Japanese Indigo August 2017

Way back in August I ran a Japanese indigo vat. Here’s what the bed of Japanese indigo plants looked like on August 20th:

I have only dyed with fresh Japanese indigo leaves a few times, so I am still trying to develop skill with the process. An important part of developing skill is repetition. Another important piece is learning and testing new things, and then trying to understand why they do or don’t work. Luckily, this vat afforded me all of those opportunities!

I picked 22 oz. of plant material, which yielded exactly 1 pound (16 oz.) of leaves trimmed off of the stems. Here are the tips of the plant stalks that I harvested:

On the left are the stems, and on the right is the bag with just the leaves in it. It’s a really beautiful plant! It has sweet little hairs, wrapped-around layers, exciting color contrasts, and an interesting juxtaposition of rigid and luscious textures.

I wanted to over-dye six small skeins (about two ounces each) of pale blue cotton yarns (commercial 10/2). They had all previously been dyed with woad, and several of them had gone through other processes, too. Two had been dyed in an umbilicate lichen vat, but had only become vaguely pinkish beige in that process. Five had been soaked in a gallotannin solution in an attempt to achieve a teal or blue-green color with woad. One had been in a weld exhaust bath after several dips in a woad vat. All the skeins were still disappointingly pale. I find cotton very difficult to dye!

I used the canning jar “double boiler” method again for this vat. I’ve described this process before, but I figured it was worth repeating here.

I crammed the leaves into half gallon and quart jars, filled them to the shoulder with cold tap water, and put the lid on. I set the jars inside a pot with water about three quarters of the way up the height of the jar.

Here’s all the equipment and the way the jars were arranged in the pots:

I slowly heated the pots of water over the course of two hours. One of the pots accidentally got up to 180º for the last fifteen minutes, but I was aiming for 160º. Here’s what the liquid in the jar looked like after two hours. On the left is the top of the jar and on the right is the liquid in the bottom of the jar:

This is what the leaves looked like when I opened the jars. The metallic sheen that you can see on the right is always a good sign!

Once I strained out the leaves, I had about two gallons of liquid. I used ammonia to get the pH up to 9:

The color changes dramatically with the pH shift. This is true with woad, too. But in my experience, Japanese indigo and woad don’t act or look the same way. On the left below is the greenish color that came out of the jars. Usually, extracted woad is pink or red. On the right is the way it looked after I added a lot of ammonia. The liquid is completely opaque, but now it looks sort of red. Usually with woad, the liquid turns dark green after I add the ammonia.

In this case, the photo on the left is before I added ammonia, and the photo on the right is after:

Then I aerated the liquid for about 10 minutes by pouring the liquid back and forth between different buckets. I had set the timer for ten minutes, but my back started hurting.

I decided to use thiourea dioxide for the reducing agent. I usually use Rit Color Remover, which contains sodium hydrosulfite. But, I had some thiox left over from an indigo vat in the spring, and I have heard it has a short shelf-life. I followed the recommendations from Rita Buchanan in A Weaver’s Garden of 1 Tbsp thiox or 2 Tbs. sodium hydrosulfite per gallon of liquid.

After 50 minutes, the vat didn’t really look reduced, but I stuck in a skein anyway. Usually I look for a murky greenish yellow, but I was kind of impatient!

When you dip fiber into a woad or indigo vat that has been chemically reduced, the reducing agent also functions as a color-stripper. So, if there is color on the skein already, you have to be careful not to let it sit in the vat too long. If you leave it in too long, the original color will be stripped off. On the other hand, I have found that the “quick dips” that are recommended for indigo vats using powdered indigo don’t work for me when I’m using a vat with fresh leaves. So, I left the first skein in for ten minutes.

That worked fine. I put the second skein in for ten minutes, then bumped the pH back up (it had gone down to 8) with a little more ammonia. The third and fourth skeins were in for 20 minutes, the 5th skein was in for 30 minutes, and the last skein was in for about an hour and a half.

