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Behind the Scenes with Indiana Indigo Dyers

A passion for Japan indigo colors an Indiana couple’s lives—from seed to cloth to loom, they're tangled up in blue. Five DIY shibori projects bring the look home.

Rowland Ricketts bounds into his studio dressed in blue, his red sneakers the only dissenting hue. He lifts a screen from atop a concrete vat and uncovers an inky pool with a pungent, earthy smell. One sweep of his hand across the surface turns his fingers to sapphire.

“It’s all good,” he says, thrilled that this carefully nurtured mixture of fermenting indigo leaves is ready to transform whatever cloth he submerges.

For Rowland and his wife, Chinami, indigo dyeing is their passion. At Rowland’s studio at Indiana University, where he teaches textile art, and on their nearby farm, they not only create striking fabric designs but also grow, harvest and process indigo plants to make organically sourced dye.  

Rowland checks indigo leaves composting in a specially designed shed; Rowland Ricketts checks sacks of newly composted indigo (sukumo).

Rowland checks indigo leaves composting in a specially designed shed (left); Rowland checks sacks of newly composted indigo (sukumo).

The couple’s mastery of the age-old techniques of cultivation and dyeing began nearly two decades ago in Japan. Rowland and Chinami were each in search of something deeper when they met as apprentices to an indigo dyer in the city of Tokushima, where indigo dyeing dates to the 10th century. Chinami had left her office work to find a job she’d “never want to retire from.” Rowland was teaching English and wanted to learn a Japanese art before moving back to the States.

“In the early 1900s, every Japanese community had at least one indigo dyer, and there were thousands of people involved in growing and processing the dye. Today, only six or seven families continue to process indigo commercially,” Rowland says. “I was drawn to the history and working with my hands.”

Now 18 years (and three boys) later, they’re happily tangled up in blue. Chinami weaves dyed yarns into fabrics; Rowland oversees the composting, fermenting and dyeing. 

Chinami weaves using industrial technology with the feel of a hand loom; Yarn for weaving.

Chinami weaves using industrial technology with the feel of a hand loom (left); yarn for weaving. 

Calling on years of muscle memory, he jiggles a hanger of serpentine cloth as he lowers it into the vat to prevent dye lines. When he pulls the cloth up three minutes later, the greenish fabric becomes blue as the dye oxidizes.  

“Dyeing dark shades requires several immersions and is quite meditative,” Rowland says. “I’ll spend hours just putting things in and out. It has a nice rhythm to it.” Most of his fabrics end up in museum art installations, but the couple also sells scarves, runners and towels online.

“Indigo is really trendy right now, but its roots are deep,” Rowland says. “Hopefully our work both growing and dyeing with indigo carries this historical knowledge forward and allows us to share its beauty with others.”

Rowland dips a table runner. Indigo plants flower, but only the leaves become dye.

Rowland dips a table runner. 

Shibori

Hot on the DIY scene, shibori (she-BOR-ee) is the Japanese term for binding and then dyeing cloth indigo. This tie-dye technique makes it easy to create random beauty in towels, napkins, T-shirts and whatever else you think would look good in blue.

Folding

Using white natural fabrics (we used linen napkins from a home store, but cotton works, too), create different designs by folding, twisting, wrapping and binding with a variety of items like twine, rubber bands, clips and clothespins.

1. Triangle Compression Accordion fold the cloth lengthwise, as if you were making a paper fan, then fold the resulting strip like you would a flag so you finish with a triangle. Place the triangle between two square pieces of wood. Sandwich between wooden craft sticks. Secure with rubber bands.

2. Wrapping Working on the diagonal, wrap the fabric around a wooden dowel or PVC pipe. Tie string at one end of the pole, and wrap it up the length of fabric. Tie to secure. (The twine creates a wave effect.)

3. Square Compression Accordion fold as in No. 1, except instead of a triangle, fold the strip into a rectangle and then a square. Place the cloth square between two square pieces of wood. Wrap with twine.

4. Circle Compression  Follow the square compression method of No. 3, and place the cloth between two wood circles sandwiched between wood craft sticks and dowels. Secure with rubber bands.

5. Clipping Make four big accordion folds (so you quarter the fabric) then fold the strip in half. Clip folded edge with as many clothespins as you like (we used eight).

Popular indigo patterns

Popular indigo patterns

The Process

What you’ll need

Indigo dye kit (we used Jacquard brand)

Cotton or linen items to dye

5-gallon plastic  bucket with a lid

Rubber gloves

Plastic tarp

In a well-ventilated spot, cover the work surface and floor with a plastic tarp. Mix the indigo dye according to the package directions. Indigo dye changes color after exposure to oxygen, so keep the container covered as much as possible.

Gently submerge your bound fabric in the dye. Hold your fabric under the dye surface for 1–2 minutes. Encourage the dye into the folds by gently separating the layers (do not unbind). As you slowly lift fabric out of the dye, squeeze out excess liquid.

When you remove the item from the dye, it will be greenish; the dye reacts with oxygen to turn fabric blue in about 20 minutes. To encourage oxidization between the folds, separate the layers (do not unbind). If you want a darker tone, submerge it again.

When you have the desired tone, rinse fabric in water; unbind, rinse again. Then wash with mild detergent. Hang to dry.

Dipping folded linen into the dye; Linen post-indigo.

Dipping folded linen into the dye (left); linen post-indigo.

Buying guide

Rowland and Chinami Rickett items and show information rickettsindigo.comLinen napkins World Market (worldmarket.com).  Indigo Tie-Dye Kit Jacquard, available on Amazon (amazon.com).

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