Indigo vat from fresh Japanese indigo leaves

As I explained in my last post, this year I have been growing japanese indigo from some seeds I got with some pretty cards. I tried the ice extraction first as it seemed simpler, and after having such good results with that I decided to stop feeling daunted and give a proper vat a go. There are many recipes online for indigo vats, mostly from dried indigo, and I started to get a little overwhelmed with all the options. It didn’t help that almost all the instructions were along the lines of ‘for X indigo powder you need Y this and Z this’, and not having indigo powder, that wasn’t helpful. So I decided to think about what actually is going on, and how I can achieve that.

The first step is extracting the indigo from the leaves. I didn’t need a flocculating agent, which is what makes the particles clump together and fall out of suspension, as I was planning to use the vat straight away, so all I needed to do was get the pigment out of the leaves and into the water. I decided the easiest way was to fill my dyepot with hot tap water (at 50C) and chuck the leaves I had into it.

After 24 hours the pigment should be out of the leaves, then I’d need to get rid of the plant matter and raise the pH of the vat. I have washing soda and caustic soda here, and decided to go with the latter, as the former is a rather weak alkali. I was unsure how much to use, then found this chart. I calculated how much water was in my vat (around 8.5l) and knew I’d need in the region of 10g to get the pH where I wanted it, which is around 10-11.5 for cotton (8.5-9.5 for protein fibres). It was at this point I realised that all the info I’d found about how much alkali and reducing agent per X of indigo, well, it actually didnt matter how much indigo was there, the important thing was how much water there is, as that is what affects the pH and contains all the naughty oxygen we want to get rid of (futurevampy says this isn’t quite accurate, but never mind!). So, again following the chart linked above, I decided I’d need around 30g of hydros (Sodium Hydrosulphite/Sodium Dithionite) which I’d picked up from Willo Fibres at FibreEast.

Okay, the plan was formed, I understood in general terms the chemistry of what was happening, now all I had to do was get on with it.

I picked all my remaining indigo, which wasn’t as much as I’d have liked; 970g total, around 350 of which was stems. Next year I will grow far more!


I pulled all the leaves off and put them into the pan and covered them with hot tap water at 50C. The pan was placed in a plastic bucket surrounded with wool packaging material (I got a bunch of it on freecycle from someone who gets lots of food delivered insulated with it), put the lid on and put more wool on top, then left it in the greenhouse.


After 24 hours, it looked like this, with a nice metallic sheen on top. The fabric you can see is a bit of muslin I used to wrap the leftover leaves from the ice extraction in; I wanted to get the remaining colour out of them without filling my dyebath with tiny bits of plant. It was still pleasantly warm, wool is a really good insulator.


I fished out all the leaves into a mesh bag, and was left with turquoisey coloured liquid.


I made sure to squeeze all the liquid out of the leaves into the dyebath.


This darkened it considerably


The dyeing process is faster at higher temperatures (so long as you don’t go over 60C as this will destroy the pigment once it’s been reduced), so I got to play with my new toy, a portable hotplate I can use in the utility room/garden when I don’t want to make mess in the kitchen or do stinky plant stuff indoors. I managed to heat it up to around 40C before excitment overcame me and I moved on to the next stage.


The next stage was to get the pH to a suitable level. I have UI paper, and also a very handy pH meter that I bought to check my tomatoes are acidic enough when canning. I calibrate it before using for that, but for this I didn’t bother, I just checked my tap water was around 7 and called it good enough.

From my reading earlier, I’d decided to use in the region of 10g of sodium hydroxide. I put some of the dyebath in a mug and added just over a teaspoon of it, and stirred until it had dissolved, then poured it into the dyebath. Testing revealed the pH was 10.8. Perfect. On adding the alkali, the dyebath turned a dark green colour.

I took it back outside and aerated it by repeatedly lifting some out and pouring it back in. I did this for a few minutes until I was bored and my arm was tired.


I then added the hydros. I gave the bath a stir to create a vortex, then poured in about 30g, I didn’t weigh it, just estimated. I stirred it a little then put it back in the wool-lined box in the greenhouse for an hour.

During that hour I prepared my fabric. I decided to dye some muslin, some cotton tote bags, and some shibori thread. I put the fabric through the wash the night before to make sure it was scoured, and washed the thread by hand with some washing up liquid. While my dyebath was reducing I took this clean fabric and had fun with tying it in various ways.


After an hour, it was time to go! The dyebath was a bright neon yellowy green, with more metallic sheen on top. I tried to move this top layer out of the way before dyeing, with partial success. The bits that remained didn’t seem to affect anything negatively though.


I put my stuff in, squeezing as much air out as possible and holding it tightly in my hands before placing underwater and letting go. I decided to go for volume rather than depth of colour with this first attempt as I’d like to have enough fabric to make a dress out of. I left the stuff in for 10 minutes at a time before removing gently and allowing to oxidise, and then returning to the dyebath. Here are a few more pics.

Green dyebath:



Out and mostly oxidised. The thicker fabric at the hem of the bag has more liquid in and is still greenish coloured


Drying things







And the first lot dry. It’s paler than I was expecting, but it’s a lovely sky blue colour, so I’m happy with it.


I’ve now, about 8 hours later, just put the whole lot in the washing machine on a quick cycle to rinse out any excess dye, and I’ll try and update this post with photos once it’s all dry. The dyebath isn’t fully exhausted I don’t think, so it’s back in the greenhouse. Over the next couple of days I will try lowering the pH and dyeing some wool in it, and perhaps adding some synthetic indigo and having a try for deeper colours.

