Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Respect for Indigo

I would love to understand and hear more about your respect for indigo. I know it's in your writings about your processes of working with indigo, but what is it that you feel is not right about just putting something in the dye pot, without the care you think it deserves? on Indigo Dyeing Old Fabrics

Hi Cynthia,
I thought about what you wrote as I drove to the new studio today. I pictured a microwaved turkey with not even a drop of butter basted on. Served on some cold microwave-safe dish with no garnish and eaten in silence. 
The poor turkey. The lazy cook. The lost chance for a warm gathering of people and a full tummy.
When I first started indigo dyeing I took the train a few hours to an indigo studio that you paid by the gram what you wanted to dye. They have a dozen indigo vats in a beautiful reconstructed barn with a stone floor.  The human atmosphere was miserable. The owner was a drunk. The staff were afraid of him.
I would spend hundreds of hours tying a cotton kimono and then take it there to dye. As a fermentation indigo vat exhausts after time the bubbles on the top are a pale blue and the whole thing looks sickly. These were the only vats the paying customers were allowed to use. I would dip and oxidize over twenty times to get a medium blue. I begged to use the better vat and was turned down. 
I understand their policy.  To make the customer understand how expensive and precious indigo is. To make the customer appreciate the skill of the staff who take care of the fermentation vats daily. To stop anyone one from just dumping in a pair of old jeans thoughtlessly, killing the vat with too much oxygen.  There was a religious feeling of awe towards the vats. It was spoiled slightly with the stale smell of potato alcohol breath from the chief dyer and the egg walking nervous glances of his staff who were in love with indigo dyeing with no other option to find work.
The place was not welcoming. If I were to ever open an indigo dyeing studio to the public I would encourage the customers to enjoy the process and the preciousness of the experience. 
 I have problems balancing that. Like the turkey dinner, there is so much potential with indigo. The dyed cloth should be perfect. Why waste your time and effort and money on less than great material? I don't want to be a  boar and grumping over every item that goes it the vat. There are times that I think and feel I should be ( or at least pretend to be) the alpha indigo troll and bark at anyone who steps within a meter of a vat. Standards would go up. Satisfaction with projects would go up. Playfulness would take a direct hit. 
It boils down to taking time and having high standards. I am spreading myself far too thin these days. It would be too cynical/hypocritical of me to be an out and out ruthless teacher. I settle for encouraging words and nods and tugs in the direction I feel the students should go.

The standard should be to have the students make their own thread from nettles and silk. Dye it with a dye they made themselves and weave it on looms they make themselves. I do teach all these these things. Perhaps next year when I am less overwhelmed with work I'll put the focus where I deeply feel it should be.

Again, the brochure with information of the spring workshops at my house in Japan:


  1. This makes so much sense to me now, but I don't think I really understood it in my own work until I started to grow, process and dye using my own plants. The nature of the growing season, the time taken nurturing the plants, the harvest at the right time of year - it all made me respect and appreciate the colours and process so much more.

  2. Thank you so much! What an amazing story about the indigo studio. I have never used indigo. I have used plants for dyeing and have a sense of what you're saying, because the pieces that come out of my small natural dye pots are very special to me. Indigo has a unique reputation and I'll just have to experience it someday.

  3. this post made my heart sing.thank you.

  4. I had a small aha moment when you described the rush to dump a stained garment into a vat of Indigo hoping for a transformation.
    I have managed to dye with Indigo with varied results and some impatience. Your words remind me to slow down, learn more, be respectful of my materials and protective of the idea that something made with care and mindfulness has great value.

  5. I had a small aha moment writing it. Centered me to an almost embarrassing degree.

  6. aha moments are momentous and important, and i'm noticing more and more of them in my life. just recently, ecodyeing my own papers and shifu with plants from my land has been deeply correct. makes my heart sing!

  7. I greatly appreciate this post. So far, my love for indigo remains unfulfilled in the sense that I do not live up to it's worth. Meaning, I do not yet have the skill to be satisfied with my work. At first I thought I just need more experience or practice; therefore dyeing more things blue is a simple answer, but that is not the would be far better to slow down and make sure my work is worthy of the blue. Interesting.

    I would also agree, it is your role as a teacher to instill in your students the proper reverence for the art/medium/tools etc. All great teachers do this and usually with an insistent passion.