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By Oceanna Holton
Indigo dye has an ancient, global history. Dragonfly Art Studio director Oceanna Holton offers some background and instructions for an at-home sashiko embroidery project. (Spoiler: It's messy but worth it.)
What is indigo? Indigo is a deep blue dye that has been used for thousands of years by cultures all over the world. The oldest known indigo-dyed fabric, found in Peru, dates to 6,000 years old! Indigo is exotic — a time-consuming, labor-intensive dye used in diverse artistic techniques — and also familiar. If you’ve ever worn a pair of blue jeans, that rich blue color that sometimes bleeds off onto other clothes originally came from indigo — and in some cases still does.
Indigo is made from a plant in the pea family that grows in hot, humid, tropical regions. Traditionally, the process of creating indigo begins with harvesting the plant in the fall, soaking the leaves in water for a day or longer, adding an oxidizing agent such as lime or urea, then vigorously mixing the solution until bubbles form and start to break. Pure cotton fabric is then dipped into the solution multiple times, letting the fabric dry between each dipping and repeating to create a darker fabric. When the fabric is first removed from the indigo bath it is a neon yellow, but as it combines with oxygen in the air, it turns blue before your eyes. Even today, with DIY kits that include a prepared indigo powder, the process of creating a simple indigo-dyed textile takes at least several days.
Communities in South and Central America, Asia, the Middle East and India use a variety of indigo-dying techniques to create a beautiful range of products. Patterns are created using any of several “resist” processes, including tying the fabric with rubber bands or string; stitching with nylon thread; wrapping it around a pole; folding it in careful patterns and clamping it between pieces of wood; applying wax; or binding it with other objects that keep the dye from reaching the fabric.
What makes indigo so special? In a word, color. No other dye captures the vibrant hue of indigo — from pale to almost black, depending on the number of times the fabric has been dipped and dried. Some African tribes believe the richer and more powerful a person is, the darker the indigo he or she is to wear.
One of the great mysteries of indigo is how a green plant can produce such a rich blue color. How did people first discover that the leaves of a common pea plant could replicate the ocean and sky? How did this technique evolve all over the world and survive for millennia? These are some of the mysteries you’ll consider as you begin to explore indigo.
As you visit the booths of International Folk Art Market this summer, look for indigo textiles. This year’s market will include dozens of indigo artists, from Mexico, China, Thailand, Mali, Nigeria and more. Before you go, watch the documentary “Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo,” produced by Mary Lance, available on DVD and streaming on Vimeo, to get a better sense of the process and its current applications.
Make your own indigo, at home or at camp, with an inexpensive kit available at local craft stores or online. Or, purchase real indigo fabric (not blue-dyed cotton!) at Santa Fe Quilting and complete this simple embroidery project using the Japanese technique of sashiko embroidery.
Sashiko Embrodery Sachet
Sashiko means “little stab” in Japanese. Sashiko embroidery is a traditional Japanese technique with white embroidery thread on indigo-dyed fabric, creating patterns with a simple “running stitch.” Here are the materials and steps you’ll need to create a lovely 4-by-4-inch sachet. Vary it as you like to create a small pillow, pencil case, makeup pouch, patch for applying to a favorite piece of clothing or a quilt, or other object of your choosing.
What You Need
Cut the indigo fabric into a 5-by-5-inch square. (Or, cut a 10-by-5-inch rectangle and fold it in half. This way you’ll have one less edge to stitch closed.)
Place the fabric on a flat surface and, holding the stencil on it firmly, mark the lines within the template with the marking pencil. These marks will show where your stitches will go. With my students I use the Seven Treasures, Cherry Blossom and Wave templates of Sew Simple, but there are many options out there.
Put the marked fabric inside the embroidery hoop. This is optional but very helpful for holding the fabric steady as you sew.
Thread the white embroidery floss through the darning needle and tie off the end. Starting on the back side of the fabric (to hide the knot), bring the threaded needle in and out of the fabric on the white lines, coming up through the fabric on one end of the line and through the fabric at the other end. This is known as a “running stitch.” Work in a flowing motion, traveling on a diagonal as far in one direction as possible, then back in the other direction, until you have stitched over all the marks you traced with your marking pencil.
Turn the piece inside out so the right sides are together, then stitch around all sides to close the sachet, leaving an opening of about 1 inch for the stuffing. Then turn the pouch right side out and stuff it with dried lavender, cotton balls, poly-fill or a combination. Tuck the raw edges of that 1-inch hole and use a small “whip stitch” to sew the opening shut.
Oceanna Holton is the director of Dragonfly Art Studio, which is offering group and private Zoom classes and in-studio family art workshops this summer, 2020.