I will definitely be growing japanese indigo again next year, and if I’m lucky I’ll get another harvest this year. It’s been a really interesting and fun process, and I just love the colours it gives.

Indigo dyeing ice extraction method

I’ve done loads of acid dyeing, and a little bit of natural dyeing, but I’ve never dyed with indigo before. This year I decided to grow some woad, then did a little research about how much pigment it gives and worked out that with an average yield I’d need around 7 plants worth of leaves to dye a 50g skein of yarn. I didn’t want to fill the entire garden with woad, so decided to hunt for something a little stronger. It just so happened that a couple of days after I made this decision, these lovely cards with free seeds were advertised on ravelry. I bought the japanese indigo and madder ones, and soon had lots of lovely seedlings. The madder won’t be useable for another year or two, but the indigo has been ready for its first cutting for a while. I realised I’d been putting it off as the idea of making an indigo vat was a little daunting; there are so many methods, so many people reporting problems, so many things to check. I couldn’t even decide if I wanted to dye immediately or extract the pigment for later, and I didn’t want to waste my precious leaves by messing it up. Eventually I realised I’d better get on with it or the amount of pigment in the leaves would start to drop as it got closer to flowering time, and after a little reading around I came across the ice extraction method, which seemed quick and simple and gives more turquoisey results than a standard indigo vat. I couldn’t find anywhere that explained the chemistry of what is going on with this method, so I followed instructions a little blindly, but it worked out well in the end. This is what I did.

First, I prepared everything indoors. All the websites I read stressed the need to get this done quickly, and keep everything ice cold, so I figured getting everything ready first was a good idea.

I put a couple of cups of water in the food processor along with a few ice cubes


I got a bucket with a few inches of water in and again put a few ice cubes in


I wound the yarn I was using, and put it in to soak in cold water. I wound off a skein of wooltops poldale/nylon sock yarn into five 20g minis, and also grabbed some silk yarn that had been lying around for years to use up anything left in the dyebath after doing the sock yarn.


I set up a way of straining the liquid into a vessel. I decided to use my stainless steel dyepot even though it’s way bigger than I needed simply because it was there and easy to use and clean. I then lined a sieve with a mesh lingerie bag that I use when I wash fleece.


Once everything inside was set up, I headed out to collect some indigo. Our growing season here in the UK isn’t long enough for indigo to flower and make seeds to use the next year. I’m trying a couple of methods to get round this, the first being simply growing in the greenhouse. The second is growing in a pot, which I can bring indoors when it starts getting colder outside. I read that the greenhouse plants should have more pigment in, and I didn’t want to waste the best stuff, so I decided to go with the pot-grown plants (you can see the madder in the pot on the left).


I cut a couple of bunches of stems and put them into the bucket of cold water. I don’t know if this is necessary, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.


It’s perhaps 2 plants’ worth, plenty left for next time, and of course it will carry on growing for a second harvest in autumn. I weighed the leaves once I got indoors, and ended up with 270 of plant material, 90g of which was stems. These numbers aren’t completely accurate as there were some water drops on the plants as I weighed them, but they give a general idea.


I took the indigo back indoors and began stripping the leaves off the stems and putting them in the food processor.


Once it was full, I turned it on and gave the leaves a rough chop to make more room. I repeated this a couple of times until I was out of leaves and left with this lovely green goop.


I poured this into the strainer and then squeezed the mesh bag to get as much liquid out as I could. The squeezing produced a large amount of bright green foam as well as the dark green liquid.


My dyebath was ready! I squeezed the water out of two of the miniskeins (which I shall imaginatively name 1 and 2) and dumped them in, squishing them around a bit to make sure they were fully saturated.


It was at this point I knew I did indeed have some indigo pigment in there, as my nails were starting to turn blue.


After 10 minutes, I took the skeins out and squeezed out as much liquid as I could, then added skein 3 to the dyebath. A minute or so later, I put skein 1 back in.

Skein 2 looked like this, and my mesh bag must be made of nylon as it is also a lovely shade of blue


While waiting for the next skein to be ready, I cleaned up, including putting all the used leaves into a jar. I’ll finally be brave enough to make a fermentation vat soon, and these will be added as I’m sure there’s some pigment left in them


After a further 10 minutes, skein 3 came out for good, skein 1 came out and went back in, and skein 4 was put in.


After 5 minutes this time I removed skein 4, leaving skein 1 in for a bit longer and adding the silk yarn.

Here’s skeins 2, 3 and 4 side by side straight out of the dyebath


I left skein 1 in there for another half an hour or so, and after an hour I gave all of the skeins a rinse in cold water to remove any excess green dyebath that wasn’t actually bonded to the yarn. The silk is still drying, but the sock yarn is done!


To recap, left to right

1. Stayed in for about an hour in total, removed and squeezed out from time to time
2. First dip. 10 minutes
3. Second dip. 10 minutes
4. Third dip. 5 minutes
5. Undyed

This shows that most of the pigment was sucked up in the first 10 minutes by the first two skeins that were in there. Not much extra pigment was added to skein 1 despite it being in the dye far far longer than the others. There was enough left to give very pale colours on the later skeins though, giving a lovely gradient.

It was a very easy process, and far less daunting than a vat I have to test the pH of and really aereate at one point but be very careful not to aereate the rest of the time, and it gives lovely colours. I will be brave enough to do a proper vat soon though, I want to try getting some darker blues, and I also want to try working with cotton, which I didn’t try at all today as I read that this process works way better with protein fibres.