Bree’s Blue: To Dye With Indigo

June 22, 2015 in Creating The 18th Century, Living history, Looking Good, Outlander Inspired Knitting Patterns, Uncategorized by M C

2013Depart4My husband is a lot of things, including a motorcyclist and a very funny writer with a travel blog for himself and his traveling companion, Barley (  What he is not is a farmer.  His enthusiasm for the sheep extends only as far as grilling the lamb.  But nothing, including cleaning out the sheep sheds’ very fragrant winter waste every spring, nothing makes him twitchier than the weeks I spend dying wool for the autumn sheep and wool festivals, those annual fairs which make the difference between, if not profit, then at least the farm breaking even.

I have a couple of choices when it comes to coloring a dye pot: modern, synthetic, acid based dyes, and plant based or natural dyes.  You’d think the natural plant based dyes would be safer, and environmentally friendly, but plant based dyes often require surprisingly toxic metals to bring out the color.  “Acid dyes” means the dye pot has been acidified by adding… vinegar.  When a dye pot of acid dyes is exhausted all of the color has attached to the wool and what is left is water, and some vinegar.   My husband has a strong preference for acid based dyes, which come in little jars, in a wide variety of colors, and are efficient to use.  Which is to say if I spend the day dying with acid dyes the kitchen is tidy by the time he gets home from work.

Unfortunately plant based dyes regularly produce prettier colors for me than a modern dyes.  Jewelweed peach, for example, can’t be reproduced with a modern dye, no matter what the manufacturers tell you.  An acid dye won’t produce the knock-your-eyes out yellow of goldenrod, nor the warm autumnal orange of a turmeric dye.

jewelweed2But natural dyes are time consuming to produce and dependent on the plant being in season. Before you even begin the plant based dying process you must (usually) mordant the wool, soaking it in a alum and cream of tartar solution to open up the fibers and make them receptive to bonding with the plant dye.  Plant materials must be gathered, prepared for the dye pot, and simmered, often for hours at a time… frightening the spouse when he lifts the lid on the pot to ask “what’s for dinner?” and discovers not a nice lamb stew but a hot, unappetizing, mass of goldenrod.

I could have ignored indigo for the rest of my life, but for Outlander, Drums of Autumn, and Bree’s blue dress.  But Bree made a blue wool dress while she lived on the Ridge, and I, of course, now have to try dying with indigo.

Indigo in the gardenNever one to do anything by halves, I ordered  Polygonum tinctorium, Japanese Indigo or buckwheat seed, from one of the several vendors found on  “Indigo” is not a plant, it is the property of a number of different plants which naturally grow in tropical or sub-tropical climates, but the  Polygonum tinctorium will grow in northern New England.. and is edible as well as capable of producing a colorfast blue.  So into the garden it went.

In Outlander indigo is hidden history.  An tiny detail in a great tapestry.  If you know the history and context of the detail, it brings a depth to the story you’d otherwise miss.

For example, Bree could have chosen to dye her dress yellow, peach, or pink.  Instead she chose indigo blue.  Indigo, at the time, would have been widely discussed among farmers, particularly farmers in Jocasta’s region, and likely Bree obtained her indigo not from a British importer, but from local sources.  Eliza Lucas Pinckney brought the cultivation of indigo (by black slave labor) to South Carolina in the 18th century and shared her knowledge of cultivation and processing, greatly contributing to that state’s prosperity in the mid-1700s.  The cultivation of indigo spread across the south, and by the time of the American Revolution indigo blue was so popular it was the chosen color for American uniforms, and so valuable cubes of indigo replaced money when the paper currency of the colonies devalued into worthless.

The slaves stolen by Steven Bonnet might have been destined for cane plantations, but they might just as easily been sold to indigo planters instead.  It is this connection to slavery which made some Quakers of the period, noted for their conservative and somber clothing, give up cloth dyed with indigo, as part of their protest against the practice of slavery.  Rachel hasn’t (yet) made an issue of her preference for brown, but in a decade or so her choice to wear brown may well be construed as a political statement.

Historic cakes of Indigo To create a salable, shippable, product the plant leaves were (are, even today) fermented to release the ingotin.  This precipitate from the fermenting process is dried, and pressed into stable and shippable cakes.  To use the cakes they can be powdered (for blending with other materials to vary the color), reconstituted in alcohol (like Jamie’s printer’s ink), or they can be put into muslin bags for reconstituting in the dye bath.  At which point.. it’s useful to understand the chemistry that makes indigo so stable, and so wildly popular in the 18th century.

One hand gloved.. one not!Ingotin is insoluble in water.  Which is why you get a precipitate from the plant material which can be pressed into convenient cakes. However, when combined with an alkaline ingotin loses an oxygen molecule, and becomes soluble, losing its trademark blue color and becoming indigo white, a dye bath which, depending on the alkali you use is either whitish, clear, or a pale green.  When you dip a fabric, fiber, or finger, into the dye pot and expose it to air the molecule re-oxidizes, turns blue again, and the ingotin, once again recovering its oxygen molecule, becomes insoluble and fixes to the fabric (fiber, or fingers).

In the 18th century the alkali was stale urine, which gave indigo the nickname “chamber-dye.”  It’s hard to see how getting elbow deep in stale urine is an improvement over other plant based dyes and colors, but it is.

For one thing, indigo produces a beautiful blue.  The color of indigo blue depends on the plant source (there’s a chart here) but regardless of the source, the color was consistent, fast (didn’t wash out), and could be controlled simply by re-dipping the materials until you achieved the color you wanted.  Indigo is also a surprisingly thrifty dye.  This little box will dye 15 Tshirts, 15 pounds of fabric, or 5 pounds of wool.  In fact, it dyed at least 10 pounds of wool and I still haven’t killed the dye.  The repeated dipping of wool brought oxygen into the mix and the indigo gradually became insoluble in the dye pot… it’s still there, it just isn’t accessible to the fiber until I re-alkaline the pot.  The huge amount of material you can dye with a tiny amount of indigo explains why deep, dark, blues were so popular in coverlid patterns.  With patience you could achieve a very dark blue on a single cake of indigo.   Indigo doesn’t require slaving over a pot of boiling water, and, as long as the pot is covered and not exposed to air, the dye will last for many days.

In short, indigo is marvelous stuff, absolutely worth running around collecting piss pots for.

Nevertheless, we must consider the husband’s sensibilities.  Indigo-in-a-box has all the properties of dying with natural indigo, without having to wander into excessive authenticity.  Which isn’t to say I’m not going to wander into authenticity when the indigo in my garden matures, I’m just not going to expect you to follow along with me as I try it.  You may, however, take a moment to extend some sympathy to my spouse if you like.

indigo, insoluble in water.After alkali is added: indigo white (which really looks green)Meanwhile, there’s indigo-in-a-box.. and a video, so you can see the color change.  My investment in this project was about $11 for the dye kit, and another.. $4 I think, for the 5 gallon mud bucket that didn’t leak.  Call it.. $6, since i had a lid and didn’t have to buy one.  I ended up with pounds of wool in a wide variety of blues, which compares more than favorably with a conventional synthetic dye, in both cost and time investment.  Furthermore, I’ll be able to sell the wool as “naturally dyed indigo blue,” which is appealing in the current marketplace.

So.. now that you’ve seen indigo in action… What color is Bree’s Blue Dress? >>

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