indigo dye vat shibori pillows fi

Beginning Shibori Indigo Dyeing: Working With The Indigo Dye Vat

Welcome back to tips and tricks about shibori indigo dyeing and working with the indigo dye vat. If you missed part one, which covers selecting projects and preparing the fabric, click here. 

Now that you have some projects in mind for shibori indigo dyeing, it’s time to talk about how the dyeing actually happens.

As I mentioned in the first post, indigo dyeing has many steps, the most difficult of which is actually filtering and heating the water. Yes, that sounds insane, but it really is. Many recipes start with heating enough water to fill a five-gallon bucket about half-way. Sounds simple, right? Heat some water to 170-190 degrees Fahrenheit and pour it into a bucket.

Yes, that would be simple, but half of a five-gallon bucket is 2.5 gallons. That’s 10 quarts! How big is the biggest pot in your kitchen? You need more than one, right? Possibly nearly all of the pots in your kitchen? Yeah, me too.

Additionally, the water for your indigo dye vat needs to be as pure as possible to prevent unwanted contaminants from bonding with the ingredients. The municipal water at my house is pretty bad, so I have to run all of the water through the pitcher filter first. It works, but the pitcher filters something like one pint every five minutes. There are 40 pints in a five-gallon bucket. That’s a long time.

After suffering through a long, long day the first time I made an indigo dye vat, I decided to break the process into a few steps that could be done over two shorter days. This makes the process a lot less stressful, too.

Here’s how to break the process into manageable steps:

Step 1 (day 1):

In this step all you need to do is filter the water and prepare your pieces for dyeing. Filter about 2 1/2 gallons of water into pots to heat for the indigo dye vat, and another 2 gallons to top-up it up. I just put all of my large pots out and fill them with water from the pitcher filter whenever I’m in the kitchen throughout the day.

Next, wet the fabric you prepared for dyeing, wring it out so it’s easier to fold, and fold and tie it according to the pattern you want. If your pieces are small enough, like table napkins, you can fold them on a baking tray while sitting comfortably anywhere you like. Being comfortable is good since sometimes the folding and tying takes longer than expected. That’s what happened when I tied the circles for this pattern:

indigo dye vat spots on pillow

For more tips on preparing your pieces for dyeing, check out the first post here.

Put your folded and tied pieces in water until you are ready to dye them. If this is longer than two days, change the water. I have done this for up to ten days without any issues.

Step 2 (Day 2):

Now that you have enough clean, pure water to make a five gallon indigo dye vat, you can set-up your work space, make the vat, and start dyeing.

How to set-up your work space for dyeing:

Indigo dyeing can be done indoors or outside because it is non-toxic and doesn’t really have a bad smell. It does smell a little unique, but it won’t linger in your house for days.

  • You don’t need a lot of space for indigo dyeing, but you do need to be comfortable. Your hands will be in the indigo vat and rinse bucket for long periods of time, so put them on a table, bench, or something else that is a comfortable height for you when standing.
  • Make sure there is space for:
    • the dye vat
    • rinse bucket (s)
    • the wet pieces that are ready to be dyed
    • a tray to hold the dyed pieces as they oxygenate between dips
    • a tray or bucket to hold the dyed pieces that are ready for the final rinsing
  • Put a drop cloth over your work area, then walk all over it to make sure there are no wrinkles or other things that might be a tripping hazard. A simple cotton drop cloth works well to keep the indigo pigment off of things and will not be slippery if it gets wet.

indigo dye vat work area

The indigo dye vat:

The formula you use for your indigo dye vat will depend upon what materials are available in your area. Make sure you use all-natural indigo, which will be non-toxic. I used a kit the first time, and then the recipe from Graham Keegan’s website after that. Follow the instructions from your kit or recipe to make the indigo dye vat, and use these tips and tricks to help.

Tips and tricks for making an indigo dye vat:

  • Heat the water for your vat according to the instructions (usually about 175-190 degrees Fahrenheit). This will likely take 30-60 minutes.
  • Use a small pot with a handle to ladle the hot water into the five-gallon bucket. This will prevent splashing, which adds oxygen into the vat.
  • Mix your vat as indicated in the instructions for the formula you are using. There may be a 1-2 hour period of occasional stirring during this step.
  • When your vat is ready to be topped-up, fill it to within 1″ – 1 1/2″ of the top.  If you only dip a few small pieces simultaneously, there will not be enough displacement to need more space than this. Leaving 3″ (that’s what many instructions recommend), only makes your vat less deep and your pieces will be closer to the sediment.

