Indigo On My Mind

So…you have probably noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Sometimes I question the purpose and relevance of this blog’s existence; sometimes I am just distracted – writing takes time and focus and both are at a premium!  That said, I have committed to resuming and aim for regular posts.  The reason being there is suddenly much to write about again!  First some news: After a post-ACC show break, the paths open before me once again.  I will be participating in this year’s Swan Coach House Summer Invitational, and on the wearable front, a new Petal-Una Collection is in progress and will be available beginning in August.  For sneak peeks at process, works in progress and other images follow me on Instagram (@kathycoltartisan) and/or Facebook.

Meanwhile…back in the studio:

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I am examining many of my textile studio practices (more about this in future posts).  One of the areas I am looking at is dye use.  It has been nearly 2 years since my memorable experience at Arrowmont learning about natural dye processes with Catharine Ellis, and while I continue to use synthetic dyes, I am slowly transitioning to natural colorants for much of my work.  Since that workshop, I have contemplated (among other things) building an Indigo vat spacious enough to accommodate larger pieces of cloth.  Well, I finally made that happen: In March, I started a 70 liter, medium-dark strength vat (images above).  For the uninitiated, Indigo is different from other dyes to the extent that it does not become soluble in water until oxygen is removed from the solutionOnly when the solution is re-oxygenated (i.e., removed from the vat) does the color “develop.”  So the process for accessing the color is a bit more complicated than that for other dyestuffs.  A chemical balance must be struck to achieve reduction in the vat itself and thus actually dye with the Indigo.  There are more or less environmentally-friendly ways to achieve this reduction.  The term “organic” refers to the fact that a balance between plant sugars and an introduced base (in this case, calcium hydroxide) creates the right conditions for reduction.  I should add that those conditions differ depending on whether one is dyeing plant (cellulosic) fibers or animal (protein) fibers.  It is a laborious process getting the vat up and running, but it requires very little input to keep it going.  (A more thorough and concise explanation of the indigo dyeing process can be found in one of the many informative downloadable resources from Maiwa Handprints Ltd.  Thank you Maiwa!)

I say that my indigo vat is relatively low maintenance now, but in its early weeks, particularly while a late winter chill still hung in my basement, things weren’t quite so mellow.  I was admittedly a bit fussy in my care of the vat in the beginning.  However, since those early, tentative weeks, I have learned to relax into a rhythm with it.  Some action on the part of the dyer is crucial to keep the vat humming during active dyeing times, and to keep it “on the ready” during less active times.  Ultimately, we have a little collaboration going: the vat shows me what it needs, via liquor color, “flower” (the foamy bloom on the top), and pH, and I respond accordingly.

More simply put, I am beginning to build a relationship with indigo.  As a dyer, that’s important.  After all, Indigo is a foundational, fundamental dyestuff and color and I want to get to know it well.  At almost two months, I do feel this vat has a definite presence in my life.  I am conscious of its well-being and check on it regularly (although not obsessively); I may feel even a slight twinge of anxiety if I haven’t engaged with it for several days.  If a week has passed, I am always relieved to remove the cover and see it “looking” up at me, its lovely foamy “flower” and coppery film intact.

The earthy-sweet, grassy odor, the “flower”, the maintenance, the process of dipping and oxygenating – these facets of the living vat are all satisfyingly “grounding”….and yet still a bit esoteric.  While my modern human brain (read my left hemisphere) wants to know there is an explainable chemical process at work, and that steps followed yield calculated results, I resist the impulse to micromanage.  I sometimes feel more like a facilitator rather than a control agent.  I am okay with not having a linear, scientific understanding of this process.  I am okay with working in cooperation with the vat.  My understanding and experience of Indigo is of a sensing, feeling nature.  There exists in this vat, and in this process, a fundamental mystery which speaks to the part of my brain still able experience magic and wonder in the world.  That’s something I am happy to welcome into my dye studio!

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