Indigo dyeing: bringing a beautiful ancient craft home

Cotton towels dyes in indigo using shibori techniques

Indigo dyeing (藍染, lán rǎn), is a plant-based fabric dyeing process used for the past 5,000 years in Asia and Africa. The leaves of the indigofera tinctoria legume shrub are soaked, fermented and alkalinized to create a dye that oxidizes on fabric to its namesake deep blue.

Handmade indigo textile art from Dali, Yunnan

Indigo has special meaning for my maternal Hakka ancestors in Taiwan, whose use of indigo dyed work shirts became an important symbol of their identity as they migrated from China to Southeast Asia and Taiwan. Indigo dyeing is also an important craft for my paternal ancestors in Southern China, where intricate hand-sewn and wax-relief batik patterns were created, like in this beautiful cloth I purchased from a rural artisan in Yunnan Province when I worked there 10 years ago.

This past summer, our family went to Oakland Feather River Camp in Plumas National Forest and took a tie-dyeing workshop with Blanka Soltys, who showed me the arashi shibori (嵐しぼり) dyeing technique, which translates to “storm pressing.” While my first arashi attempt turned out looking more like a failed hippie tie-dye than a storm, I was hooked. My inner fabric artist woke up. The experience reminded me of our time in Taiwan in 2018. Our kid went to a Hakka summer camp, worked an indigo vat and made a traditional indigo-dyed napkin using ties to make ring patterns. If my 5-year-old can do indigo dyeing, I can too.

Indigo dyeing is a super fun home DIY chemistry project, exploring solubility, pH and oxidation. The dye starts out a lime-green and turns into the deep indigo blue before your eyes.

Photos showing how the indigo dye is lime-green out of the vat and oxidizes to a deep dark blue indigo color within 5-10 minutes.

In this post, I share my first foray into indigo dyeing at home using basic shibori techniques. Indigo dyeing was a lot easier than I expected, and I got better first-time results than I thought I would. My first bucket of indigo dye lasted 2 months outside. Now I have a set of indigo cotton hand and kitchen towels that my Hakka mom loves and we use every day at home.

Gathering supplies

Please note that links to supplies are simply what I used. I don’t endorse any particular product or brand. I also intentionally don’t make money or use ads or affiliate links on this website. I want to keep this website my tiny corner of the internet for thoughts and creative sharing, as free from commercial influence as possible.

Indigo vat: For simplicity and affordability, I used this $10 indigo dye kit, which has everything you need to get started except for the 5-gallon bucket with lid, water, stirring stick and fabric. The dye kit uses pre-reduced synthetic indigo, which makes the process super easy. You can also use natural plant-based indigo dye. It is a longer process, and you will need to purchase each component separately and “reduce” the dye first to make it water-soluble. Dharma Trading has good instructions for using natural indigo here and here. You can keep things affordable with just the $10 kit and whatever bucket and fabrics you already have at home. 

Plant or protein fiber fabrics: Indigo dyes plant-based fibers best, such as fabric that is at least 80% cotton, hemp, linen, ramie or rayon (a semi-synthetic fiber made from regenerated cellulose from wood, bamboo or other plants). Protein-based fibers such as wool and silk also take indigo dye well, though you’ll want to avoid the alkaline sediment at the bottom of the vat to not damage protein fibers. I used 100% cotton flour sack towels for my first experiments. The towels were $2 each ($24 for a set of 12) and a super easy and fun way to get beautiful towels you can use right away. I also experimented with old cotton/rayon clothes, various cotton scraps, silk and rayon cloth, which all dyed well. 

Preparing the indigo vat and dyeing

1. Prepare the indigo vat. It took me about an hour to set up the indigo vat in our backyard using the indigo dye kit instructions. I filled the bucket with 4 gallons of warm tap water, stirred in the soda ash and sodium hydrosulfite reducing agent, stirred in the indigo dye, covered it with plastic wrap and the lid, and let it settle for 30-45 minutes. I wore gloves throughout the process and a mask while pouring in the dye powders. 

2. Shape & wet the fabric. While waiting for the indigo vat to settle, I prepared the fabric. Wetting the fabric makes it easier for the dye to reach all areas of the fiber and reduces the amount of oxygen introduced to the vat so it maintains the indigo molecule’s ability to attach to the fiber. You can find detailed shibori techniques in my next post.    

  • For the folded and pressed shibori (itajime turtle shell pattern and star), I first soaked the fabric in water, then folded and then pressed it with wooden boards or chopsticks using rubber bands.
  • For the bound shibori (kumo ring pattern), I first soaked the fabric and then used rubber bands to bind marbles in the fabric. 
  • For the honeycomb-style shibori (a modified arashi using a rope instead of a pole), I rolled and scrunched it first before soaking it in water to make the scrunching easier. I then squeezed out the excess water before dipping it in the indigo vat. 

3. Dip! I took the lid and plastic wrap off the indigo vat and used the stick and my gloves to gently move the thin “skin” that formed on top. I then gently and slowly lowered the fabric piece into the dye vat. I squeezed and manipulated the piece so the dye could get into the areas I wanted it to. I tried to be careful to not let it drop to the bottom to avoid it touching the residue and also not move it around so much to introduce air and bubbles. I dipped for once 3-5 minutes for most pieces, and for those I wanted darker, I dipped 2-3 times. To take out the piece, I squeezed it below the due surface while pulling it out slowly to reduce splashing.

4. Oxidize! This is where you witness the magic of oxidation: the dyed fabric starts out as a lime-green color that turns darker and bluer over the next 20 minutes. Unfolding and unrolling the fabric is also a fun and dramatic way to reveal how the dye job came out. My kid loved this step. 

5. Wash the fabric. After I was happy with the oxidized results, I washed the fabric using a mild detergent and rinsed it until the water was not dark, and then let it air dry. I’ve been machine washing the indigo-dyed fabrics in our regular washing machine loads and dryer since then, and the indigo patterns got a bit lighter but still look great after 5-10 washings. 

6. Tend the vat. I left my indigo bucket outside and covered it with plastic wrap and a fitted lid. This allowed me to use the vat to dye 10+ pieces over 2 months for multiple rounds of dyeing. There’s still plenty left for me to dye many more pieces.

Enjoy! It’s been fun using/wearing our indigo-dyed towels, shirts and scarves around our home. For awesome easy shibori techniques, check out my next post.

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