Tip: If you plan to wait until the next day to dye, leave 3″ of space and finish topping-up with hot water the next day.

  • After you top-up your vat, stir it gently and let it rest for AT LEAST an hour, preferably two, so the sediment can settle at the bottom.
  • Don’t forget to cover your vat any time you are not working with it.
  • Test the pH of your vat with a pH strip before dyeing. There are tons of photos showing what an indigo dye vat ‘should’ look like, but it doesn’t always work that way. I made one vat that was completely blue, and not at all yellow, but the pH was right and it dyed beautifully. If you need to adjust the pH of your indigo dye vat, do so according to the recipe you used.

Between heating the water, mixing the vat, and letting it settle, several hours will have passed. The good news is that you are now ready to dye! If you’re out of time and energy for the day, though, don’t worry: you’re vat will still work tomorrow. Store it at room-temperature overnight.

If you let your vat sit overnight:

  • Test the pH first. If it’s ok, which it should be, then you can go ahead and start dyeing.
  • You will get better results from a room-temperature or slightly warm vat, so if you are dyeing outside and the vat is cold, then remove and reheat some of it. 2-3 quarts should do the trick. Don’t let it get past 190 degrees Fahrenheit, though, before adding it back in to the vat. Alternately, if you left 3″ of space the day before, just add boiling water to top-up.
  • Stir the vat gently, and let sit for at least an hour while the sediment settles again.

Step 3 (day 2 or 3):

Now it’s time to start dyeing!

First, let’s do a reality check:

You’ve probably read a ton about not introducing oxygen into the vat because ‘it will ruin everything’. Maybe you’re even nervous about the whole process. I certainly was. Relax. No matter how hard you try, oxygen will get into the vat. This is the reality of beginning shibori indigo dyeing. So what does that mean? The dye vat gets spent faster and you dye fewer pieces. That’s it. No great catastrophe. If you have pieces left that have not been dyed, you can dye them in a new vat, on another day. Either store them tied and wet for a few days, or untie them, let them dry, and re-tie them when you’re ready. So take a deep breath, relax, and have fun with the magic of indigo dyeing.

Indigo dyeing basics:

Start with the piece that you want to be the darkest and set the others to the side. This way your darkest piece will be finished even if the vat gets exhausted (too oxygenated) before you finish dyeing everything:

indigo dye vat color after many dips Now is a great time to put on some podcasts, then put on the gloves.

  • Wring as much water as possible from your piece since water will introduce oxygen into the vat.
  • Open as many of the folds as you can and hold them open as you slowly (very slowly) lower your piece into the indigo dye vat. This will help avoid trapping and releasing air bubbles in the vat.
  • For the first dip, just count to 30, then slowly remove your piece while wringing it so the dye goes back into the vat. Try not to drip or splash. This will get easier over time.
  • Rinse your piece vigorously in a clean bucket of water between dips. Some of the indigo pigment will have bonded to the fabric and will stay in place, and some of the indigo pigment will just be sitting on the surface. Vigorous rinsing shakes the loose indigo from the fabric so it will take more color on the next dip. Also, if you don’t rinse vigorously, then you might think that your piece is darker than it really is.
  • Remove your piece from the rinse and open all of the folds to let the fabric oxygenate:

indigo dye vat color after one dip

  • Watch the magic happen as your piece turns from yellowish-green to blue!
  • Let each piece oxygenate as long as necessary. There should be no green at all when you re-dip.
  • Repeat this process many times for darker indigo.

Tips and tricks for dyeing:

  • With subsequent dips, you can clip your pieces to the side of the bucket and leave them for 1-15 minutes.
  • The reason to leave something in the indigo dye vat for a longer time is to allow the dye to wick onto more of the fabric. Longer dipping does not produce darker indigo. More dips make the indigo darker.
  • Indigo does not actually dissolve in water, it is suspended. The chemicals (iron, calcium hydroxide, etc.) in the indigo dye vat help it bond to the fabric, but all of this eventually settles to the bottom of the vat. This is the sediment you want to avoid touching, or agitating while dyeing.
  • Keep the level of liquid in your bucket within 1-2 inches of the top so that you have the deepest possible amount of dyeing space above the sediment.
  • If you need to top-up the level, add boiling water very slowly. Then let your vat rest for at least 20 minutes while the sediment re-settles.
  • Contact with the sediment will prevent the dye from sticking and will cause spots, like the ones you can see here that are a little lighter than the surrounding indigo:

indigo dye vat sediment spots on fabric

This was a large piece of fabric, and I was tired and trying to hurry, so I let the level of dye in the vat get too low. As you can see, it didn’t ruin the fabric, but it did change the look of it.

