Slow Process

Natural dye has never been a quick way to color my textiles. First there is the mordanting, then the extraction of plant/insect material – not to mention growing, gathering, or drying the plants. Did I mention collecting seed? And what about the weaving, where I actually make cloth from threads? 

These last 18 months at home have been a chance to dive in deeper (and slower) with some processes. Just before COVID came to our doors, a friend gave me a small jar of sourdough starter. So yes, I am one of those who has made sourdough bread every week for the last year and a half. What a gift – both sour dough starter and the time to use it!

It was my fermented indigo vats that gave me the courage to take on sourdough bread making. I thought that if I could keep indigo vats alive for a number of months, then I could certainly keep a sourdough starter going as well. That has proved to be true.

The first fermentation vat was started in July of 2019. It was a relatively small vat (20 liters) but I used it a great deal. A year later it was used it to “seed” a larger 50 liter vat. The success of this first experiment gave me the confidence to start two more 50 liter vats in 2020. All are still going strong. Over the last two years I have made many additional one-liter vats in order to test reduction material, alkalinity etc. That first large vat that I created in 2019, after being used heavily for over two years, is finally giving me lighter blues.

Now I am in the midst of another slow process – sukumo. Debbie Ketchum Jirik of Circle of Life Studios very generously took a group of zoom class participants through the entire process of small batch composting of indigo leaves based on the teaching and book of Awonoyoh. Every 3-4 days we logged in, watched the sukumo being lifted from its container and stirred by hand. Does it need water? Does it need heat? What does it smell like? Conversations were focused and interesting. Several class participants were also in the process of making their own sukumo along with Debbie. I am not so fortunate. I have to gather more seed, grow more plants, and dry more leaves before I will have enough plant material to do my own composting. 

This experience has given me a far greater appreciation of sukumo. I was recently gifted a significant amount of sukumo and had planned on making my own large sukumo vat. Now, understanding more of what sukumo is, I am experimenting with using smaller amounts of sukumo in combination with my fermented indigo pigment vats. When I told my Japanese colleague, Hisako Sumi, about this, she indicated that Japanese industrial production has used this approach since early in the early 20th century. There is even name for this hybrid: “warigate”. Yoshiko Wada translated this for me as  “WARI GATE” / “split vatting” and it was mostly done using synthetic indigo. 

I have made many small test vats, using varying amounts of sukumo, in addition to indigo pigment and other materials to boost fermentation. These test vats were ultimatley used to ‘seed” a larger vat. I now have my own 50 liter hybrid vat that combines sukumo with Stony Creek indigo pigment.

My latest “slow process” is vermiculture. I recently spent an afternoon with friends, sorting worms from castings and beginning my own worm “farm”. This is another of those long term, slow processes that bring me closer to the earth, and makes me appreciate the small miracles of watching things grow. And I know that this compost will feed my indigo plants.

But not everything must be slow….

Stony Creek Colors has just released information about their newest product: IndiGold. It is a pre-reduced liquid indigo, grown in Tennessee and designed to be used in combination with fructose and lime (calcium hydroxide). I have dyed with the earlier available pre-reduced indigo but I was never sure exactly what it was and didn’t want to use the reduction chemicals that were recommended. I stopped using that product a long time ago when Michel Garcia introduced us to the “quick reduction” vats made with sugar and lime. But there are some occasions, particularly when teaching a one-day workshop, that it is impossible to make a vat and dye with it on the same day. 

Stony Creek sent me a kit for test dyeing and I was amazed at how quickly the vat was reduced and dyeing to full strength. It took only minutes – not hours. Stony Creek Colors told me that they”skip the chemicals” and use an electric hydrogenation process plus an alkaline to reduce the indigo. There are no chemical reduction agents! I used the vat all day long and it was still in reduction the next day. 

This will not replace my slow, fermentation vats but it will make “quick” dyeing possible when needed. 

Once again, Stony Creek is changing how we think about indigo and its production. They are currently posting information through a Kickstarter Campaign to support this new venture.

11 thoughts on “Slow Process

  1. Hi Catharine,

    I am very very interested in your sukomo work. I’m so sorry I did not tune in to the zoom class you participated in with Debbie Ketchum. I just couldn’t/didn’t make the time, and now I regret it. As we now have quite a lot (I don’t know how much yet as I have not weighed it) of dried indigo at SMF. Do you know if there was a recording made of the class? I would love to look at it all over the winter. I did take Michel’s class that Yoshiko was running. I’ll do some small test vats with his dry leaf recipe with potassium hydroxide and wood ash lye.