While the skeins were oxidizing but still wet, the color was very promising!

While I was getting ready for this vat, I re-read my notes from a dyeing workshop with Joan Morris at Long Ridge Farm. I noticed that she recommended neutralizing cellulose fiber with tannic acid rather than acetic acid (vinegar) after a vat. Since the pH of a vat is very high, you are supposed to neutralize the fibers by soaking them in a mild acidic solution afterwards. I always do this with wool, since protein fibers are damaged with a high pH. Somehow I had forgotten that this was also important with cellulose fibers. And I had completely missed the tannic acid recommendation. So, I thought I’d better look into it.

A little bit of poking around on line led me to Catherine Ellis’ blog Natural Dye: Experiments and Results. What a fabulous resource! I found this post about over-dying with indigo especially interesting.

I had two kinds of tannins at that moment (not including black tea–my favorite is Barry’s gold blend, which I would rather drink than use for dyeing!). I decided to use Earthhues gallotannin, which is very light.

I always wait until the fiber is completely dry, if I can, before rinsing, so it took a couple days to get to the neutralizing and rinsing stage. I dissolved 1 tsp. of gallotannin in about 2 gallons of water (a dishpan) to soak all the cotton skeins before rinsing. The pH was between 7-8. That seemed weird for something called tannic “acid”. In case you need a refresher on your pH scale, 7 is considered neutral, and anything below that is considered acidic. Anything above 7 is considered alkaline. Adding an acid to water ought to make an acidic solution. Or so I thought.

I tested the pH of the plain, hot tap water. I got a surprising pH 8-9. What? I was shocked. I checked around, and apparently it is not unusual for the pH of tap water to be this high. So much for the notion that water is “neutral”.

Soaking in the not-acidic pH solution with tannic acid didn’t help much. A lot of color rinsed out from the cotton skeins. Perhaps I should have made a stronger solution with tannic acid. I was reluctant to make it too strong, though, because tannins can also shift the color to a duller or browner tone. I didn’t want the blues to get muddy.

I did a second soak and rinse with laundry detergent in hot water, but color was still rinsing off. So, I made a new solution with acetic acid (white vinegar) to make a mildly acidic bath of pH 6, and soaked all the skeins in that. It seemed to do the trick.

I clearly need to do more reading about why tannic acid is better for cellulose fibers. Meanwhile, the dried skeins are a *bit* but not a *lot* darker than before. I am not sure it is worth it to me to continue banging my head against cotton yarns.

 

Testing Japanese Indigo Seed

In 2014 I was very excited to acquire my first Japanese indigo seedlings at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I bought them from Blue By Ewe in Temple, New Hampshire. That year I saved the whole crop for seed. You can read about my harvest in an earlier blog post here. I intended to expand the amount I grew each year and save my own seed annually.

I did manage to grow my own seedlings in 2015, which I documented in a couple posts that you can link to here and here. I even managed to use the plants for dyeing that year. However, I was not on the ball to save seed in an organized way that fall, and I did not grow any Japanese indigo in 2016. Continue reading “Testing Japanese Indigo Seed”

Wrapping Up A Loose End

I have not done much dyeing lately. My last dye day was on September 6th when I ran my second Japanese indigo vat. Since then, I managed to rinse and dry the skeins, but didn’t get much further than that. They’ve been sitting in a tub waiting for closure. On New Year’s Eve I finally wrapped up that loose end.

As I noted in my original post, I don’t have good photo-documentation about that vat. But at least now I can show you photos of the skeins I dyed. All the yarns are wool. Here are the blue skeins.

over dyed blues with Japanese indigo Continue reading “Wrapping Up A Loose End”

The Hurrier I Go

Life has been very busy. Back in July I kept thinking, “July is the month of everything.” Dye plants blooming, flax needing to be harvested, NEH summer institute, NEWS, family weekend at Queen Lake, hiring a new co-worker at school…. I did a lot, but since I can’t do everything, I had to let a lot of things go. No goldenrod or Queen Anne’s lace dye baths this year, and I missed Peggy Hart‘s talk on the history of NEWS, for example.

