25 July 2011

Adventures in Indigo-Dying

About a week ago I told you all about my recent adventures in tie-dying and promised a new project - dying a bedsheet set with indigo dye. Well, yesterday I spent a good chunk of the day setting up an indigo vat and spiral-dying our sheets. As you can see, they turned out great! The process was a little more tedious than tie-dying, as there are multiple dips and turning overs, but the great part is you don't have to wait 24 hours to see your results! As soon as the fabric is done resting, you just rinse it out in the tub and you can see your handiwork immediately. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me walk you through the steps to creating your very own beautifully blue sheet set.

(Click through for instructions!)


1. Purchase new or used 100% cotton bedding in your bed size. We have a queen, and I found some lovely 400 count 100% cotton sheets at Goodwill for $6. This didn't include the fitted sheet, so I decided to just dye the flat sheet and two pillowcases. It is important to have bedding that is 100% cotton or other natural fiber (linen, hemp, etc) without any polyester or nylon, because the indigo dye will only bond with natural fibers.

2. Purchase an indigo dying kit. I got the Jacquard Mini Indigo Tie Dye Kit from Joann Fabrics online for $9 including shipping with a 50% off coupon code from my favorite coupon code blogger Mommy $aves Big. Even though it's called "Mini", don't be fooled. It makes a TON of dye and can dye up to 5 pounds of fabric or the equivalent of 15 t-shirts. The kit contains indigo dye crystals, a bag of powdered reducer (allows the indigo to turn blue and bond with fabric), two sizes of rubber bands, wooden blocks and popsicle sticks for creating designs, one pair of gloves and an instruction manual.

3. Gather the following materials:  
  • 5-gallon bucket with lid
  • Stir stick - long enough to reach the bottom of the bucket without submerging your hand
  • 1 large or several medium size pans/tupperware lined with saran wrap
  • Small container for mixing the reducer - I used the cut-off bottom of a 2-liter bottle because the kit cautions against using kitchenware that will touch food later.
  • Large tarp or plastic sheet
  • Paper towels or rags for cleanup

4. Set up your dye vat. Fill the 5-gallon bucket with 4 gallons of warm tap water. Pour the indigo crystals in and gently stir with your stir stick until dissolved. Fill small container with 2 cups of hot tap water and pour in the reducing agent. Stir until dissolved, then pour into dye vat and stir gently in one direction until dissolved. Then gently reverse stirring direction, scraping the stir stick along the side of the bucket and slowly lifting until the stick is out of the liquid. Cover and let the vat rest for one hour.


A note about this step. When I tried to dissolve the chemical reducer in the hot water it didn't completely dissolve and in fact clumped up a bit. It could be that my tap water wasn't hot enough, but in any case, I stirred until it didn't seem to dissolve any more, then poured it into the vat. The clumps dissolved once they were stirred into the vat, so don't worry if you don't get them completely dissolved in the hot water.

5. Prepare your material. Wet the sheets and pillowcases (or whatever material you'll be dying) thoroughly and ring them out so they're wet but not dripping. It's time to create your designs! There are tons of different methods that you find online or just experiment and make it up as you go along. You can crumple the material up in a ball and tie it up with string/rubber-bands to create an all-over starburst-like pattern. You can fold the material in accordion folds and put the wood pieces on the outside to prevent the dye from reaching that part of the cloth, creating blue outlines that repeat at the accordion folds. You can paint designs with wax, then dye the entire cloth. Later, iron the cloth over an old towel, melting the wax into the towel and revealing your design

I wanted a spiral design in the sheet, echoed in the pillowcases. I looked everywhere online and could not find any evidence that a spiral design is even possible with indigo so I was a little worried that it wouldn't work. I went ahead and tried though, and it worked just fine. I used the same twisting technique that I'd used previously for the colorful tie-dye, laying out the wet fabric, grabbing the center point and twisting until the entire piece is in a tight circle (see photos). This is easier done with the pillowcases than the sheet, of course, as the sheet tends to get stuck under your (damp) knees and the tarp can get bound up as you twist. But just take your time and keep working the fabric until you have it how you want it. You have an hour to wait for the dye vat anyhow! I used rubber bands to secure the pillowcases, but they wouldn't stretch far enough to reach across the entire sheet so I found some twine and used that to tie up the sheet. It doesn't matter if you tie it up with 6 equal wedges, like in the spiral tie-dye project, because we're going to dip the whole piece in one color this time. So just tie it in whatever way ends up holding it tight.

