Indigo and Shibori Backyard Dye Party

Have you noticed the recent obsession with indigo? It seems like everywhere I look there's another fabric dyed with indigo but I must confess, I'm totally hopping on this bandwagon. I'm loving all the indigo and shibori springing up everywhere and I've been wanting to try my hand at this gorgeous plant-based blue.

In my natural dye workshop I learned that indigo is one of the heirloom primary dye colors--it's the original source of plant dye for the color blue. So I think this makes its recent resurgence even more exciting--the quintessential old becomes new. I'm a lightweight when anything historic is made contemporary and relevant so this one won me over quickly.

My kind friend, Kathryn Clark, recently hosted an indigo dye party for a gathering of local fiber artists and textile lovers. She did all the heavy lifting by preparing the dye vats, organizing the shibori dye tools like rubber bands, thread, sticks, and stones, and also offering a smattering of natural fabrics for dyeing. This was my first time dyeing with indigo and it was So Much Fun. (I couldn't resist, that just required all caps. Forgive me.)

The more I work with plant-based dyes the more I realize that all the little nuances add up to very drastic results. Not just the nuances from plant-to-plant or dye vat to dye vat but also the mordants, pre-soaks, types of fibers, length of the soak time, temperature, and the list goes on.

This time I worked mostly with cotton and linen fabrics and experimented primarily with folds and threads to make my dye patterns. Of course, I've far from mastered the shibori techniques (for those of you wondering about shibori they say that tie dye is shibori's bastard cousin) but it's exciting to see what dramatic patterns you can create with just a few folds and some tightly bound thread. The possibilities are truly limitless.

I'm also still experimenting with one of the biggest challenges to natural dyes--colorfastness and lightfastness. Unlike their chemical counterparts, natural dyes don't "set" the same way as chemical dyes, even with mordants and pre-soaking and using otherwise "ideal" dye conditions, so the color can continue to fade. I'm still learning just how much fading to expect from the deep saturated colors of the wet fabric to the dry fabric several weeks (or months) after the dye is complete.

So, like any creative practice, it's a work-in-progress. I'm happy with that. I'm also happy with the stack of indigo dyed fabric resting on the side of my desk. It's sitting there reciting poetry about all the creations that are yet to come. And as you know, I'm also a lightweight for poetry. You might say it was my first true love.


  1. Beautiful! What do you plan to make?

    1. thank you! it was so much fun. i'm planning to make a dress, and to edge a tank top, and maybe a handbag if i get that far along. xo

  2. Replies
    1. oh, thank you! it was such a fun afternoon. and all that pretty indigo dyed fabric is now ready for new creations.

  3. Gorgeous. I'm very curious about what mordants you used?

    1. Thank you! I didn't prepare the indigo dye vats so I'm not actually sure if Kathryn used a mordant. I seem to remember we just soaked the fabric in water, dyed, dried, then dipped in ph neutral soap and dried again. Indigo can be used without a mordant on animal or cellulose fibers so I don't remember using a mordant at all. But we might have dipped in a mordant soak before dyeing--I can't recall.

      When using natural dyes in my home kitchen I usually use animal fibers (silk, wool, etc) without a mordant. I've had success with coffee, fennel, onion skins, sour grass, and red cabbage on silk. As silk/ wool don't get washed much after dyeing I've been satisfied with the colorfastness. I keep them out of direct sun to prevent fading.

      If I was using cellulose (plant based fibers like cotton, flax, etc) I'd probably use alum as a mordant as it seems to be the least toxic of any natural mordants. I've heard you can use soy milk but I haven't had good results. When dyeing in larger batches in studios or outdoors I'm happy to use alum--just haven't made that decision in my home kitchen yet.

      I love the world of natural dyes--it's endless! I'd also suggest any natural dye book by Sasha Duerr, Rebecca Burgess, or India Flint. There are also lots of great resources online for dyeing with indigo like this one at Dharma Trading Company-they use soda ash as a mordant it seems.


      Good luck!


Thank you for your comments, friends. I like to think we are creating a dialogue in this space--building a virtual community.