Folk Fibers Blog

  • My Indigo Journey Begins

    "Don't rush,­ life is long and there's no race to be the first to do anything with indigo,­ it's all been done for thousands of years. The big question is how do you make it your own, and that takes years and years." -Rowland Ricketts

    This year I have immersed myself in learning first-hand the age-old-traditions of growing, dying, and processing Indigo. Due to my years of experience in working on organic vegetable farms, I was able to start confident and strong with growing and harvesting Indigo; but then came the question of how to process indigo, meaning getting color from the plant onto fabric? There are many ways of dyeing with indigo and there's no one right or wrong way, just different reasons for choosing the one you work with. I am in the beginning stages of experimenting to find the method for processing that works best for me in the southern climate of Ausitn, Texas. To get started tried to understand the difference in dying with fresh indigo leaves (Direct Dying), and dying with dried and naturally fermented leaves (Vat Dying). In comparing the two methods Rowland Ricketts was able to share a perfect and simple statement.

    "I have a great respect for and love of small-scale production, but at the same time I'm a professional who needs to be able to dye relatively large amounts of material frequently and consistently. I choose to work with the composted indigo and natural fermentation vat because my goal is to consistently produce the best colors possible using methods and materials that are sustainable and rooted in my immediate environment. Relying solely on fresh plants for dyeing is limiting on a number of fronts. First of all the dye concentration in the leaves is rather weak, so it could be difficult to get very dark shades. Secondly, if you limit yourself to dyeing with fresh plants you can only do your dyeing when you have fresh plants available. For me this would mean only during the summer, and that is a limiting time frame."

    I seeded Japanese Indigo (Polygonum Tinctorium) seeds in January and it took exactly two weeks for them to germinate inside the greenhouse. If I had pre-soaked the seeds it could have speed up the germination process.  After six weeks in the greenhouse the roots were mature enough to be transplanted.  I removed the seedlings from the greenhouse and set them outside to harden them off for a couple of days. 

    I transplanted 525 japanese indigo seedlings the first week of March in a 700 square foot garden. For mulch I used burlap sacks (sourced from a local coffee roaster) they help to keep the weeds down, and retain moisture in the soil.  I hand painted a sign to signify oficial commitment to my project and numbered the rows for record keeping.  

    One month after transplanting, the indigo was fully grown and ready for the first harvest. A month is a faster growing rate than most climates; through my research I had estimated 3 months from transplanting to first harvest. Apparently Japanese Indigo LOVES Texas... that is as long as I keep it irrigated. 

    To harvest, the Indigo is cut a few inches from the ground leaving the roots and some foliage on the plant. In a month the plants will grow back, and be ready for another harvest. The harvested Indigo plants are spread out on a tarp in the sun. The plants are left to dry in the sun for about a day or two. As they dry the Indigo leaves oxidize and turn slightly blue. When they are completely dry It's then time to stomp on them to separate the stems from the leaves. All the stems are removed and the remaining dried indigo leaves are heaped into a pile. I then bagged the indigo leaves into a breathable canvas bag and stored it in a cool dry place until the fall. After all that hard work I ended up with 5 pounds of dried indigo leaves. It will be many years until I accumulate enough mass to ferment my own pile of indigo. It is estimated that approximately 300 pounds of dried indio is needed to achieve a successful compost.   

    I would like to give a BIG thank you to my indigo mentor, Rowland Ricketts. Rowland has been working with Japanese Indigo for over 15 years. He got his start in Japan as an apprentice to a Japanese Indigo farmer and a Japanese indigo dyer. Rowland has help me debunk  the loads of false publications on Indigo.  My fresh understanding of my resources has taught me to read things on Indigo with a grain of salt. Rowland has explained to me that most of the English-language books available on Indigo contain mis-information, or the majority of what is written is for the hobbyist, the backyard dyer who is doing their dyeing in a ball jar. The reason for this phenomenon is unknown but assumed to be a number of reasons. Possibly the well-meaning individuals who "researched" Indigo before writing articles and books on the topic may never have had a first-hand practical experience with the process. Or the well-meaning individuals were outright lied to because the crafts people they were talking to wanted to protect their trade secrets. As Rowland suggests, these lies then get put in print, cited in other works, and lead people astray. I am SO thankful for teachers like Rowland, who not only believe in open source information, but set out to share it. 

