shibori indigo dyeing place mat and napkin

Beginning Shibori Indigo Dyeing: Selection And Preparation

Shibori indigo dyeing at home is one of those things that seems scary, but is actually really great. I discovered this recently after conquering my fear of coloring the house completely blue (would that really be such a bad thing?) and trying it out. Now I’m completely hooked. It’s not a very quick process, but you can do it indoors or out, and the colors and patterns shibori indigo dyeing makes are incredible. Even for a beginner. Yes, it does involve a vat of dark blue dye, which sounds more potentially catastrophic than a can of paint, but it’s actually quite a clean process.

Fortunately (and kind of miraculously), indigo doesn’t really set outside of the dye vat, so even if you get a little bit of it on something, it’s fairly easy to clean off. Also, the whole process is all about moving slowly, to avoid introducing oxygen into the vat. With no splashing or dripping allowed, it’s much easier to keep things clean. It’s also surprisingly relaxing and meditative, and a fantastic excuse to catch-up on podcasts.

One of the best parts is that the dye is non-toxic when you use an all-natural kit or recipe. When you’re done, you just pour the liquids down the drain and put the sediment in the trash or compost pile. Apparently it’s great for trees. This is starting to sound manageable, right? Something that might be worth a try?

Here are some tips and tricks from my experiences with shibori indigo dyeing to help you get started making gorgeous, natural, indigo-dyed projects at home. There are a lot of steps in this process, although each is very simple, so in this post we’ll just deal with selecting projects and preparing the fabric.

How to select pieces for dyeing:

One of the most important aspects of any project is really wanting to do it. If you’re making something just to see how it goes, but don’t really want the final product, your interest in the whole process will be limited. So before you start your shibori indigo dyeing project, think of what you want to have when you’re finished. It’s best to start with something small, to get the hang of it, but that doesn’t have to be a bandanna or a tea towel. Scarves, table napkins, place mats, and even decorative pillow covers are all useful, small projects that can be done easily your first time shibori indigo dyeing.

Does the idea of making a matching set of table napkins sound intimidating? Don’t worry: indigo dye and the shibori technique will give them a coordinated look, even if they don’t ‘match’ exactly:shibori indigo dyeing place mat and napkin

How much can you dye? There are a lot of variables involved in the amount of fabric you can dye in one indigo vat. Start with a vat made in a five-gallon bucket. You will get a great result for about 1-2 yards of fabric, depending upon the shade you want and how much fabric stays un-dyed. As you get better at shibori indigo dyeing, you will get a greater yield from your future vats, and will even be able to save them to use again. For the first vat, though, plan on just a few small pieces.

How to prepare your fabric for dyeing:

Once you have a project in mind, you will need to find and prepare the fabric for it. Indigo dye works best with cellulose fibers like cotton and linen. I planned to make a few sets of table napkins and some scarves. For the scarves I chose 100% linen because it gets really soft over time. It also stands up a little so it keeps your neck covered without being heavy or too bulky. For the table napkins I chose a cotton/linen blend for some and a 100% cotton muslin for the others. I wanted to see how each fabric would react to the dye in terms of color and softness.

Of course you can also use ready-made napkins, scarves, t-shirts, etc. Just make sure they are made from cellulose fibers and have not been dyed or treated with anything.

The next step is to wash your fabric to remove any chemicals from the manufacturing process. This will help the indigo dye adhere to the fabric. The good news is that you can do this right in the washing machine! If you are using fabric that is ‘ready for dyeing’, then one cycle in the washing machine, with extra rinse, should be fine. When using ready-made goods, it doesn’t hurt to run them through the washing machine 2-4 times.

Cut and sew your pieces before dyeing:

The first time I tried shibori indigo dyeing, I used whole yards of fabric. My plan was to see how each piece looked once dyed, and then decide where and how to cut it. I had an idea of what I wanted to make, of course, but thought this would give me more options. This was definitely a mistake, and here’s why:

  • The raw edges of the fabric frayed and got tangled in the vat. This made it difficult to open all of the folds to let the dye in. You can see the fraying starting to happen here: shibori indigo dyeing fabric gathered first tie
  • I could have made more specific patterns if I had cut and sewn the pieces before dyeing them because I would have known where the edges were.
  • Folding large pieces of wet fabric is really difficult and takes a lot of space.
  • An entire yard of fabric can get a bit unwieldy in a five-gallon bucket. It was difficult to keep this spiral from sinking in the bucket and touching the sediment, especially at the un-tied end: shibori indigo dyeing fabric gathered and tied
  • I thought the seams would take the dye differently and be really obvious. When I dyed finished pieces later, the seams were fine, and it was actually better because the sewing thread got dyed too: shibori indigo dyeing dyed seam detail

Tip: Use all-cotton thread when sewing your pieces.

