How Make and Dye with a Henna Indigo Vat
All over the world plants that contain magical indigo grow. There are 3 main varieties that have proven to make the best (maybe 4 if you count woad, which I do) blue dye we know and love. Early civilizations in Asia, Africa, Europe, Central and South Americas that have harnessed the power of the great color, have figured out their own natural ways to dye with it. That isn't easy and I love thinking "how did they figure that out?" Indigo on its own will Not dye your natural fabrics. It needs to be made in an alkaline solution vat and you need to "reduce" it, meaning you take the oxygen away from the compound that is "indigo." And that's not even straight from the plant! To get dye from the plant, it's a whole Other process. But this week let's focus on getting that dye to bind to your natural fiber textile, this time using henna (or heena) powder.
My kits come in 3 versions of reducing agent (henna, iron, fructose) and two sizes (small/light, darker/large). Though because of the world demand for large canning jars, I do have to reimagine the larger option. In the kit you get a glass jar, marbles, calcium hydroxide, henna (or fructose, or iron), and indigofera tinctoria which hails from India. The kit comes with instructions on the "jar method" and direct to pot. The jar method is fun to watch the magic happening, or if you want to prep a few days ahead of your actual dyeing day. This post is direct to pot method which I suggest for the larger size kits, and you sort of out grow the jar method the more dyeing you do.
This is the main Recipe by Weights that I keep in my dye journal and adjust as needed.
50g Lime ( Calcium Hydroxide)
As long as you stay in those rations, you can change the amount of blue that you need. If you only have a few tiny pieces and a small container, you don't need much. A large container and tons to dye, you can go much bigger. Especially if you would like to keep that vat going for a while. The Small Henna Kit comes with 28g indigo, the Large 113.5g.
For this demo I only used 14g Indigo, 28g henna, and 9.3g hydrated lime so you can see the color I get and judge for yourself which size kit or recipe you want to go with.
Start by picking a stainless steel or ceramic coated pot that you know you're committing to being your indigo pot. It can be cleaned (not easily), but when dyeing fabric, you don't want to use a pot you'll be cooking food in. Designate and separate your food pots and dyeing pot. And make sure you have a lid for it. A cut piece of thick plastic is also recommended (explained further below).
(but just look how gross)
Get the water in your pot up to temperature. You should be about 140-160°F when mixing your ingredients, and while dyeing you can go lower to 110°F. You will notice it won't dye properly at anything lower. The trick with indigo vats is to balance everything, or it won't be bonding to the fiber. While the pot heats up, prepare your ingredients.
You indigo needs to be "hydrated." If you just throw the powder in, it will just float there, because it's Actually not soluble in water! I know. What? That's where the marbles come in. Now my indigo powder is fairly fine, so you probably don't even need them but better safe than sorry. I will boil some water in a kettle and let it sit a bit to get down to 140ish, too hot and the color can scorch. Place the powder in the jar, drop in the marbles and carefully pour a little warm water over, stopping every now and then to let the powder settle. Placing the lid on for a minute can help, the moisture building up and settling the indigo down. Roll the marbles around, and help them out with a chopstick or similar. The consistency of the indigo should be between a pudding and thick soup. You should see any more powder, which will pop up in the bubbles.
The henna powder is Also pretty insoluble, so repeat the above. However the water doesn't need to be as hot, you don't necessarily need the marbles, and the consistency should be a bit thicker.
The lime should Not be watered down. Calcium hydroxide is your alkaline, and while it is natural and safe to use, caution Needs to be taken when handling it. It is a super fine powder and wafts into the air and it can burn your throat and eyes. Wearing goggles and a respirator when handling it is recommended.
Now truthfully, I have added the three ingredients in different orders. For me the different vat types have more "convenient" maneuvers, but I've not noticed it making a huge difference. Above everything else, add ingredients carefully and cautiously. Remember you are trying to remove the oxygen from this situation, so add each part carefully to avoid bubbles.
