Fresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts

fresh-leaf indigo dyeing

By Patricia Belyea

WAUCONDA WA  Yesterday was a hazy day—with fires in Canada blowing smoke south. Undaunted, textile artist Erin Castellan and I embarked on a day of fresh-leaf indigo dyeing.

Erin and I headed down from our log home to the indigo field with Coleman coolers filled with ice. Once there, we added some water to the red coolers to create the coldest water possible.

About 50 indigo plants were trimmed and their stalks stripped of their leaves. The lush foliage was promptly dunked into the coolers of icy water. 

Okan Arts’ indigo field in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonIndigo leaves at the Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonHarvesting indigo leaves for fresh-leaf dyeing at the Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonHarvesting indigo leaves for fresh-leaf dyeing at the Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

We headed back to the house and hauled the coolers to a shady spot at the back. Here we set up a Ninja blender, with a paint-straining bag and clean buckets handy.

Harvesting indigo for fresh-leaf dyeing at the Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonFresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

We added half a dozen ice cubes and half a cup of water to the high-capacity blender (128 ounces), then packed the blender with indigo leaves. Pulsing on and off, we ground up the ice and leaves.

The bright green slush was poured through the paint-straining bag into a 5-quart bucket. Then the bag was squeezed to extract just a little more dye.

I massaged long pieces of Japanese white silk in the green elixir. Erin, who makes designer clothing with a vintage knitting machine, dyed a few merino wool projects in the indigo-leaf mash.

Making fresh-leaf indigo dye at the Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonMaking fresh-leaf indigo dye at the Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonFresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonMaking fresh-leaf indigo dye at the Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

We made seven batches as the fresh dye got exhausted after three or four long pieces of silk. In total, I dyed 24 yards of silk and Erin dyed three small wool projects. 

At first the textiles were the same color as the indigo leaves. Slowly the silk changed color to various hues of aqua. Erin kept her wool projects in the fresh-leaf dye much longer than me, resulting in a dusky teal-blue.

Erin and I laid our dyed textiles on the grass in the shade for about an hour while we stopped for lunch. Then we rinsed them in cold water until the water remained clear—which happened very quickly.

Fresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonFresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonFresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

The final step was washing the textiles with a gentle soap. I used Seventh Generation clothing detergent with my washing machine set on cold wash/cold rinse water.

The day was a huge success. I dyed 15 pieces of silk. They will likely get finished as special scarves.

Dyeing My Hands

Knowing that the fresh-leaf dye would only produce a pale aqua, I assumed that my hands would barely get colored by the natural dye. Not so. 

By the end of the day, my hands were a deep blue with the dye completely staining my nails and cuticles. After using soap, lotion, hand salve, baking soda, and lots of rubbing, one day later my hands are still a dingy blue and my nails are ghoulish. 

Fresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

Two Things to Know

Fresh-leaf indigo dyeing works with animal fibers such as silk and wool. It will not dye cotton. (Fermented indigo dye is the one you want for cotton and other plant fibers.)

I suggest wearing rubber globes. I know that blue hands from indigo dyeing is a status symbol with textile dye-hards. But truly, the look is pretty gruesome. 

Meet Erin E. Castellan

Erin designs and knits one-of-a-kind and small batch clothing from natural fibers including merino wool, cotton, linen, and bamboo. To check out her online shop +click here

Erin E. Castellan fresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, WashingtonErin Castellan and Patricia Belyea fresh-leaf indigo dyeing at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

NATURAL DYE SEEDS

The indigo seeds that I planted this year came from Botanical Colors in Seattle—a fabulous resource for natural dyes, seeds, project materials, workshops, and online events.

To visit the Botanical Colors website +click here

Indigo seeds from Botanical Colors in SeattleIndigo seedlings at Okan Arts farm in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington state


You may also like