Extracting Pigment from Japanese Indigo Leaves

Japanese indigo in flower after many cuttings have been taken

Japanese indigo in flower after many cuttings have been taken

I’d like to share with you my experiments with extracting indigo pigment from fresh leaves. I dried most of my leaves so I didn’t have a lot to work with. My results are not conclusive, I still need to work on my method to get it down, but it is an interesting process.

I would like to use my homegrown indigo without a chemical reducing agent (hydrosulfite). Processing Japanese indigo by the traditional composting method requires a lot of volume and will not work for someone with a small crop. Instead I am extracting indigo pigment from my plants. The pigment can then be used in any indigo recipe.

The first step is to soak the fresh leaves in warm water. I tried this in various ways, for a couple hours, overnight, and for a couple days. I think next time I will try letting them ferment for a while. They released a brownish yellow color into the water with a little sheen on top.

Indigo processing soaked leaves

Next, I strained out the liquid by dumping the leaves into a bucket lined with a nylon mesh bag from a paint supply store. These bags work great, BTW! I squeezed as much juice as I could from the bag. When you squeeze the leaves a gray blue liquid comes out. There is still a lot of indigo in these leaves so I returned them to soak and extract a second time.

Soaked indigo leaves are strained though a colander and nylon mesh bag

Soaked indigo leaves are strained though a nylon mesh bag

The next step is to aerate the indigo juice. I started by pouring the liquid back and forth between two buckets 20 times.  I added calx water (mix the lime with water, let stand, use the clear liquid) and added enough to get the ph up to 9. For some of my attempts it was a little higher, more like ph 10. When the calx water mixes with the indigo liquid, it turns greenish.

Just pouring it between the buckets to oxidize has not worked for me. I have to whip more air into the indigo juice. I have tried using a blender and a stick blender, but have settled on using an electric mixer and beating it for 15 minutes. Whew!

Using a hand held mixer to aerate the indigo liquid

Using a hand held mixer to aerate the indigo liquid

I am always hoping the mixture will turn blue, as it did in Michel Garcia‘s workshop using dried indigofera leaves.  But instead it is mostly olive greenish with a little blue around the edges. When I am done mixing, I put it in large glass jars out of the light to settle out for a couple days or more, up to a couple weeks.

Indigo pigment settling out

Indigo pigment settling out

Indigo processing pigment settles

The pigment is settled at the bottom of the jar.

When the pigment has settled, I pour it into a colander lined with a cotton cloth.  I have not found it necessary to decant the mixture, as Jenny Dean suggests. When the indigo particles are really ready they will sit on the cloth and yellow liquid will drain into the bucket. If the liquid that drains out is greenish, there is indigo that still has not separated…I would put it back into the jar to settle some more.  The idea is to separate the pigment, which is blue, from the yellow liquid.

Indigo pigment separated from liquid by draining in cotton cloth

Indigo pigments separated from liquid by draining in cotton cloth, note that one is green and one is blue.

Here is where I am having difficulty. Sometimes the pigment that separates is blue, but frequently it is green. I have tried putting it back into a jar to settle more, sometimes that helps, sometimes not. Do I need to beat it longer?  Add more alkali?  Soak the leaves longer? If anyone has any suggestions I’d like to hear them. I plan to keep working on this with next year’s crop of leaves to get more consistent results.  I believe that even if the pigment is greenish, it will still reduce in an indigo vat.

Organic indigo vats made with fruits, sugars, and other natural substances.

Organic indigo vats made with fruits, sugars, and other natural substances

After the pigment is collected in the cloth, it can be used as a paste, or dried and ground to a powder. Then it can be used in any indigo recipe.  I have been working with the organic indigo recipes developed by Michel Garcia.  It’s amazing that something as ancient as this blue dye still has mysteries left for us to discover.

