So you want to dye with indigo. It may seem like a daunting task at first, but with the right materials and knowledge, indigo dyeing is fun, easy, and safe! This indigo dye tutorial will provide you with sources from which to purchase the necessary ingredients (I use pre-reduced indigo crystals to avoid using super toxic chemicals such as lye). You’ll also find step-by-step instructions to dye with indigo using dip dye and shibori techniques. Scroll on down to see the full tutorial.
What you’ll need:
-Fabric dyeables (More on this below!)
-Large bucket with tight sealing lid (I recommend using a plastic 5 gallon bucket because they’re cheap and have a sealing lid. You won’t want to use this bucket for anything else after Indigo Dyeing because it will be stained blue!)
-String or butcher’s twine
-Old stirring spoon
-Old wide mouth bowl or container
-A packet of pre-reduced indigo crystals (I get them here.)
-50 grams Theox (I get it here. The 2 oz. bag will be plenty.)
-100 grams soda ash (I get it here. Again, the smallest 1 lb. bag will be more than enough.)
What dyeables to start with.
I’ve done lots of experimenting with indigo dyeing over the past six months, and I’ve found that the most rewarding fabrics to dip in indigo are cotton and linen. You’ll see the most dramatic results with these fabrics, and they are less likely to need multiple dips in the dyebath. You can also work with silk, but you’ll need to dip multiple times to achieve a good depth of color. Synthetic fabrics are not recommended.
Another option is to overdye a garment to give it new life! Make sure to read the content tag before dyeing a garment. As I mentioned in the above paragraph, natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, and silk are preferred. This is a great way to give new life to stained garments, old sweaters, or faded jeans.
Indigo Fabric Chart
For a quick reference on color depth for each type of fabric, I’ve uploaded photos of my recent indigo dye projects below. You can see that the indigo on silk (far right) is noticeably lighter despite being dipped three times. I achieved a darker blue with the linen (3rd from left) by dipping it four times. If you’d like a super dark blue, you can dip your fabric as many as 10 times.
Shibori style technique on organic cotton flannel, dipped in vat 1 time
Scrunch dye technique on cotton jersey, dipped in vat 1 time
Solid dye on woven linen, dipped in vat 4 times
Scrunch dye technique on silk habotai, dipped in vat 3 times
Step 1: Prepare your fabric
Pre-wash all fabrics or garments in PH neutral detergent to remove any oils or sizing.
For solid or scrunch methods: Keep your fabric slightly damp before dyeing.
For shibori methods: I suggest doing some research online to find a shibori technique that you love! There are so many options out there. Two of my favorites are the fold-and-clip technique (as seen on our Miles Tank) and the accordion fold and roll technique (as seen on the photo to the right and the far left photo in the above chart). For the fold-and-clip technique, fold your damp fabric or garment at least four times until it is in the shape of a 6×6″ square. Secure the edges with four large binder clips. For the accordion fold and roll technique, fold your panel of fabric accordion style until it is in the shape of a long rectangle. Then, roll up the rectangle so it looks like a cinnamon roll. Secure with string or twine.
*I recommend prepping enough fabric to completely use up, or “exhaust” your indigo vat within a couple of days. You can keep your indigo vat for months with regular care, but I find it much easier to exhaust the vat with plenty of dyestuff and start from scratch the next time I’m ready to dye. In order to exhaust the vat, you can plan to use between 3 to 10 pounds of fabric based on how dark you want your pieces. Keep in mind that shibori style pieces will use up less dye, since portions of the fabric will remain white.
Step 2: Prepare your vat
Set up your materials OUTSIDE for good ventilation on a day that is not too cold (for your own comfort, and the comfort of your little vat as well!). Be aware that indigo smells strange, like a mix of old hay and chemicals. However, the vat is not toxic, just very strong-smelling!
Fill your 5 gallon bucket a bit more than half full with warm, but not hot water. Weigh out your theox with the kitchen scale. Add the theox and the packet of indigo crystals to the vat and stir.
Weigh out the soda ash and transfer it to your old bowl. Add about a cup of very hot water and stir until completely dissolved. Add this mixture to your dye vat.
Using the stirring spoon, stir the mixture clockwise and then counterclockwise, dragging the spoon along the sides of the vat. You’ll see a thick blue foam begin to form, and by stirring in different directions you’ll bring this foam to the center of the vat.
With your spoon, skim the foam (called the “flower”) off of the top and transfer it to your bowl. If you plan on reusing your vat, you’ll want to keep this and put it back onto the vat when you’re done.
Step 3: Dip your Pieces
Dipping pieces into your vat is fun and easy! When you dip a piece into the vat and then lift it out, the dye will react with the air and will oxidize over a period of minutes. That’s why your pieces will appear almost neon green as you lift them from the vat, but will turn blue in front of your eyes when exposed to air.
Here are a couple things to keep in mind as you dip fabric pieces into your vat. As mentioned earlier, you’ll want your pieces to be slightly damp in order to evenly absorb the dye. When you dip your pieces, the key is to avoid aerating the vat. This means that you’ll want to create as few air bubbles as possible. Gently dip each piece in for about 30 seconds to completely saturate the fabric. As you lift it, squeeze it out while it is still touching the water to minimize air bubbles. After your pieces are dipped, you can hang them on a line to air out or simply lay them in the grass until they are completely oxidized. If you’d like to redip for a darker color, you must wait until the fabric is completely oxidized before lowering it into the vat again.
For solid pieces: Avoid scrunching your fabric while lowering it into the vat. Gently wring out as you pull the fabric out of the vat.
For scrunch dipped pieces: I love the interesting texture achieved from scrunch dipped pieces. Simply ball up your damp fabric before dipping it in the vat. Alternatively twist the fabric as if you were about to gently wring it out, and dip it in that way. The twist method will produce more diagonal lines and striations, while the scrunch method will produce random texture.
For shibori pieces: These are quite easy to dip because they are tied up, but keep in mind that you may have air bubbles trapped in the fabric that will want to escape. I make sure to squeeze the wrapped piece tightly before lowering it into the vat, and then lightly squeeze it while it is immersed so that the dye penetrates through the layers of folds. Don’t unwrap the piece until you are ready to wash it out.
Step 4: Wash your Pieces
When all of your pieces have been dipped, you can start washing them out. I recommend washing each piece under running water first. Don’t wash your pieces anywhere that you don’t want permanent indigo staining! I find that the best method is washing them outside with a hose. If you have some shibori pieces, open them up and put them directly under running water to keep the white areas bright.
After the pieces are no longer running with dye, toss them in a bucket of warm soapy water (PH neutral soap) for a second wash until there is little or no remaining color leaving the fabric.
Wring out your pieces and hang them to dry!
*Indigo pieces are not relatively wash-fast, so I recommend washing them alone the first time they need to be machine washed.
Step 5: Cleanup and Vat Care
As I mentioned, I prefer to exhaust my indigo vat and start anew the next time I’m ready to dye. You can tell if your vat is exhausted when it is a pale blue/grey color and is yielding weak indigo color that isn’t neon green upon emerging from the vat.
To dispose of your vat, whisk air into the vat to completely aerate it. Add water to the vat so the bucket is almost full. At this point, it is safe to dispose of in your yard. The theox and soda ash content is so minimal that is should not affect plant growth, so using this mixture to water your lawn is completely safe.
If you haven’t exhausted your vat and prefer to keep it, put the “flower” foam back onto the surface of the water. Then put the airtight lid on the vat and store it in a warm space. Keep in mind that the PH will quickly alter. You’ll need to rebalance the PH and top off the vat with very hot water the next time you plan on using it.