  • Indigo dye looks much darker when wet, so dip each piece 2-4 times past the shade you actually want. The exception is for very light blue. In that case, 1-2 extra dips will suffice.

How to make sets with matching pieces:

If you want to make a set of something, such as table napkins, dye them sequentially. I found that in a five-gallon bucket only 2-3 napkins fit at the same time. To make sure that the set matched, I dipped two into the indigo dye vat, counted to 30, then wrung and rinsed them. Next, I dipped the other two, counted to 30, and repeated the wring and rinse process.

While the second two napkins were oxygenating, I dipped the first two napkins again, then wrung and rinsed. Then the second two… etc. Repeat the process so that each pair gets dipped sequentially, the same number of times. Now all of the napkins will match even if the indigo dye vat runs out of strength.

indigo dye vat making a matching set

Step 4 (day 2 or 3):

At this point you will either have finished dyeing all of your pieces, or the indigo dye vat will be exhausted and not dyeing, or you will be exhausted. That means it’s time to put the lid on the vat and do the final rinse and fix.

Tips and tricks for finishing:

  • Use a tray (to avoid dripping on the floor) to carry everything from your work area to a stainless steel sink (easy to clean).
  • Take your first piece and untie each knot under cold, running water to wash away any indigo pigment that might be stuck in the folds before it can attach to the un-dyed fibers. If you have a lot of knots, you can untie them first, but then open the fabric under running water:

indigo dye vat removing knots from finished piece

  • Once the piece is open and rinsed in running water, continue rinsing it in a bucket, or the sink, until the water stops turning blue. This will take a while.
  • If you’re really exhausted, you can leave your pieces in water overnight and rinse them in the morning. It’s better to finish them shortly after dyeing because the high pH from the indigo dye vat weakens the fabric, but it’s not going to make holes or anything overnight.
  • Some sites will tell you it’s ok to rinse in the washing machine. That’s up to you and your tolerance for the possibility of blue in your machine for a wash or two afterwards.
  • After you open and rinse each piece in running water, you can rinse them together. Try not to let the water get too dark before changing it. The indigo pigment should not stick to any of the un-dyed fabric, because this is water and not a dye bath, but you never know.

Setting the dye:

There is a lot of debate on this topic. Natural indigo will always fade over time, but rinsing your pieces in a fixative bath will help reduce that. It will also reduce the pH of the fabric, which is beneficial as well. If you decide to ‘fix’ your fabric, use a recipe that is compatible with the type of indigo dye vat that you made. I used a recipe for a citric acid bath, which worked really well. I could actually see the indigo brighten, and so far everything has been fine in the wash.

Whether or not you use a fixative, wash your pieces with mild dish soap the first time, rinse well, and hang them to dry out of direct sunlight. Now you can sit back and admire the beautiful patterns and colors in your shibori indigo dyed pieces!

indigo dye vat colors and shibori patterns

A note about fabric:

Different fabrics will take indigo dye differently. This gives even more design possibilities because you can decide not only where you want your pieces to be blue, but also how you want the blue to be. Using linen, which is typically a little textured, gives the indigo a less uniform look. In this photograph you can see that some of the fibers are light blue, right next to dark blue fibers in the same color field:

indigo dye vat linen fabric detail

A completely uniform fabric, like the cotton muslin in the photo below, will give a much more even field of color:

indigo dye vat muslin fabric detail

You can also see that the un-dyed parts of the muslin are less white than the linen. This is because the fabric was not bleached like the linen in the first photograph.

As I mentioned in the first post, I really liked the fabrics I used from Two Sisters Ecotextiles. This is not a sponsored post, but if you mention Creatorvox when you contact them, they are offering a 25% discount! Be sure to ask for fabrics that are ‘ready to dye’.

There are so many ways to be creative with patterns and shades in shibori indigo dyeing. I hope you are inspired to give this a try. It gets easier and more fun with each successive vat.

indigo dye vat finished napkins and place mats

As always, feel free to ask questions or leave comments. Don’t forget to subscribe to Creatorvox to get new posts right in your email. You can also follow Creatorvox on Facebook and Twitter for more tips and tricks between posts. Thanks for reading, and happy making!

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