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Making a natural fermentation indigo vat in the tropics - Sakon Nakhon, Thailand

Posted by Serge Tishkin on

Making a natural fermentation indigo vat in the tropics - Sakon Nakhon, Thailand

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.

making ash for indigo vat


The sugar is needed to feed the bacteria that deoxidise the vat and can come from many sources, in our case coming from crushed wet tamarind.

indigo vat fermentation


The indigo mush we collected earlier 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 (indigo, tamarind, ash water and rain water) are thoroughly mixed together in a small container (the ratios vary widely according to the dyer's preference). The mixture is aerated every day by vigorously scooping up the liquid with a ladle and dumping it back into the vat repeatedly. This is repeated every morning for the next 5-7 days. Below is a picture of our indigo vat.

healthy indigo fermentation

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. The balance can be tricky to keep. As the bacteria multiply more pigment, tamarind and ash water is added to the vat every other day. Ideally a new indigo vat should need at least 5 – 7 days of this maintenance and care before dyeing takes place. If after 5 – 7 days no dyeing takes place the vat must still be kept alive and maintained by regular aeration.

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.

indigo dyed cotton skeins

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 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 a certain kind of magic. 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 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. And traditions like indigo dyeing that have stood the test of time can nurture our yearning for a sense of place and connection in a way that synthetic chemicals can never come close to. These things can work to reawaken our love and wonder for the natural world.

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. Somewhere in the background there is a soft chorus of ten thousand silk worms diligently munching away on mulberry leaves.

silk worms

mulberry tree

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