Dyeing Your Hands Blue To Stay Fresh

September 17, 2015

Sometimes the best way to stay fresh, current and creative… is to dive into the past.

I recently saw a textiles-school post about shibori fabric dyeing on Instagram, and I instantly became lost in the history behind the Japanese dyeing technique. Indigo is one the oldest dyes, and it’s incredible how much time, attention and detail go into each unique piece.

Just my luck, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) was offering an indigo natural dyeing workshop as part of their continuing education offerings.

So, I signed up and arrived at class full of inspiration, a hunger for knowledge and no previous knowledge of fabrics, and it was incredible.

Some of my favorite fun facts about indigo dye include:

  • The pigment actually comes from plant leaves
  • Chemistry is super important in the dyeing process – it’s all about the sugars!
  • Indigo is one the strongest plant dyes
    • There are two components to indigo: glucose and indoxyl. The water in the vat grabs the glucose, leaving the indoxyl as the free radical. When the indoxyl hits the oxygen, it locks onto the fabric and creates a strong bond, which is why indigo dyes last so long
  • Woad (which is very fun to say) is super prevalent and is considered a cheaper way to get indigo dyes. Woad has less pigment, so you need more of it to get the same effect
  • Logwood produces a navy or purple-blue dye
  • Dogwood produces a silvery blue dye
  • There are some dyers in Japan who can tell if their indigo vat is ready based on the taste
  • Indigo dyes are very smelly – like earthy beets and rotting fish
    • You get used to it, but initial wave of smell is like a kick in the stomach

It’s striking how much individuality and character each dyer brings to the process of their creation. And it builds an active connection to your clothing and fabrics – actually making something – versus a passive approach of simply wearing someone else’s vision.

Today’s the last session of the workshop and I’ve scrounged for every last piece of white clothing – natural fibers only! – I’m able to find with my blue-stained fingers.

Let the folding, twisting, bunching, binding and dipping commence!