Indigo blue color is derived from an organic botanical plant that grows on the coast of Oaxaca in the village of Santiago Niltepec near Tehuantepec on the Isthmus. Do you hear the añil in the name? It takes 200 kilograms of plant material to end up with 1 kilogram of the hardened rock of blue that has dried from the fermented paste. It’s what Levi Strauss used to make the original blue jeans during the California Gold Rush and even today, a bit of natural organic product is used to “stimulate” the chemical color of blue that was developed in 1904 during the Industrial Revolution.
Eric Chavez Santiago, the Museo Textil de Oaxaca‘s director of education, keeps a stock pot of indigo going in his dye kitchen almost constantly. Eric says it can be refreshed with fructose crystalline. He recently took a workshop from French dye master Michel Garcia who uses mango skins to activate the dye chemistry.
During a three-hour indigo dye workshop at the museum that I took from Eric, I learned that indigo has been in use for thousands of years in Egypt, Africa and India. It was used by the Mayans, Incas and Zapotecs of Oaxaca! It is grown in South Carolina, U.S.A. and most of the world’s production comes from San Salvador. A small production, boutique crop, only 100 kg of añil is produced each year in Oaxaca state, but the market is growing as more local people are using natural dyes in their woven textiles. They only produce the indigo in Niltepec. They don’t dye fabric with it there.
It is tricky dyeing with indigo. Añil oxydizes in water and becomes yellow green. It is very important to gently immerse what you want to dye into the dye bath so the indigo is not disturbed by movement. No stirring allowed! When the cotton or silk or wool is removed from the dye bath, the fabric color is yellow green and changes to blue as soon as it meets the air. Multiple dippings are required to get a deep, intense blue and the indigo must not be “tired,” according to Eric.
During today’s workshop, we create shibori and tritik designs on the white cotton cloth we bring to dye. We have not actually created the dye bath — it is already prepared for us! Eric Chavez Santiago offers this indigo dye workshop once or twice each month at the textile museum. Check the museum’s calendar for exact dates. The cost is 50 pesos and you bring your own fabric to dye. Very fun.
See my next post for more about Oaxacan indigo.