Indigo: A Fiery Lover, A Patient Friend

Yesterday I spent the day outside in the rain. It was cold, I was wet, and my arms were aching. I rigged up a tarpaulin over my Indigo vats so I could keep working and I wondered if what I was doing was worth it. I’m stuck on dyeing though. Some days I think my blood would run a rainbow, because to give it up would be like giving up myself.

Most days I am constantly moving, binding and folding cloth of all descriptions, and other days I get to sit back and just watch the dye make its mark. There is a yin and yang element to dye; a frenzy and a calm. I love all of it, even on the days when I’m tired and cold.

I spend a lot of time lost in thought when I work. Sometimes my head is full of a technique, a colour, or how can I achieve what I want to do, and will anyone care that it took me 8 hours to get this shade.

 At the heart of it though, I love dyeing because I love colour and I love the alchemy of changing the colour of cloth using plants.

It’s pleasing to think that a plant can yield an incredible amount of colour if you know which part to use. Knowing how to extract the colour is important; does it require heating, or will a cold treatment work better? Does it like an acid or alkaline environment, and will it fade if I wash it or leave it in the sun, and will it get darker if hidden away. I love the secrets of natural dyes, and how slowly you are forced to learn them. Each dye has it’s own personality to express. It’s like a wary friend, slowly sharing secrets, building trust.

Photo by Lillie Thompson
Photo by Lillie Thompson

Indigo and I have a special relationship. We’re like high maintenance lovers, both fiery and stubborn, quick to temper and and easy to appease. We’ve spent a lot of time together and I feel we have settled into something comforting and easy. We’re each other’s old sweaters, and most days we go with everything.

To dye with indigo is a bit like developing a photo. A lovely chemical process occurs, and working with it reminds me of the darkroom I spent many hours in back when I was at university. I remember the smell of the chemicals, the agitation both physical and mental, and the few seconds of hesitation and expectation as I waited for an image to emerge. Perhaps one of the reasons I am so drawn to dye and indigo in particular is because it has such a similar process. When you first pull your work from the vat, it is an acid yellow or green, which shifts to blue as the indigo goes through a chemical transformation. It is completely mesmerising and exhilarating.

Indigo is a patient friend. I can leave my vats alone for days, even weeks, and slowly they will fall asleep until I need to wake them. With a gentle shake indigo will awaken from its slumber, and only requires a little nurturing to be back in top shape. I have learned over time when the vat is ready, worn out, or too old by its colour and scent.

The type of indigo vat I run begins with a fresh coppery burning smell, similar to the smell of a match being struck, and continues to smell this way while in it’s usable state. In the beginning and on revival it has a coppery purple sheen, and its depths turn a sickly yellow green. After a few weeks of being left idle, or being revived too many times, it will start to smell repugnant, and eventually, if I leave a worn out vat for too long, it will stink like slippery fish past their prime. At its disposal indigo is a dull, sludgey deep green and navy.

I always feel a twinge when I tip out a vat I have made great work in. It can be hard to say goodbye, but I love the challenge of making friends with the next.

Victoria Pemberton is teaching indigo shibori workshops at the Cecilia Fox warehouse in Brunswick, Melbourne on the 12th and the 19th of October. Quick! Book here.

Photo by Lillie Thompson
Photo by Lillie Thompson
Photo by Lillie Thompson
Photo by Lillie Thompson

STOP PRESS! Actually, start the press.

The Planthunter print journal is coming soon. Sign up to our email newsletter for more information on this very exciting development.