Be inspired by the mystery!                                                                                                          ♥Linda

Natural Dyed Textiles on the Mendocino Coast

Yoshiko Wada speaks at the opening of the Natural Dye Showcase

Yoshiko Wada speaks at the opening of the Natural Dye Showcase

A recent trip to the Mendocino coast gave me the opportunity to see two great shows featuring natural dyed textiles which included the work of textile artists from all over the county as well as those of a weaver from Oaxaca, Mexico.

The opening of The Natural Dye Showcase at Mendocino Art Center was very well attended…we crowded into the gallery to hear juror Yoshiko I. Wada speak. Yoshiko spoke of her recent work producing videos with natural dyer Michel Garcia.  She also talked about sustainability and the resurgence of popularity of natural dyeing, and how many textile artists have switched over to using  only natural dyes.

Best of show went to Michael Rohde for this tapestry.

Best of show went to Michael Rohde for this tapestry.

The show features work by many prominent artists from all over the county, including Michael Rohde, Catharine Ellis, Sandra Rude, and Barbara Shapiro. Many California artists showed as well (including yours truly…I have three pieces in this show).

Standing near my silk shawl on opening night.

Standing near my silk shawl on opening night.

Beautiful textiles in a variety of techniques.

Beautiful textiles in a variety of techniques. My jacket is hanging in the back corner.

Yoshiko particularly liked this piece of mine and gave me a ribbon!

Honorable Mention went to my silk ikat scarf, "Dream of Guatemala."

Honorable Mention went to my silk ikat scarf, “Dream of Guatemala.”

I won’t show you everything as you should try to get over to see the show if you can. It runs through August 28, 2015.

The next day I visited Pacific Textile Arts in Fort Bragg. They have a show of Oaxacan Textiles woven by Zapotec weavers, including Rodrigo Sosa Bautista, who has been living and teaching in Mendocino recently.

PTA Rodrigo Sosa Bautista show

Show of Zapotec weaving at Pacific Textile Arts.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

"Mujer" (Woman), after Picasso

“Mujer” (Woman), after Picasso

PTA Rodrigo Sosa Bautista Diamantes y Grecas

Traditional Zapotec weaving featuring diamonds and key designs.

I took the opportunity to visit Rodrigo’s class while I was there.  Students were winding their yarn and getting ready to weave Zapotec style.  I was sorry to not be able to stay, but I plan to take a workshop from Rodrigo in the future.  He will be in the area a couple more years before returning to live in Oaxaca.

Zapotec weaving class at Pacific Textile Arts with Rodrigo Sosa Bautista

Zapotec weaving class at Pacific Textile Arts with Rodrigo Sosa Bautista.

My work with textiles takes me to wonderful places and I am so fortunate to meet such amazing people.

Happy trails!


Dyeing with Fresh Indigo Plants

Japanese indigoplants in my garden closeup

Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) growing in my garden

I grew indigo in my garden this year. It has been a long time since I first tried dyeing with fresh plants.  My small patch will yield enough leaves to try a few different dyeing methods.

Stripping leaves from indigo plants

Stripping leaves from indigo plants

The leaves contain the indigo dye, so they are removed from the stems. Here I have thinned out whole plants but you can also pick leaves off the living plants and let them grow back.

"Indigo smoothie"-fresh leaves blended and strained

“Indigo smoothie”-fresh leaves blended and strained

The leaves go into the blender that’s 1/3 full of cold water and a few ice cubes.  Unlike the way I usually dye with indigo, this is a cold method.  After blending I add more leaves and blend again.  The “indigo smoothie” is a beautiful green color. It is strained through a cloth and the juice is the dyebath.

Silk in fresh indigo dyebath

Silk in fresh indigo dyebath

The fiber is put into the cold dyebath. I am dyeing 30/2 silk and some wool/mohair yarn samples. There are different ways to do this, leaving the fiber in for longer or shorter or removing it periodically to oxidize.  I am following John Marshall‘s method of rotating the skein slowly for one hour. As I work I can see the color changing.

Silk skein hung to drip  and oxidize

Silk skein hung to drip and oxidize

Oxidizing, which means exposing the indigo dyed fiber to oxygen, deepens the color. I love the dark wet colors of the silk, but I know they will dry much lighter. This method yields pastel shades of blues and greens.