So if you are using fabric to make your own pieces, you will need to cut and sew them first. Before you do that, wash and dry the fabric as you plan to afterwards. This will keep your finished pieces from shrinking and puckering at the seams after they are sewn.

Tip: The best way to maintain the color of your indigo-dyed goods is to let them air-dry, away from direct sunlight.

Selecting patterns, folding, and tying:

You don’t actually need to make any patterns in your pieces if you just want them blue, but one technique to try is a resist technique, like shibori. This is where you cover part of the fabric so it doesn’t get dyed. Shibori patterns can either be carefully planned or somewhat random, depending upon the effect you want for each piece.

When choosing shibori patterns for the scarves, I thought about how they would look next to someone’s face. I didn’t want something really big and bold, so I used squares of wood to keep most of the fabric white. You can do this by folding the fabric like an accordion the long way. Test the size of your folds against the wooden square:shibori indigo dyeing accordion folded fabric

Then fold it the short way, and test again with the wooden square: shibori indigo dyeing resist block second fold

Next, put one wooden square on each side of the cube and tie the whole thing together: shibori indigo dyeing resist block

Tip: Leave a loop of string so you can suspend the block in the dye bath.

This makes a great geometric pattern because the dye only touches the edges of the folds: shibori indigo dyeing white scarf with blue lines

For the table napkins, I thought it would be fun to experiment a bit. I tried different folding and tying patterns. The ones I like best are the ones where there is a high contrast between the dyed part and the resist (un-dyed) part.

There are tons of pattern tutorials online and in shibori indigo dyeing books. I put some of my favorites on the Creatorvox Pinterest boards, which is a great place to start for inspiration.

Tips and tricks on folding and tying:

  • One of the unique parts of indigo dyeing is that the indigo dye will not stick to dry fabric. It will adhere temporarily, but will eventually wash out. This means you need to wet your pieces before folding them. The fabric should be as dry as you can get it, though, to keep from adding excess water to the vat.
  • Fold your fabrics on a clean surface since dust and dirt will also prevent the dye from sticking. I used an old shower curtain over an outdoor table.
  • The dye will not penetrate the folds. You will need to open them, slowly and gently in the vat so the dye gets in.
  • Try testing how much you can open the folds of the fabric before you start dyeing. This way you can adjust and re-tie your pattern if necessary.
  • Accordion-folding works well because it helps keep fabric from being trapped under many folds where the dye can’t reach it.
  • You can create a gradated pattern by making folds that are difficult, but not impossible, for the dye to penetrate. The fabric inside the folds will be a lighter color, and the lines between the dyed and un-dyed parts will be more gradual and less crisp: shibori indigo dyeing gradated pattern white
  • If you use string for knots and wraps, pull it tight, but not so tight you get blisters. It just needs to stay in place while you wring the fabric out after dyeing and rinsing.
  • Tying lots of knots will take a long time. Untying all of those knots will also take a long time. Fortunately, I had a friend to help with the knots on this piece, but it still took us a long time: shibori indigo dyeing tying resist knots in fabric
  • Don’t worry if you don’t finish dyeing all of your folded and tied pieces the first day. You can leave them in clean water, where they will be fine for a few days. I actually left one batch for more than a week, but changed the water every two days.

What happens next?

Now it’s time to relax, take a break, and absorb all of this information. The shibori indigo dyeing process has lots of steps that can seem really confusing the first time. I promise it gets easier, and you’re going to love the results.

After you’ve had a little snack, cup of tea (glass of wine? I’m not judging), you can start planning your first project. First, decide what you’re really excited to make, then source your fabric and find out how wide it is. The cotton/linen fabric I chose for the napkins is 54 inches wide, so I planned 18″ x 16″ dinner napkins, at six per yard of fabric, and zero waste.

Be sure to account for shrinkage, too. I got my fabrics from Two Sisters Eco Textiles, which has a great chart they will send you about how much each fabric shrinks in different wash and dry temperatures. The cotton/linen blend has virtually no shrinkage, which is great for table napkins that will be washed and dried frequently. The high-quality fabrics are also as environmentally and socially responsible as I’ve found anywhere.

Stay-tuned for shibori indigo dyeing part 2, in two weeks, where we’ll cover tips and tricks for dyeing and finishing. shibori indigo dyeing many fabrics and patterns

Have fun planning your shibori indigo dyeing projects and feel free to ask questions or leave comments. Don’t forget to subscribe to Creatorvox to get Part 2, and all 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!

4 Replies to “Beginning Shibori Indigo Dyeing: Selection And Preparation”

    1. Thank you! It’s really incredible how great a result you can get right from the beginning. With practice the results are less of a surprise, and the vat lasts much longer.

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