Indigo: Can we talk?

For as long as people have been people, we have loved color.  Our impulses to decorate and embellish are deeply ingrained in our DNA.  In the immortal words of Clairee Belcher, from Steel Magnolias, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”  And Accessorize we do!  Part of that accessorizing is finding ways to alter the color of the materials we use to make things.  Painting and dying have been around since people have been people.

For the first few millennia, we were dependent on colorful things in the natural world around us.  Sometimes minerals or animal byproducts work to color things, but plants are plentiful, easier to catch and prepare, and have the widest range of color possibilities.  Nut hulls; barks, twigs and roots from trees; flowers, leaves, stalks, skins, seeds and roots of smaller plants; lichens, mosses and fungi all have found their way into the dye pots of our ancestors.  Then we discovered how to mimic these colors with human made substances and synthetics were born.  (But synthetics are a conversation for another time.)

In recent years, or a couple of decades, there has been a rediscovery of those natural, mostly plant based dyes.  Especially among DIY and back-to-the-land types, or those with an eco friendly bent, a whole hand dying industry has sprung up.  The interest in “natural” dyes has spread and these labor intensive dye stuffs, and the fibers made with them, command respect and premium prices.  Deservedly so.  It’s harder work than you might think.

And the colors are so wonderful!  These are some of the colors you can achieve with mushrooms.

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When you start out with something that looks like this…



It’s easy to see how you could end up with something like this…



And that’s just for starters.  (There’s a great pictorial article on mushroom dying here.  I lifted the photos from there.)  Madder root gives wonderful reds.  Lichens can make some of the richest pinks and mauves.  Onion skins and turmeric make a whole range of yellows. Walnut or butternut will yield browns from a light tan to a warm cocoa.  And for blues?  Well, indigo of course!

Indigo is not a single plant, but rather a chemical constituent of several plants.  Indigofera tincoria, the plant we think of indigo; Isatis tinctoria also known as woad; Lonchocarpus cyanescens an African contender; Marsdenia, a type of milkweed; Nerium tinctorium, a type of oleander; Polygonum tinctorium , a kind of buckwheat, all have the right stuff to produce those vibrant blues we lump together as indigo and all have been used.  The process to extract this magic substance is pretty much the same for all of these different plants; get some leaves, chop them up, let them ferment in some kind of liquid, use a solvent to extract the vital essence, dry it into powder…and Bob’s your uncle!  In some cases it took our ancestors only a year or so to get the desired powder.  (There’s a more extensive description here, if you really want to know more about how it’s done.)

And just in case you were hoping for a “natural” dye that is organic, non-toxic or earth friendly, that leaves a small footprint, please notice that the indigo powder used for dying is a highly processed substance and requires some pretty harsh chemicals to bring out the color and make that color stick to your fiber.

If you do a Google search for anything related to indigo, you’ll notice one phrase or concept popping up over and over again.  Indigo does not dissolve in water.  I can hear you saying, “So what?”  So what, indeed.  Well let me tell you.  Reducing the concept of dying to its most basic form, there are two ways a color can be added to fiber.  First, a colorant can chemically bond with the fiber itself, in which case the color is said to be “fast” as in “holding fast to your beliefs, your principles or your shade of blue.”  It means it’s permanant…mostly.  Sometimes bleach or other harsh chemicals can break the chemical bond between your fiber and your colorant and the colorant can be washed away, but it’s hard and you really have to work at it.  Think for a moment about drawing with a Sharpie marker all over your favorite T-shirt.  That sucker is pretty much never coming clean again.  The magic Sharpie fluid has chemically  bonded to the cotton fiber of your T-shirt.  They’re married at an atomic level and they will never be torn asunder.  Fiber reactive dyes work in this way.

Second, the colorant lies on the surface of the fibers and can be easily removed through friction.  In this case, the color is not “fast,” and will fade as the colorant is wiped away, bit by bit.  Imagine taking sidewalk chalk and grinding it deep into your favorite T-shirt.  It may take a few washings, but eventually it will all come out.  It’s not permanent.


In its dye ready, processed form, indigo looks like blue lumps of coal.  (for more on how to use this magical powder, there’s a great tutorial here.)  Indigo is like sidewalk chalk.  It does not dissolve in water.  So, what?…is that indigo does not chemically bond with the fiber.  Like a fine chalk dust, it sits on top of the fibers and will rub off.  For ever, until it’s all gone.

Let’s talk about blue jeans for a minute.  When you get a new pair, do you wash them before you wear them?  If you wear them brand new with a pair of white undies, what happens to the undies?  Do they get a little blue-ey grey tint to them?  Of course they do.  The dye rubs off on them.  If you wash the jeans first, what happens to that brand new looking blue?  You know the answer; go ahead and say it.  That’s right; they fade!  The indigo dye is only sitting on top of the fibers and gets rubbed away with each washing.  Eventually, after several washings, the fading process slows down and your jeans don’t shed as much color as they did in the beginning.  But is there a lovely among you who would throw a white shirt in the washer with a load of jeans, even well worn jeans, and expect the shirt to stay white?  If so, you might have to re-take Laundry 101.

Indigo enthusiasts will point to the still vibrant color of ancient textiles…like Egyptian tomb finds  url

(This was a kerchief found in King Tut’s tomb and is still discernibly indigo blue.)

Or the Bayeux Tapestries


(This is a detail section of that famous textile with blues that are still brilliant.)

But when was the last time either of these puppies was tossed in the wash, or even handled or exposed to sunlight?  If we treat indigo dyed fibers with care, washing them gently and infrequently, we can preserve the color we love so much.  But for as long as the indigo color stays precariously perched on top of the fibers, it will continue to rub off on whatever it gets next to, and it will continue to fade.  Eventually it will be so small an amount as to seem almost nonexistent, but I promise you, it’s still happening.

Why does this matter to you as a knitter or crocheter?  Well, my lovelies, I want you to be prepared.  Indigo dyed yarn is beautiful.  And while you are working with it, the indigo will rub off on your hands…and your shirt, and the sofa cushion you set it down on and the inside of your project bag.  It will also rub off on your needles, most especially if they are wood or bamboo, and the indigo can even get carried from your needles to your next project, leaving its characteristic, tell-tale blue tint on everything it touches.  Like with blue jeans, the amount of indigo that your yarn will shed decreases over time, but you should be careful.  If you use wood or bamboo needles or hooks, dedicate some for use with indigo only.  If you use metal needles or hooks, wash and dry them carefully before transferring to another project.  Keep your indigo dyed yarn away from other textiles you don’t want blue streaks or shadows on.  And wash your hands!

If you don’t want to have to take all the precautions, you might give more than a passing thought to using yarns dyed with synthetic blues that are color fast.  If you’re determined to use indigo…well, forewarned is forearmed.  Read the labels and follow the care instruction precisely.

Among natural dyes, indigo makes the most beautiful blues known to our color loving species and that’s the best reason we make the trade off.  If you treat it carefully, indigo dyed yarn will delight your soul.  Just know what you’re getting into and be prepared to work with what you have to get what you want.

Written by mim


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