Melissa's Guide

Melissa’s guide to someone else guiding me through the process of Indigo Dyeing

A few months ago, I was invited to a dying event. The exact invitation read;

Do you have an interest in dying? Would you like to join the Takasago dying event held on the 27th of August?

Obviously, I’m always keen on a bit of death, so I said yes. And if that invitation had been correct, I’m sure this would be a very different blog post. However, lost in translation moment, the invitation was actually for a dyeing event, not a mass sacrifice. That also sounded interesting, and came with less chances of arrest, so again I said yes, and yesterday attended the event.

The event was to showcase a traditional method of fabric dyeing using indigo dye, which was either invented in Takasago or somewhere nearby. I did receive an information pamphlet and even attempted to translate it (using the cheats methods of google translate), but I couldn’t understand it. Where ever it was invented, there is a group of ladies in town who still practice this method and were obliging enough to show a group of Japanese, and the token me, how it’s done. So here is a step by step Melissa’s guide to indigo dyeing, as guided by someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

Melissa's guide to Indigo Dyeing

Step 1 – Choose a template.

dyeing templates

Someone had painstakingly exacto-knifed a pattern for me, so I wouldn’t have to myself. A relief, because I later did try to make my own pattern and it was a disaster. All the patterns I had to choose from were based on pine trees, because I live in Takasago, which has some mad obsession with pine trees (I might blog about that one day soon).

Step 2 – Spread of the grey stuff…It’s delicious

After taping down the template over a piece of fabric, I was instructed to spread grey gloop all over it. From what I could understand, the grey gloop was some kind of nori (aka. Seaweed) mixture. So, if you like nori, quite possibly it could have been delicious grey stuff. Anyway, after spreading a really thin layer of grey gloop, I removed the template and hung it out on the line to dry.

The purpose of this grey gloop is that when you add the indigo dye later anywhere the grey gloop has touched won’t take up dye, hence creating your final pattern.

Step 3 – Rinse

After you’ve just spent an hour drying your washing, the obvious thing to do is to dunk it back into a barrel of water. However, this is apparently the process for indigo dyeing. Rinsing the design in water, removes the top layer of grey gloop and I think helps the dye soak into the fabric better.

Step 4 – Dye…but don’t die.

indigo dyeing

The next step was to transfer the freshly rinsed design to a vat of what looked like toxic green waste. I was assured this was the indigo dye, not a product of the Fukushima nuclear plant. Turns out indigo dye is green, and a reaction with air turns it blue…or well indigo. Anyway, the fabric had to be held in the vat while gently agitating, for 5 minutes. It was 5 of the most boring minutes of my life. I don’t have the kind of patience it takes to sit still for any length of time. In some ways, I’m glad we’ll one day be taken over by robots stealing our jobs and lives, because it’ll mean I don’t have to sit on a tiny stool, gently agitating a vat of toxic waste.

Step 5 – Rinse, again.

indigo dye - rinsing process

Once my 5 minutes, where I contemplated how life would be with our robot overlords, was finished, I had to rinse my fabric in two different sinks full of water. I am fairly certain these were sinks full of just regular old water, but there might have been a secret Japanese ingredient someone didn’t tell me. Although I asked, is that just water? in Japanese about five times. Every time I got yes, that’s water back. So, most likely no secret ingredients.

Step 6 – The “it has to be magic” water bath.

indigo dye development

After a quick dip in the other two sinks, we transferred our fabric to another water bath and let it sit for three minutes. This time robots were far from my mind because magic was happening. That’s because when I put the dyed fabric in this bath, you could watch the colour change from toxic sludge green to beautiful indigo. There’s some science behind this, and as a scientist I should probably look it up, understand it, and communicate it to you in a simple manner…but instead let’s just stick to magic.

Step 7 – Hand wash like it’s 1885

indigo dyeing

Second to last step was to wash out all the excess dye. Unfortunately, because this dyeing technique was invented in the time of the samurai, this involved handwashing the fabric until it ran clear. I was not impressed by the comments on my handwashing skills. I’m a 21st century girl and I have a machine to do that for me. Anyway, I forgave the comments, and did get it clean enough to pass inspection. I then had to hang my newly dyed fabric on the line to dry, something I can do because I don’t have a robot for that yet.

Step 8 – Show of your work like the scrap fabric model you are.

Dye me a river

Oh and don’t hang it in full sunlight because of the dreaded fading…but it’s already going to pale in comparison to my beauty.

And that’s a fairly terrible summary on a fascinating tradition Japanese dyeing method. It was used to dye things like silk and kimonos back in the day. Tune in next time when I try to explain the use of chopsticks in Japan. But be warned, white people can’t use chopsticks and have never seen them before coming to an Asian country, so my amazing presentation will be interrupted by, use this fork, every second sentence.

Until next time,


Indigo dyed fabric

Oh and shout out to my new friend (I forgot your name sorry), who took all these pictures without prompting. You’re the real MVP.

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