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Beginners take heart: Indigo dyeing makes everyone look good

By LINDA LOMBARDI
Dec. 30, 2017 at 11:08 p.m.

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When the outcome of a craft project is a surprise, it's often not a good surprise. My recent experience trying indigo dyeing in Tokyo was an exception to that rule.

Dye from the indigo plant has been used for centuries all over the world. It's the familiar blue of bluejeans, and in a class at the Wanariya workshop in Tokyo, the technique we used was also familiar: A simple version of the craft called shibori, it reminded me of tie-dyeing in school art classes long ago.

Using some scraps as examples, the teacher first explained how to wrap the fabric around marbles with rubber bands, or twist bits of it up with rubber bands, depending on the pattern we wanted.

He also showed us a couple of folding techniques, but to me these screamed "not for beginners," so I stuck with the rubber bands and marbles.

We were each given a lovely indigo-dyed apron to cover our clothes, and two pairs of rubber gloves to wear on top of each other. The reason for the latter was obvious: The instructor's blue-stained fingers looked like they probably never come completely clean.

He warned us that the vat of dye would smell strong. It wasn't pleasant, but not awful either. Just as striking was the look of it — this wasn't just a tub of colored liquid. The surface was covered with froth, with a big bubble in the middle that he said was called "the flower of indigo."

The instructor soaked my piece of fabric in plain water first so it would take up the dye better. Then he told me to dunk it in the vat and knead it "for as long as I say."

That's where it gets complicated. After kneading, you lift the item out of the dye and hold it in the air for a few moments, while the color changes from a sort of dull brown to blue, as oxidation takes place. Then you dunk and knead it again — and possibly again. The duration and number of dips is how dyers get so many shades of blue — traditionally there are 48 — out of the same pot of dye.

Rinsing was left to a small washing machine. When the other two people in the class unwrapped their items, all three of us gasped at how beautiful they were. I assumed they had some talent that I lacked, but when I unwrapped mine, we all exclaimed the same way.

No doubt to a real artisan, the results looked like they'd been made by children, but I've never done a craft where the first attempt was so surprising and satisfying.

Indigo dyeing is complex and unlike other natural dyes. It's not easy to get indigo to dye fabric, which is why it's good for tie-dying: A rubber band is enough to stop it.

Most dyes are soluble in water, but not indigo, says Catharine Ellis, textile artist and co-author of a forthcoming book on natural dyes. "Even if it's a fine powder, you stir it up and you just have fine particles in the water," she says. To make the indigo soluble takes "magic and chemistry."

The Japanese method involves composting the indigo leaves. Then, creating and tending the dye vat sounds something like caring for a sourdough starter. There's talk about "feeding" and keeping it "healthy," like it's a living thing.

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