One of the pillowcases, spiraled and secured with rubberbands

The sheet, tightly spiraled and tied with twine

6.  Commence dying! Indigo's chemical properties require some care during the dying process so you'll want to move slowly and gently during all steps. The dye needs to adhere to the material prior to being exposed to oxygen, which is when it actually turns blue. The dye vat's color is a yellow-green color, but at the top, where the indigo has been exposed to oxygen, there is a blue foam that crackles and pops. This layer is called the "flower".

When you're ready to dye, put on the gloves and scoop the flower off the top of the vat and set it aside. I used a disposable pie-tin, but any non-food related container would be fine. Now that I think of it, what I should have done was rinse out the bottom of the 2-liter bottle I'd used for the reducer and put the flower in there. Next time!

Bright green color after one dip in the indigo vat

Hold your bound fabric in both hands and squeeze to minimize the air pockets in the fabric. Slowly lower it into the dye and hold it, submerged, for about one minute. The instructions didn't give a lot of specifics about this part, so I just slowly turned it and gently squeezed once in awhile. It was a lovely day yesterday, so I used this time to listen to the birds and enjoy the sun (you know, to basically space out and enjoy not really working for a minute). When the minute is done, squeeze the material under the surface to squeeze out the liquid and slowly pull it up and out. Avoid splashing, as the more oxygen introduced into the liquid means the more foaming on top and the less unoxidized indigo left to dye your fabric.

After two dips and 10 minutes of oxidation

Set the material in your saran-wrapped pan or tupperware and let it rest. At this point it looks neon greenish-yellow, which would have really freaked me out except that the directions were clear that this was to be expected. As the indigo is exposed to oxygen the blue color deepens. Let the piece rest for 10 minutes, then flip it over to expose the other side and wait another 10 minutes. In the meantime you can be dying your other pillowcase and sheet(s). After 20 minutes of resting, the material should look fairly dark blue, possibly with some dark green blotches. If you want your final project to be lightish blue, you can stop here. If you're going for a darker blue, as I was, then you should repeat the dipping and resting process a few more times. I dipped and rested 3x for each piece to achieve a fairly deep blue color. I almost wish I'd done a fourth dip, though, because it was difficult to fit the spiraled sheet in the 5-gallon bucket and swoosh it around, so I don't think the dye penetrated as much as I would have liked. I felt like the spiral was going to fall apart if I moved it around too much. The smaller pillowcases turned out nice and dark, but the sheet would have benefited from another dip or two.

After your final resting/oxidation period, I recommend removing the ties/rubber bands and opening up the fabric for 5 minutes or so. Wherever you see yellow, the fabric is going to oxidize and turn blue, but if you rinse it now then it will turn white. I found that opening up the yellow parts and oxidizing for just a short time allowed a light blue to emerge, giving the piece extra dimension. You can skip this step if you want the colors to be more dark blue vs. white. 

Opening up a pillowcase after the 3rd dip to allow oxidation of the dye on the inner portions
The sheet, opened and oxidizing after the 3rd dip

Next, carry carefully to your tub and rinse out the dye in cool to warm water. The instructions seemed to imply that you should rinse until the water runs clear, but when you're working with a sheet you might be looking at 20 minutes+ of rinsing. At least, I rinsed for about 20 minutes until my back was killing me, then I said "enough!" I threw them in the wash with some mild homemade detergent (mmm, I'll have to post the recipe. It's so simple and unbelievably inexpensive!) and then in the drier. 

I'm so happy with the finished product! The cotton is exquisitely soft and the spiral pattern came out just how I wanted it. Each piece is unique, but with the same echoing spiral. 

The indigo vat will be good for a week or more, so just cover it up and store it until you're done with it. The instructions say to dispose of it down the drain, and I expect that is so that it goes through your city water treatment system. Some websites describe indigo dye as hazardous waste, so I think you won't want to pour it out in a storm drain or into your well-water drainage system.

 Leave a comment telling about your experiences with indigo dying. I'd love to read about what you've made. What is your favorite indigo design? 

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