Making an indigo vat required significantly less energy than extracting the pigment but did take a bit more time. The basic ingredients for most South East Asian recipes are indigo pigment, alkali agent, water and sugar.
The alkali agent is needed to provide the correct PH environment for the pigment to become soluble and evenly dispersed, which usually occurs around the PH 9,10 or 11 mark. The agent in our case was water filtered through the ash of burnt eucalyptus and dry banana culms.
The sugar is needed to feed the bacteria that deoxidise the vat, making it possible for the pigment to adhere to the fabric, and can come from many sources, ours coming from crushed wet tamarind.
The indigo mush provides the pigment and the water (preferably rain or well-water) keeps everything in liquid form.
This base recipe has many variations across South East Asia with some villages adding dozens of other ingredients such as tree barks, madder root, crushed fruit and in some rare cases even rotten meat!
The four ingredients are thoroughly mixed together in a small container and kept aerated every day by scooping and dumping the liquid every morning. Below is a picture of our indigo vat.
While too much oxygen in the vat prevents the pigment properly sticking to the cloth when dyeing, some oxygen is always necessary to keep the bacteria healthy and happy. As the bacteria multiply more pigment, tamarind and ash water is added to the vat every other day. Ideally this scooping and adding should continue for at leat 5 – 7 days before dyeing takes place. If after 5 – 7 days no dyeing takes place the vat must still be kept alive and maintained by regular scooping and dumping.
We started using the vat on Day 5 by dyeing some skeins of cotton. After soaking the cotton in water we submerged the skeins in the indigo and swooshed them around for about 10 minutes, making sure the indigo had penetrated through evenly to all the fibres. Initially the colour on the cotton appears green but changes to blue upon oxidation. After leaving the cotton to air out for a few minutes the skeins were washed in water and left to dry. Indigo pigment, tamarind and ash water are added to the vat after dyeing to amend the vat and replenish the pigment.
For deeper shades of blue the fabric must be dyed again, repeating the submersion-aeration process until the desired shade is achieved. However, the South East Asian indigo vat, which is almost always small in size, can only be used to dye once per day after which is it allowed to rest. For this reason dyers would traditionally keep several dozen small vats if they wish to work continuously. We wanted our cotton to be deep dark blue so we returned to the vat once every day and repeated the submersion-aeration-amendment process until we were satisfied with the resulting colour. The skeins in the photo below were dipped a total of 3 times.
In a time when science reigns supreme and modern conveniences promise to satisfy all our desires this way of working with cloth and colour can seem strange to some. Our advances in chemistry and the entanglement of mass manufacturing processes with our lives and livelihoods have placed a limitless cornucopia of chemical dyes and mass produced fabrics within easy reach. When fibre-reactive dyes can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost and time of their natural counterparts and effortlessly applied to fabric in seconds for unlimited colour possibilities, why bother with plants? Why grow indigo, burn eucalyptus for ash, beat pungent blue slush with a bamboo stick at 4am and do all the other time-consuming and physically demanding tasks deemed burdensome and unsavoury by our dominant culture? Some would say that such ways of doing things are outdated and unnecessary.
I heartily disagree.
When we take the indescribably beautiful complexity of the world around us and reduce it down to its most basic measurable components of chemical compounds, weight, pigment tonal values, etc in our ever-intensifying attempt to wrestle control over our reality we end up losing as much as we gain. By turning colours into numeric codes, food into nutritional values, human beings into human resources and the entirety of life into tradable commodities we enable ourselves to use these things as efficient tools for some hardly understated and incredible advancements. But such progress comes at a price: we end up in a vortex of hyper-exploitation as we exit out of our long-running relationship with the world and increasingly start to view it as a collection of objects to be utilised instead of subjects to be communed with. The damage done by adopting this way of living is evident in the current state of the natural world and its people. Have our efficient time-saving tools resulted in a healthy planet and happy people that can finally take it easy and enjoy life? Or have we trashed the place and ground ourselves down, physically and mentally, as we tirelessly work longer and longer hours at unsatisfactory jobs in our quest for improved productivity?
A way of life that places us back into communion with the world where both it and the human beings inhabiting it can mutually arise and grow is not outdated, unnecessary or an alternative. It is essential. If viewing life as an exploitable commodity results in the destruction that has characterised so much of our recent industrial era then another way, a better way, would see us return to a dialogue with the world and I believe that a much greater appreciation of earthy primal experience is one of the many necessary steps in that direction.
The embracing of palpable direct experience of all the smells, sights, textures, sounds and tastes of wild interwoven life permeating through you is not something that can be bought online or manufactured in a giant factory. Neither is it something to be hurriedly charged into. It is a relationship, an extended moment that should be experienced and sunk into, but not necessarily understood, at one’s own leisurely pace. Traditions, like indigo dyeing, that have stood the test of time and teach us to work by placing our bodies and minds in direct contact with nature can be our guide. Cooking up a living breathing blue concoction using plant-based ingredients collected within a minute’s walk of each other nurtures our yearning for a sense of place and connection in a way that synthetic chemicals can never come close to and works to reawaken our love and wonder for the natural world. It is a glimpse, a piece of a puzzle, of a wild and beautiful world that, with luck and perseverance, can someday fully inspire us and our work at Slowstitch to be the best it can be: a step towards a better way.
For now, the indigo has settled. There is no rush here and not much to do. The arms get a break and the eyes feast on the early morning sun rays playing in the leaves of the giant tamarind tree. The chorus of ten thousand silk worms quietly munching on foliage encapsulates me in a comforting blanket of soft sound. All is as it should be.