Then when August came, I thought, “No, August is the month of everything.” Even *more* dye plants blooming, flax *really* needing to be harvested, prepping for school, getting to know my new co-worker….  I did a lot, but ditto July. I had to let a lot of things go. No flax retting experiments. No purple loosestrife or black walnut experiments, despite an absolutely ridiculous abundance of wild dye plants. Very few orange cosmos flowers were collected and frozen. No woad was cut or dyed with. The flax and linen study group website was not updated. Continue reading “The Hurrier I Go”

Japanese Indigo Vat At Last

Last year at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair I bought several Japanese indigo plants (Polygonum tinctorum, though I’ve heard that perhaps the name has changed). I was very excited and intended to dye with them, but then next thing you know, summer had raced past and they were blooming. I was worried that they would have lost a lot of their color once they started to bloom. And I was worried that I might have a hard time finding plants or seeds again. I decided I’d save them for seed and not use them for dyeing after all. You can recap a couple posts from last year here. And here.

This spring I successfully grew about 40 seedlings, half of which I put in at Bramble Hill Farm and the other half at our community garden plot. I guess I was in a “don’t put your eggs in one basket” mode this spring. Very wise, as it turned out. Continue reading “Japanese Indigo Vat At Last”

Japanese Indigo Take Two

After realizing my mistake with the first attempt at growing Japanese Indigo seedlings, I tried again. On April 25th, I laid out some seeds to sprout in damp paper towels. I’ve used this technique with beans before, but I didn’t think to try it with the Japanese indigo seeds until I heard from Laura Harris, a fellow Seed Savers Exchange member to whom I sent some of my seeds earlier in the spring, that she had done it. And ta da! Success!

Here are a couple photos of the seeds once they germinated.

May 1 Japanese indigo seeds sproutingMay 1 Japanese indigo seed germination Continue reading “Japanese Indigo Take Two”

Japanese Indigo Take One

On Sunday April 19th I decided to start some of my Japanese indigo seeds. You may recall that I was able to save a substantial quantity last fall. I ought to have started them weeks ago, perhaps even months ago. However, earlier in the spring it was hard to believe that the snow would ever melt so I just couldn’t handle seed starting. This past weekend, it was gloriously warm and it was clear that spring had triumphed at last. So, I figured it was better late than never.

I borrowed a teeny cold frame from school, which has been sitting in the basement over there for years. It needed a little washing and reinforcing. I used our very own compost mixed with potting soil, planted seeds in little six-packs, watered them, and set them in the warm sun. The cold frame is on the wagon is so we can move it around to keep it in the sun, and bring it indoors easily at night.

April 19 Japanese indigo Continue reading “Japanese Indigo Take One”

Three Bags Full

About a month ago I was tidying up the crafts room. I was trying to get organized so I could weave a new crop of “Jack Frost” bookmarks before the winter holidays.

The crafts room is the room in our apartment which houses my loom, all my yarns, dried dye plants, dye equipment and materials, niddy noddy, swift, scales, carders, and drop spindles. It also contains two large book shelves full of books, a desk, a small filing cabinet, bookbinding supplies and tools, two antique scutching knives and an antique hetchel. The crafts room also contains a lot of dyed fleece and spinning fiber, hand-woven items, notebooks with all my dyeing, weaving, and teaching records, and some fiber magazines. Also, it’s where I store plastic bins with samples and materials for various fiber arts activities that I teach, and an ironing board and iron. And lots of other stuff like dye plant seeds and the beater and reeds for a 40 inch Macomber loom that’s been occupying my mom’s laundry room for a year while I try to figure out what to do with it. I know, that is a nutty list, and I didn’t even list everything. It is in a fairly chronic state of chaos. Continue reading “Three Bags Full”