So let's commit to the same order as the ingredients being mentioned. First we add the indigo to the pot. I tip the jar to the surface, so that as I pour the water from the pot enters the jar to help every last drop out....Let those marbles fall in to.
Then add in that "blop" of henna in the same manner. You can stir, but no need to at this point.
Now the lime is trickiest because it tends to Fly Everywhere. (Put on your mask, especially in a small space. Make kids and asthmatic people leave the room). And hear me out. Just pour it quickly right on top. Like head over heels let it plop right on top. You then stir the whole thing very very slowly to start and gain momentum only once the lime is sucked into the vat.
This avoids all the fly away. If you ever so carefully let it trickle into the vat, the dust goes all over the place. I stir with a small PVC pipe or an old broom handle. You do Not want to use a spoon and it causes too many bubbles.
You do need a good momentum going and to stir for about 2 minutes. Listen to those marbles! I love this sound! It also helps get that useful sludge up off the bottom. You want the ingredients to meld with each other. You might start to see a greenish tone start to work its way into the vat. Now pause with your stirring stick motionless in the vat and get ready. Carefully move the stick to the outer edge of the pot. Stop. Slowly move in the opposite direction of the whirlpool, hugging the outer edge of the pot. One time around, maybe twice if your whirlpool is still spinning. What you are doing is slowly stopping the motion while grabbing all the bubbles that might be hugging the outer edge of the pot. This swirls the bubbles and any undissolved indigo up to the top and center of your vat to create what's called the "flower." Cover the pot and let it sit on low heat to keep it between 110-130°. While the vat finds itself, which will most likely be an hour, go and prep your fabric.
You may have already bundled or bound your pieces, but here's the time to soak them in water. Warm to match the temperature of the vat. Thin fabrics will only need a few minutes, but thicker fabrics can sit in water for up to an hour (or over-night). Once soaked, wring out as much water as you can before dipping them.
Test your vat before you start dyeing your pieces to check it's working properly. If it comes out green, and turns blue in the air? We're good to go!
Vat dipping should be done cautiously to keep those bubbles at bay and oxygen out. Dip your saturated item and make sure it sits below the surface the entire time. You should dip your pieces about 2-5 minutes at a time. But larger pieces that are folded high can be left longer. I would say up to 30 minutes before it's just not doing anything anymore. Carefully bring it out the side of the vat, over a dish to collect the drippings, wring it out over this dish, then set aside to oxidize. Your deepest shades don't come with time In the vat, but how many times it is dipped then bonds again with oxygen. You'll watch your greenish item turn bluer and bluer. You'll then dip it again and repeat. Speed up the oxidation and see a truer representation of the blue you have, by dipping the piece in water and wringing it out between dips. (An absolute Must when dyeing with the iron reduction vat).
Dip, then oxidize. Dip, then oxidize. The more times you do this the deeper the blue. But it will also have a limit depending on how big your vat is. Even though I dip my pieces a few times, they will still be a fairly light shade because I only used 14g of indigo here. But lighter shades are just as desirable and harder to achieve than your deepest blues. Your blue will be Much lighter when washed and dried, so if you like the blue that it is, dip it a few more times.
Rinse your final pieces in cold water thoroughly. Then unbundle them and let them oxidize more if you see any green left. You can rise again but I usually don't. I go straight to my acid bath. This can be white vinegar but the kit will come with citric acid. Dissolve in warm water and soak all your items for 15-30 minutes. Wring them out. Then prepare a Very hot soaking bath. The water should be about 130-150° and you'll leave them there for about an hour. Then a wash in hot soapy water. And a final rinse in cold water.
You can put your vat to sleep in there's still indigo left, and it's still green! Return the vat that dripped into your dish. Take a thick piece of plastic and push it to the surface of the vat and put the lid on it. I have a silicon cooking lid that does the trick! I don't cook, so this is it's purpose now. Keeping that oxygen outta there!
Have fun! And come join me in a class for More info and help with indigo!