vat. In traditional cultures there are vats over 100 years old. The vat is let to ferment for several days, and is ready to dye when it shows the proper signs.

In southern Mexico, where some of the current Indigo of commerce originates, it is naturalized and grows in fallow fields, so no effort is spent cultivating it. The idea is to integrate the undissolved Indigo, madder and bran that settles to the bottom, back into solution. In this state, it dissolves in an alkaline solution. When the vat is “exhausted”, and will only dye light shades, it is time to renew it.
We use the distinction as “Blue Collar Workers” and “Blue Jeans”. If you leave more than 2″ of air at the top of the vat, it will not reduce properly. Air between each dip. Indigo dyeing is practiced today in Japan, Southern China, Tibet, India, Indonesia, Indo China, Africa, especially Nigeria, Southern Mexico and Guatemala, and it has recently been reintroduced to Turkey.

Any time you break the surface you introduce air into the vat and this you do not want to do. Indigo Natural Fermentation Vat. The fibre should be a bright clear green.

Vats made of great clay pots set in the ground are commonly used in warmer climates. Indigo is a dye different than any other. It must be ground to be used for dyeing. Indigo in some form is used in all traditional cultures, for it is the only clear and fast natural blue. The process “reduces” the Indigo, changing it from blue to yellow. I use a domed lid, turned upside down. It takes time for the vat to ferment and it does no good to try to rush the process. Soak and do a final rinse in the morning. The indigo vat is very alkaline. All ingredients are again added, again in correct proportion.

When ready to dye again, warm it up, renew it with the ingredients, and proceed as before. This is because, during dyeing a certain amount of the Indigo is oxidized in the vat. It should not be stirred, but with your gloved hands, gently, slowly and deliberately squeeze the liquid through the fibre while you hold it under the surface. If one wishes to rest from dyeing for several weeks, simply turn off the heat source, and keep the vat cool for that period. A three gallon pot is good for yarn skeins of 4 to 6 oz., while a 10 gallon or larger tub will be needed for yards of fabric. WARMTH: It is necessary to keep the vat warm, but not hot, around 100 – 110° Fahrenheit. The vat is “renewed” with more Indigo and the other ingredients in proportion, whenever the dye value weakens. In this state, it dissolves in an alkaline solution. Stir it vigorously on occasion. You don’t want to scare people with blue hands; also the strongly alkaline vat may irritate your skin. It is not good to leave a vat unused for too long, as it is a living process and may then get cranky about starting up again. Just to be on the safe side, I always double rinse my indigo dyed textiles. Wet your fibre out very well in warm water. Slowly the air changes it to the beautiful deep and rich blue of Indigo. Indigo blue has long been associated with the less than aristocratic classes. Air is the enemy of a good Indigo vat. The vat itself lasts a long time. These clothes were originally dyed with indigo. Indigo dyeing by this natural fermentation method is a slow-steady process. The dye process is unique, and the facilities require a stable set-up. It is dyed through a living fermentation process that does not require any mordant. Always work under the surface of the vat.

It can be used to dye any natural fibre. Natural Indigo contains several related dye chemicals that give different shades of blue.

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