An Indigo Dyer | Japan | Living in Mexico

An Indigo Dyer

For at least a millennium, the Japanese have been dying fibers with indigo. I see lovely deep blue fabrics everywhere in Japan, indicating that at one time, indigo was Japan's most important dye. Today, virtually all cloth is colored with synthetic dyes, but a few indigo farmers and dyers receive recognition from the Japanese Government for preserving the old craft and for their skills in so doing. At least one dyer has been certified as having the proper skills to restore antique fabrics. He dyes fabrics for the Katsura Imperial Villa. We visited his dye works near Kyoto.


Indigo is made from the leaves of plants. A large quantity of leaves—a barn full—is gathered in the summer. The leaves are composted (!) which permits the blue dye to develop and concentrate. None of the blue color is evident in the finished compost, which, to my untutored eye, looks just like the stuff I used to dig into my vegetable beds.

Here, the master dyer hold a sample of dried leaves. On the ground next to him we see some of the indigo compost.


To create the dye, the indigo compost is placed in vats sunk into the dirt floor. Water is added and the mixture is allowed to ferment. During the winter, the temperature falls too low to allow fermentation. In that season, slow wood fires are burned in the space just visible between the four vats in the photo.


Indigo dye becomes activated under highly alkaline conditions. So fibers to be dyed are first soaked in a solution of wood ashes. Part of the wood ash comes from the fires used to keep the vats warm.

Here, alkaline liquid has been drawn off from the wooden vat in the background into the blue plastic tub. (You can just make out the wood ashes floating on top of the wooden vat.) The dyer has just soaked a skein of silk thread in the lye solution and is wringing the liquid out.


The alkaline skeins are allowed to dry, after which, they are ready to be dyed.


Several skeins Are looped over a wooden pole, and lowed into a vat of fermented indigo solution.


Here are the same skeins after resting in the indigo vat for a few minutes and then being removed and wrung out.


Different shades of blue are obtained by repeated immersions in the dye vats.


Paper (washi) and woven fabrics are also dyed in this manner.

The workers usually wear gloves to protect their hands from the corrosive solutions.