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  • Writer's pictureLinda Litchfield

Indigo & Shibori

I recently attended a 2 day Indigo and Shibori course at the City Lit, in Covent Garden, London. The tutor was the excellent Lara Mantell. She is warm, friendly, approachable and generous with her extensive practical knowledge. Just what a workshop tutor should be.

I have used indigo before and in 2005 I spent two weeks at the indigo dyeworks of Mr Tadashi Higeta at Mashiko in Tochigi province in Japan. Mr Higeta had inherited the dyeworks from his father. It was housed in beautiful old wooden buildings. Over 40 working dye pots were sunk into the ground, each one covered with a wooden lid. Every morning Mr Higeta and his assistance/apprentice would lift up the lids and decide on the basis of the amount of fermentation in the dye pots, which ones to use that day. As well as dyeing with indigo, the small staff of nine (all of whom regarded themselves as students of Mr Higeta (Sensei) rather than employees) undertook spinning, weaving and stencilling. The indigo used to feed the dye pots was grown in local fields.

Mr Higeta was passionate about natural indigo. He explained to me that it had been used as far back as about 400 B.C. and was widely used in India and China before being introduced into Japan from China in the Nara era (710-759 A.D.) Thereafter it was widely used as a dye and by the beginning of the Edo era (1603-1866) most of the clothing worn in Japan had been made from cloth dyed with indigo. Mr Higeta explained to me that original dyeing techniques, using the leaves of indigo plants, were expensive and complicated and had fallen into disuse and almost disappeared. Modern synthetic indigo was used instead. But Mr Higeta felt that it was the duty of the Japanese to hand down original dyeing techniques to the next generation: the colour which his ancestors loved so much was the most beautiful of colours. I was made very welcome while I was there and learnt a lot despite language difficulties. I too came to love the colour and the distinctive smell of natural indigo.

Indigofera tinctoria does not grow easily in Europe but woad (isatis tinctoria) does, and this was the plant that we used here to obtain blue dye until trade routes to the east opened up in the mid 15th century. Woad gives a similar dye to indigo but in a lower concentration: it is difficult the get the same depth of blueness.

Incentivised by the failure of natural indigo production to meet the voracious demands of the clothing industry in the nineteenth century, synthetic indigo was invented by a German chemist. Most commercial indigo dyeing today uses synthetic indigo. However, there is an increased interest in natural dyes and maybe this will lead to an increase in natural indigo production.

Slightly sad to relate, the indigo that we used in the City Lit course was synthetic indigo: the dyeing procedure is simpler than that needed for natural indigo and the results are very good. It is necessary to dissolve the indigo in a warm alkaline bath from which oxygen has been removed. After immersion in the bath, fibres are removed and oxidised in the air: as oxidisation occurs the fibres turn from a green/yellow to indigo blue. The cycle is repeated to deepen the colour.

Shibori is the Japanese technique of manipulating and compressing the cloth before it is dyed to create a resist which will leave a pattern when the fabric is dyed in indigo. There are different techniques involving stitching and wrapping, binding, clamping, folding and twisting. We tried several during the workshop. Some are more labour intensive than others. An overnight break in the workshop gave those minded to put in some homework a few hours to shibori their fabrics.

I particularly like the relatively speedy technique of Kumo shibori, in which found objects, small stones in this case, are laid onto the cloth and then wrapped tightly with thread or elastic bands.

Everyone in the group made multiple samples. An indigo dye bath is a great thing to share although there is a protocol: be very careful when putting fabric in and taking it out not to introduce bubbles of oxygen into the pot and make sure everyone has equal access. There is something about that colour and that smell that can tempt you to turn your entire wardrobe blue.

My next challenge will be to revisit what I learnt in Japan in 2005 and set up my own natural indigo dye bath and to do the same with the woad I am growing on my allotment.

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