November 27, 2020

I have been watching the weather forecast lately like a hawk. I have been looking for a weather window which could allow me to dye up a batch of yarn with indigo as I like to hang the dyed skeins outside on the fence between dips. The Shetland weather in winter isn’t generally suitable for me to hang expensive yarn on strands of wire; I also live in a very exposed area on top of a hill, so I need the wind to be fairly light. It can also be extremely changeable, one time I hung around 20 skeins of yarn on the clothes line, I didn’t notice but the wind picked up and I ended up having to cut several skeins off the line and the others had tangled so much I felt like cutting them up during the untangling process.

At the end of last week, according to the Met Office, Monday morning looked like it was going to be reasonable and so I made a plan to dye a batch in the morning until just before lunchtime when the wind was due to pick up again. I woke at 5a.m., an hour earlier than I had planned to get up (or rather I should say that I was woken by one of the kittens who has a nightly routine of coming to sleep on my pillow, laying his chin on the side of my neck and padding the back of my neck). The wind sounded fairly light so I decided to get up and get on with the day.

Doing any type of dying takes a fair amount of preparation and as I hadn’t prepared for a dying session the evening before I spent the first hour or so getting yarn steeped, getting chemicals ready to recharge the indigo vat and by 7a.m. I was ready to start dying knowing that in several hour the wind was forecast to be up again.

As the yarn is pulled from the indigo vat it is a pale yellowish green and as it comes into contact with the air the indigo oxidises and turns blue

I have a bin just inside my back door which serves as my indigo vat, once it is ready for dyeing, the yarn is immersed into it and left for a period of time, then it needs to be hung up so it’s in contact with the air. That’s the reason I like to get it outside so it can get a good airing and it can drip without making a mess of the floor. Note – the next bit gets a little bit sciency! Indigo is fasinating, it is derived from the leaves of several different plants, the most common being Indigofera tinctoria and in its blue form (which we are all familiar with) it is insolvable in water. In order to enable it to dissolve the indigo molecules must be reduced (reduction is a chemical term which means to gain electrons) which then convert is to a soluble molecule, leuco indigo or indigo white which is actually pale yellow in colour. There are several ways to do this such as using chemicals or using fermented organic materials and the method used depends on the dyers preference, so I won’t go into the composition of an indigo vat here. When the fibre is dipped into the vat and left for a while the molecules attach to the yarn. Once it is removed from the vat it needs to be hung up so it can come into contact with the air and become oxidised (so the indigo molecules can lose electrons), when this happens the fibre will change from green to blue.

Indigo dyed skeins of Langsond hanging on the fence outside the back door

By lunchtime I had a fence full of dyed yarn, each of which had been in the indigo bath several times to get the shade I wanted. The last lot began to blow off, water was blowing inside my rubber boots from the wet skeins so it was definitely time to stop. The yarn was hung up inside to dry. I often rewind the skeins, they have to be twisted and labelled before they are ready for sale, so it is a time consuming process but worth the effort I think.

I just love the process of dyeing with indigo, it almost has a magical feel about it and it is so versatile as you can create a large range of shades by over-dying other colours. I hope I have many more weather windows over the next few months.

This lot will be on sale on my website in my next shop update on Sunday evening (29th November) at 8 p.m. UK time as well as several other naturally dyed shades of yarn. To make sure you never miss updates or to find out details of what will be available you can sign up to the newsletter on my website.


  • Robert McGhie
    Posted August 12, 2021 1:50 pm 0Likes

    Hi, I was interested in your blog on indigo dyeing wool. I used to work for a large American denim brand. My work involved visiting the mills producing our denim. When in India I took an interesting side trip to Meet Jesus Chris Larraone near Pondicherry.
    He dyes with natural indigo and recycles the water in a pond in the garden that naturally replaces the oxygen. Much lower pH than I used in cotton. He starts his process with rain water of a shed roof dripping into a large mound of wood ash. The water runs through the ash into a drum and is stored for use. He said that he thought that the bacteria that built up in the ash over time helped in the dyeing process. The indigo is tested for concentration as he says the natural indigo concentration changes from lot to lot. Once he mixes the indigo and ash water it is poured into a dye lot buried in the ground. After dipping the bank is better against the floor by the women dyeing. Thought this would be of interest to you . Best regards Robert

    • Donna Smith
      Posted August 23, 2021 12:10 pm 0Likes

      Hi Robert,
      Thanks so much for that, that’s very interesting. The process that is used in the indigo dyeing is fascinating, it’s great that there is always something new to learn.

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