I have mordanted some of my fiber in alum to see what happens. I anticipate that it will be more greenish, picking up the yellow tones in the dyebath.

Silk with no  mordant, alum mordant, and mordanted silk soaked in leftover bath.

Silk with no mordant, alum mordant, and mordanted silk soaked in leftover bath.

Here are the silk skeins I dyed.  The unmordanted skein is a light blue/blue green.  With an alum mordant I got a pale mint/sage green.  Putting a mordanted skein in the leftover bath and letting it sit  for a couple days I got a light yellow green color, which doesn’t really show in this photo. These light and even colors are beautiful as is but would also be nice for overdyeing.

Fresh indigo dyeing colors on wool croppedI got more dramatic results on my wool/mohair samples.  A nice light blue on unmordanted wool and a sage green on the wool with alum mordant. I put a mordanted and unmordanted sample in the leftover bath for a few days and got this nice spring green, very similar on both samples.

So what is next?  I still have my leftover dye bath which is fermenting in a pot.  Leftover dye bath can be heated to produce yellows, or alkalized to make blue.  And I also have plants still growing in my garden.  So more dye experiments are sure to follow.

Happy dyeing!                                                                                                                         ♥ Linda


Woven Shibori: Weaving and Dyeing with Natural Dyes

MAFA 2015 Woven shibori fabrics

Fabrics woven and dyed by students at the MAFA 2015 conference

At the MAFA conference in Millersburg, PA I taught a class in woven shibori.  This is a technique that combines weaving with dyeing. This technique was developed by Catharine Ellis and her book, Woven Shibori, is a wonderful resource.                            The first step is to weave special fabrics with extra threads woven in for gathering.  We used all different fibers, silk, cotton, wool, tencel, and bamboo.  We were able to use all these fibers sucessfully with natural dyes, even the cellulose fibers.

MAFA 2015 woven shibori fabric undyed

Undyed fabrics woven especially for this workshop.

The supplemental weft threads are pulled up to gather the fabric.  This can be done with undyed fabric, or it can be dyed first.

Woven shibori pulling threads

Weft threads being pulled up to gather fabric.

MAFA 2015 Debbie woven shibori

Painting dyes on gathered fabric

Dyes are applied in various ways, painted with a brush, simmered in an immersion bath, or dipped in the indigo vat.

MAFA 2015 Betsy woven shibori

The fabrics are opened to reveal the dyed patterns…always a surprise!  We all had a great time.

Some happy dyers and their work

Some happy dyers and their work

Next, I will be sharing my experiments with dyeing using fresh indigo from my garden.  It’s a lot of fun!

♥   Linda


A trip to Black Sheep Gathering

I had a great time at Black Sheep Gathering in my old hometown of Eugene, Oregon.  This is the largest fiber festival on the west coast.  I hadn’t attended in many years and it was great to be back!

BSG 6 2015 vendor hall

Vendor hall and spinning circle

I taught two dyeing workshops outside, in the wonderful warm weather.

BSG 5 2015 Indigo dyeing

Indigo For Blues and Greens workshop at BSG

BSG 2015 Indigo blues and greens class

A great group of new indigo dyers!

BSG 3 2015 Silk painting

Silk Painting and Stamping with Natural Dye Extracts workshop, stamping on cloth.

BSG  2 2015 silk painting

Silks handpainted with natural dyes. They will be rinsed out after curing and the colors will brighten.

My friend Janet Heppler of Nebo Rock Ranch won the Black Sheep Cup for her wonderful fleeces…second year in a row!

Janet Heppler Black Sheep cup

Janet Heppler of Nebo-Rock Ranch and her prize winning fleeces

I’m already planning to be back at Black Sheep again in 2016. Good times!

On another note, after two hours (!) on the phone and internet on Monday, I was able to register for the Maiwa Textile Symposium next September.  I’ll be in Michel Garcia’s organic indigo class…I’m so excited!


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Into the Mystery, fabric detail