    Sara

    595 Center Harbor Neck Road Center Harbor, NH 03226 603-667-3588 http://www.saragoodmanfiberstudio.com sara.goodman1@icloud.com

    >

    1. Hi Sara. You would have to contact Debbie directly about that or if she plans to do it again next year. Between this and the work Michel has been doing with dried leaves, we have the opportunity to get a better understanding of the indigo that we use.

  2. Thank you, Catherine! I joined the Kickstarter program when it was announced yesterday. I also use the fructose/lime reduction vat, but being in production mode, I’m often tempted to try the pre-reduced indigo (I have not) and I’m SO happy to see what Stoney Creek is doing. Thank you for all your insights on natural dye work. I look forward learning more from you at Aya Studio this coming March. Perhaps we can use a variety of indigo vats in our color quest…

    On Tue, Nov 2, 2021 at 9:08 AM Natural Dye: Experiments and Results wrote:

    > Catharine Ellis posted: ” Natural dye has never been a quick way to color > my textiles. First there is the mordanting, then the extraction of > plant/insect material – not to mention growing, gathering, or drying the > plants. Did I mention collecting seed? And what about the weaving,” >

  3. Always… Thank you for your testing and sharing. What vat do you prefer to use for dyeing wool?

    On Tue, Nov 2, 2021 at 9:08 AM Natural Dye: Experiments and Results wrote:

    > Catharine Ellis posted: ” Natural dye has never been a quick way to color > my textiles. First there is the mordanting, then the extraction of > plant/insect material – not to mention growing, gathering, or drying the > plants. Did I mention collecting seed? And what about the weaving,” >

  4. Thank you for this information. Recently I took a zoom class on using cold extraction of fresh indigo leaves. Unfortunately my one puny indigo plant had only 30 grams of fresh leaves. So it was underpowered. My salmon skins came out with a light pastel blue color. But I have seeds and next year will be planting them. 👍😎

  5. Hi,I have been growing, processing and primarily making paint with indigo for the last six years. I do some dyeing but love to paint with indigo and this Fall I am working on stencils for some resists. But I have been done a lot of experiments this past summer and some of them pertain to using sukumo  I made over two summers five and six years ago. I was chicken to try it up until this summer and not experienced enough to feel confident. Plus the sukumo was overly precious and I was hesitant to waste it. This summer a friend and I starting working together on the indigo and we complimented each others skills. At the end of this summer I used a beer stein to do a mini vat using indigo paste I had made and it was easy, Then I added another mini indigo vat we’d made using Iron and it made it really kick into gear. I kept adjusting the vat. Then I ground and soaked a little of the sukumo I had been saving and again the vat produced beautiful blues. Next year I will use more of the sukumo to make vats and experiment. Also will make small batches of sukumo. Since my experience was similar to yours I thought I’d write you. All the best,Catherine  Sent from Mail for Windows From: Natural Dye: Experiments and ResultsSent: November 2, 2021 7:09 AMTo: cshapiro@telus.netSubject: [New post] Slow Process Catharine Ellis posted: " Natural dye has never been a quick way to color my textiles. First there is the mordanting, then the extraction of plant/insect material – not to mention growing, gathering, or drying the plants. Did I mention collecting seed? And what about the weaving,"

  6. I’m in the middle of reading your and Joy Boutrup’s WONDERFUL book…..but I did miss any mention of methods using sukumo.May be for the next edition?
    I’m a small scale sukumo producer in France, me and my husband produce about 80kg a year for an artist in Paris.
    Many thanks for your inspiring publications.

    1. Thank you and I am glad that you are liking the book. I had not done any work at all with fermented indigo vats or sukumo when we finished the book – yes perhaps the next edition. There is so much to keep learning about.

  7. Hi Catharine,
    What a great post! I am arranging a US mailing address so I can back the kickstarter for the IndiGo reward. I wonder if I could keep the IndiGo vat going by adding regular (Maiwa) indigo and feeding it? And maybe switching from fructose to another reducing agent like madder or fruit? Did you dispose of the IndiGo vat, or perhaps add it to one of your ongoing vats?

    Chuckled when I read how indigo fermentation gave you courage to try sourdough. My journey was the reverse – I was gifted a 30 year old sourdough starter more than 10 years ago which is still going, and that gave me courage to try an indigo vat.

    And the split vat approach has a parallel in bread baking, too. Sometimes bakers add commercial yeast to their sourdough breads for “insurance”. I’ve done that when just reviving my starter after a long sleep….

    Thanks for your ongoing work and sharing your findings with us.
    Best wishes,
    Cassandra Kobayashi

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