The process of starting our own dye house began with an exploration into the materials and methods that involve the chemistry of dyeing. That exploration began with indigo.
In its natural form, indigo is a tropical, leafy shrub and a member of the legume family, and a version of the plant is native to our own Alabama climate. The wide range of blue shades that this ancient plant can produce as a dye has made it one of the most popular (and successful) dye plants throughout history (and present day).
Alabama Chanin has experimented with indigo and other natural dyes for years, and recently set up two dye vats in-house, that we can better produce our classic Indigo colors here at The Factory. Diane, our head seamstress (and now head dye master), is overseeing the project with the assistance of Maggie, one of our studio team members. The vats were set up with the help of Zee Boudreaux — a friend we met during our time at Penland — who has spent time studying indigo and other natural dyes.
Zee worked here in our studio with Diane and Maggie during our beginning phase and generously answered a few questions for us about indigo and his experiences with natural dyeing.
AC: How did you first become involved with natural dyes?
ZB: In 1995, I was traveling and met a weaver/dyer who introduced me to textiles; she wasn’t using natural dyes, but my established environmental awareness and love for traditional processes led me to look for a natural dye class. I found natural dyer Cheryl Kolander and attended one of her workshops. I even apprenticed with Cheryl after the workshop. Seeing natural color come out of the dye pot for the first time was all it took to lead me down this path.
AC: How exactly indigo is activated?
ZB: Indigo isn’t water soluble. It is activated when it is reduced by oxidation — in the case of the vats set up at Alabama Chanin, iron was used as the antioxidant.
AC: Tell us about the “indigo flower” that appears in the vat. (Seen in the photo above.)
ZB: The indigo flower that forms on top of the liquid is unreduced indigo powder. It’s important to save it because it gets stirred back into the vat at the end of the dye session.
AC: What is your advice to someone wanting to venture into natural dyeing at home?
ZB: Good books are invaluable. And if you decide to get really serious, I suggest taking a class or workshop. Classes can be found in your area through a weaving or textile guild (or through craft schools like Penland, Haystack, Arrowmont, and John C. Campbell Folk School). Authors I’d suggest to look for are Jenny Dean or Jim Liles.
Stay tuned as we continue to explore natural dyeing at Alabama Chanin, and share your own natural dye adventures in the comments below.