It is exciting to see such a passion for indigo these days, and especially the active exploration that is happening. With this also comes with a deeper understanding of indigo dyeing and process.
Vats reduced with chemicals such as sodium hydrosulfite or thiourea dioxide used to be the norm when I first learned indigo dyeing in the 1970’s. But now, many dyers have abandoned those chemical reduction vats and are returning to more benign processes. They are now making quick-reduction vats that are reduced with sugar, fruit, plants, or iron – thanks to the teaching of Michel Garcia. Some are growing their own indigo to explore fresh leaf dyeing and pigment extraction. Others are making sukumo – a long process of composting persicaria tinctoria leaves – Thank you Debbie Ketchum Jirik for offering an online class this past fall. Recently, Stoney Creek Colors has introduced a natural, pre-reduced indigo. And more dyers than ever are now exploring vats that are reduced by fermentation.
Fermentation is the process that has captured my interest in recent years. The long-term committment seems to fit my own “stay at home” life right now. The lower pH is suitable for all fibers. Most of all, it’s been an interesting adventure. Something that once felt out-of-reach has now become my preferred process.
The fermentation vat utilizes plant material to initiate and maintain an alkaline fermenting process, which causes the indigo to become soluble. During fermentation, plant material is broken down, creating bacteria. Lactic acid is produced, making it necessary to monitor the pH on a regular basis.
Madder root is a common plant material used in a fermentation vat. There is a long history of its use in indigo vats. It is usually combined with wheat bran, which ferments readily. There are many recipes in old manuals for this Madder Vat.
From The Dyer’s Companion by Elijah Bemis (originally published in 1815, Dover Edition, 1973)
for a vat of 12 barrels (not sure what a “barrel” is)
- 8 lbs potash
- 5 lbs madder
- 4 quarts wheat bran
- 5 lbs indigo
When I first leaned of these vats made with madder, I struggled with the idea of using perfectly good madder root to reduce an indigo vat. But I have now come to understand that these vats were most likely made with “spent” or “used” madder. I remember Michel Garcia talking about how the “used” madder from professional dye studios in the past was sold to the indigo dyers after it had been used to produce red dye. Indigo dyers have no need for madder’s red colorants and thus nothing was wasted.
So, I am dismayed each time I hear from someone who has made a fermented indigo vat using “new madder root”. “Spent” or “used” madder is every bit as effective as a fermentation booster as fresh or “unused” madder.
Most of the madder I use in the studio is in the form of finely ground roots, though chopped roots would work as well. When my madder dyebath is finished, I strain the ground roots and dry them for later use in an indigo vat. It’s that simple! And nothing is wasted.
Plant materials, other than madder, can be used in the fermentation vats. I frequently use dried indigofera leaves, as well as woad balls and have even begun a “hybrid “ vat using sukumo with indigo pigment. My most recent experiments have used both Dock root and Rhubarb root successfully. Madder, Dock and Rhubarb are all roots, all anthraquinones…..