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  • Comments on this post (11 comments)

    • Claudia Fisk says...

      Can you please tell me what season to start my indigo. I have seeds which I will have to put in seedling trays first. Everyone seems to name months which relate to different parts of the world . I am in Australia. It is mid-summer here, so please can you say what season I should commence not what month!?
      Many thanks.

      On January 22, 2016

    • Toni says...

      I am interested in growing indigo for our school garden. We are expanding this year and starting a “history” garden, growing the three sisters and also tobacco. We would like to grow indigo but I don’t know it the indigo originally grown in the southern colonies is still obtainable. Any suggestions?


      On January 16, 2015

    • Morrison Polkinghorne says...

      What an inspiring Blog.
      I have just relocated to Cambodia and I want to do natural indigo and this blog has the best info.
      PS: I have just started to follow your instagram. I’m @morrison_polkinghorne

      On June 02, 2014

    • melinda says...

      I have tried and tried and fail so badly on growing indigo. Do you sell your plants?

      On May 27, 2014

    • Trevor Gustafson says...

      I am interested in growing indigo, what is a good source to get information on growing and dying with indigo?

      On February 05, 2014

    • Rebecca says...

      Great article; thanks for sharing! I am growing very similar looking indigo plants (from seed) on my balcony in containers in Connecticut. I think really enjoy humid summer weather. These started blooming only after the first cold night. It’s been a joy to spend time with these surprisingly vigorous and robust plants. I hope my attempt to ferment a small batch will yield interesting results. Good luck on your journey!!

      On September 18, 2013

    • Deb says...

      What a good article. I too am just beginning to become acquainted with the indigo plants. I have about 40 indigo plants growing that are just now starting to bud. I cut them back earlier in the summer and harvested some leaves, but only about a grocery bag full. The process for dying is so complex with purchased indigo powder, how can I replicate this process with the dried crumbled leaves. I too wonder how to compost for later use.

      Thanks again for all the information.

      On August 11, 2013

    • Nat says...

      I know the indigo growing season is over for you, but I live in Australia and my indigo plants are in full swing right now. I’ve read on your Instagram that you soak indigo leaves in water and fermented? Would you mind telling me how long you leave them in the water? Do you add anything to the water before you dye? I’m also a folkfiber that madly in-love with natural dye – many thanks – Nat

      On February 24, 2013

    • tia says...

      What an inspiration you are! I have dabbled in dying in the past and I respect your commitment to actually GROW indigo. Your dying will be all the more glorious for your dedication.

      On February 10, 2013

    • Nancy says...

      Thank you for the great information. I also have found much conflicting information on Japanese indigo, and am just learning by trial and error the past several years, here in Blacksburg, VA. I have kept up with Roland Rickett’s projects, but have never had the privilege of speaking with him.
      Do you have any links about all phases of the indigo process that you could give me by email?
      I grow quite a bit, then harvest the seeds, and I dye wool, mostly. I am not a fiber artist, but love the farming and dyeing process. I am a soap maker, and am trying to find the best method for making my soap consistently blue. The chemistry is more than I understand.
      Are you sure that we can’t compost on a smaller scale? I am trying to find a use for all this indigo, but I certainly don’t have 300 lbs of dried leaves!

      On October 04, 2012

    • Amy says...

      Wow! What an inspiring story. I tend a small garden in Lancaster Pa. and have been a knitter for several years, and have recently started researching natural dyes for dying yarn. Your commitment to the craft is amazing, and I love the burlap sacks, I am going to my local coffee roaster to see if they have a few spares around! Best of luck on your indigo growing and harvesting. I can’t wait to read more about the process.

      On May 15, 2012

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