Even More Indigo: River Run Blue

September 21, 2013 in Creating The 18th Century, Outlander Inspired Knitting Patterns, Uncategorized by M C

Thanks to Outlander this summer I grew Japanese indigo in my garden.  To be truthful, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the roughly one square yard of indigo plants yielding very much color, or any color at all if I’m being honest, so I ordered a neat little kit which makes a 5 gallon bucket of indigo blue dyebath.  It worked better than I’d ever have dreamed.  It does take more time than simply simmering wool for an hour then rinsing, which is the simplicity of a chemical dye. Indigo is a happy afternoon of dipping the wool to achieve the color density you’re looking for, and  Bree’s Blue is the result of dying with cake indigo.
Indigo in the garden

Meanwhile, I’ve had this little patch of indigo growing in my garden, and it’s getting late in the season.  Indigo is a crop for southern climates, not Vermont.  It won’t set seeds unless it is brought indoors (and I have terrible luck with houseplants) so as frost threatened I went ahead and spent a pleasant couple of hours stripping the leaves off the plants.  While listening to Drums of Autumn , of course.

Then, and only then, did it occur to me to check and see how indigo leaves should be preserved.  And of course, then, and only then, do I learn that the leaves produce the best color if they’re used fresh.  And they are supposed to be simmered, gently and slowly, for hours.

I don’t have hours.  I have a five gallon bucket of leaves I spent the summer tenderly caring for.. and I don’t have time to use them.  Terrific.  I threw a quarter of the leaves in a wash pan to make some additional room in the bucket and filled the pan and the bucket with warm water hoping soaking the leaves would help to preserve them, buying me some time.


If you click on the image it will give you a large view of what I found in the morning.. indigo blue floating over my leaves.  I dipped my hand in the bucket, stirred the leaves around for a moment, pulled my hand out.. and it turned a pale shade of blue. I shrieked in delight. My husband pounded into the bathroom prepared for hand to hand combat with a spider the size of a dinner plate.

We have communication issues we need to work on. His reaction to miracle in a bucket? “Don’t stain the bathtub.”

So here i am, with a bucket of indigo blue (and the bathtub already liberally spattered with blue spots)… and none of the chemicals I need to “reduce” it, or remove the oxygen from the water.  Ordering the necessary thiox will take a week.  I need something now.  I could go all traditional here and use urine, but I need four gallons of the stuff if we’re going in that direction.  Nobody can drink that much tea in a day.  A lone voice out on the web suggests Sodium Hydrosulfite, a key ingredient in Rit dye’s Color Remover, can be used as a reducing agent.  Great.  Much better than gallons of tea, and my hardware store has a display of Rit dye.

Of course they have blue dye, and yellow dye, and red dye… but no color reducer.  This is Vermont. This is rural Vermont.  The shopping options are limited.  We start pulling laundry products off the shelf, looking for ingredients on the stain remover products.  There are no ingredients listed. There are warnings (“Harmful or fatal if swallowed, do not induce vomiting..”) but nothing to tell you what you’ve actually swallowed.  Nor is there any information for these products online. By this time we have a cluster of customers with cell phones looking up brand name products and starting to glare suspiciously at toxic cleaning products with unknown ingredients.

Someone mentions they thought they saw a Rit display at a local grocery store, so off I go, where I find a Rit Whitening which contains (be still my beating heart…) Sodium Hydrosulfite!  And Sodium Carbonate Anhydrous.  I have no idea what that is.  Is it good?  Bad? Important?

Gritting my teeth I scramble together an excuse to drive to the shopping mall a half hour away (that would be the intersection with two grocery stores and a True Value and not one, not two, but three feed stores, because you can never have too many choices when it comes to bagged alfalfa pellets) and head ten miles north.  Where, miracles of miracles, I find four boxes of Rit Color Remover.  Which contains.. Sodium Hydrosulfite and Sodium Carbonate Anhydrous.  The hell with it.  If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.  I buy four boxes of the stuff and don’t look at the price.

river_run_indigo8But, three boxes of Color Remover in the bucket later.. it works.  Differently and possibly not as well as it would have if I’d been prepared and done things properly, but it worked!  Fortunately my husband wasn’t within hearing when I started this round of happy squeaking.

He was sensibly sitting in bed.. I was outside dunking wool in an indigo dye bucket lit with a headlamp.  There’s an element of insanity to my life I really don’t want to examine too closely.

But if it worked well enough at 10 pm under a headlamp, it worked extremely well after the reducing agent had a chance to sit overnight in the bucket.

Again, I dyed different fibers to see how they’d react.  The merino/angora took up color easily and turned a lovely pale blue.  The merino/mohair also took up color equally well.  The Icelandic has a “greener” tinge.  You can clearly see, in this image, the difference in the blues, with the paler blue green resulting from overdying the “antique white” of the Icelandic.  The wayward green on the far right is because I ran out of white wool and resorted to overdying a skein I’d done with jewelweed.  Desperation knows no bounds, I’m almost completely out of white wool and I need white to make poetry mittens.

About 1/3rd  of the way through the bucket, which I made no effort to conserve, lifting wool out sopping wet with barely a squeeze lest I introduce oxygen into the dyebath, I added the remaining liquid from the washpan, and the last package of reducing agent.  I got more, but not different, color, with the addition of more indigo.


In fact, it is remarkable to me that the cake indigo, and the indigo made directly from the fresh leaves, while different in depth, are compatible in color.  There’s probably a zippy technical term for this, but they are the same shades of blue, just lighter and darker versions, and the two look lovely, side by side.

So, how does dying from the leaves differer from cake indigo?  Well, for one thing, it takes longer for the oxidation to occur.  Where the cake indigo would oxidize in moments, indigo direct from the plant took ten, fifteen, up to thirty minutes, to fully oxidize and stop changing color.  And the color, not surprisingly, is much softer and lighter than the cake indigo.  That said, when I rinsed the yarn through the vinegar wash, to neutralize the alkaline of the dyebath, it took repeated rinses to wash out the excess cake indigo.  With the plant indigo there wasn’t any blue washing out.. there were a few leaves though!

It was a picture perfect day for dying, crisp, clear, brilliantly sunny, and at the end of the day i had about 14 skeins of River Run Indigo Blue to take the autumn shows.  The Farm at Morrison Corner will be at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival  in September and Rhinebeck’s NY Sheep and Wool Festival, in October helping out Elaine Clark at the Frelsi Farm Icelandic Sheep booth.  And I’m very much looking forward to meeting Outlander fans!

Oh.. and the final ironic note?  At the end of the day I learned indigo leaves can be dried… and dried leaves yield much better color than fresh ones.  Happily I still have indigo seeds for next year.

Cake indigo on the left, plant indigo on the right (merino/mohair blend)  Total wool dyed: 2 pounds.


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