Indigo Dyeing: Time and Patience

Learning about indigo continues….

I often receive questions about indigo dye that fades very quickly on a textile. When I ask the dyer how long the textile was immersed in the vat the response is usually “1 or 2 minutes”. That is not enough time! Each immersion in the vat needs to be long enough to permit the indigo to penetrate into the fiber: at least 10-15 minutes. Otherwise the dye simply sits on the surface of the textile, making it susceptible to fading and rubbing off.

Recently, I completed a series of tests in which I experimented with much longer immersions in the vat. Immersion times in the vat ranged from 20 minutes to 20 hours. A longer dip encouraged more dye to penetrate the fibers. The results are worth observing and discussing. All samples were neutralized in a vinegar/water solution and “boiled” to finish and remove excess dye.

indigo and time
Indigo on cotton, silk, and wool, each with a single dip in the vat

The most common method of achieving dark colors with indigo is multiple successive dips in the vat and there are definitely some advantages to building color in this way. Any unevenness of the dye will level out as the textile is immersed multiple times. This is  especially important  when dyeing large textiles in a small vat. (This is the reason why larger vats are better suited when dyeing large textiles; allowing the dye to reach more of the textile surface)  If the vat is large enough that the textile can be immersed and exposed evenly to the dye, longer immersion times may be a practical approach.

multiple dips
Indigo on cotton, silk, and wool with multiple (1-6) 15 minute dips
time exposure 2
Fabric woven of wool and cotton yarns. After a single 20-minute immersion, the cotton fiber is darker. After 2 hours, both fibers are close to the same color. After 18 hours, the wool has absorbed a great deal more indigo while the cotton has maxed out. Multiple dips in the vat are required to achieve very dark blues on cotton.

My usual approach to dyeing textiles is using woven shibori. The textile is gathered with the woven “stitching” threads, making a compact “package”, and exposing the outside pleats of the textile to the dye uniformly.

indigo, dobby weave
Cotton, woven shibori, multiple indigo dips

Lately I have been experimenting with itajimi shibori (folded and clamped resists), where many layers of cloth might be folded multiple times. When using mordant dyes or fiber reactive dyes, the dye usually penetrates through the layers. When dyeing with indigo (10-20 minute immersions), the dye fails to penetrate beyond the outside layer and into the cloth within the folds, despite multiple immersions. When the immersion time was increased to 24 hours the dye penetrated ALL the layers – like magic. More time in the vat allowed complete penetration of dye throughout the textile.


Lightfast tests were performed on all samples dyed with extended times in the vat by exposing 1/2 of the samples to four weeks in a window with direct sunlight.


Note: When dyeing protein fibers, care must be taken with the pH of the vat, as the fibers can be damaged by long exposure if the pH is too high. Ideal pH for protein is 9.5-10. 



The North Carolina Arboretum is hosting the second Growing Color Symposium on March 8, 2018. Michel Garcia will be our keynote speaker. Join us if you can!