Last weekend we had Kelly Larson, an artist from St. Louis, in to teach a workshop on shibori, a Japanese indigo-dying technique. The word means resist dying because patterns are made by pressure on the fabric keeping the dye out, that is, resisting dye intrusion.
Kelly gave us a brief background on indigo dying. In feudal Japan, sumptuary laws kept commoners from wearing silks or other fine fabrics. Restricted to wearing cotton, hemp, and other coarse fabrics, peasants derived various decorative techniques, one of which harnessed the deep blue of the indigo plant. Shibori was used to make complex designs by keeping some portions of the fabric from absorbing the dye.
The dye itself was made up the day before. Kelly added a few powders into warm water including soda ash (to draw out the dye) and a natural sulfate. The indigo crystals are added last, once everything else is mixed in. This sits overnight and a crinkly layer of what looks like ink forms on the surface. This is gently broken up before the dying starts. The neat part of this process is that the deep blue color comes as the dye is exposed to air, which means that the better oxygen is kept out of the vat, the longer it lasts, which leads to the rules against agitating the mixture (no stirring, dunk fabric slowly, don’t drip when fabric comes out, etc.).
Kelly demonstrated a half dozen techniques for making desired patterns. Most of the process involves folding the fabric accordion style and then clamping squares, circles, popsicle sticks, and string into place to keep the dye from fully saturating the piece. She had created a sample of each technique, which were hung up to help us find our desired patterns.
Once clamped and soaked with water, the fabric is slowly lowered into the dye vat and allowed to sit for about five minutes before being carefully removed. Once out, the dye oxidizes, changing from lime green through forest green into deep indigo as oxygen reacts with the dye. This creates a more permanent chemical reaction than typical dying.
The soaking can be repeated for a deeper color. After dying, the fabric is unbound, rinsed, and hung up to dry. The finished pieces are washed in cold water with a little detergent before being considered colorfast.
We had a group of eight out for the workshop and dozens of pieces were dyed, from napkins and bedsheets to t-shirts, pants and jackets. It was exciting to see the deep-blue patterns fill up the clothesline.
We’re going to try to get Kelly back for the Sustainability Skill Share in the spring.