Indigo Dyeing: Part II

Indigo Dyeing: Part II

When I sat down to begin recounting my experience with world-renowned indigo artist and textile designer Aboubakar Fofana, I was surprisingly at a loss for words – not because of lack of anything to say, but because of how overwhelmingly affected I had been by a mere three days. It was impossible for me to include every detail in a single post, so I’ve broken it up into three parts: one for each day. I hope the posts transport you to a place of tranquility, mindfulness and intrigue, just as the days did for me. 

Part II: 7 Shades of Indigo

I couldn't wait to wake up and drive back to Brooklyn for the second day of the workshop (and if you know me, I am NOT a morning person, so that is really saying something!).  I arrived to the familiar scent of frankincense wafting through the studio, just as it had the afternoon before.  Its aroma is said to promote calmness and tranquility.  Aboubakar informed us that the resin can only be found in Somalia and Oman, his being from the latter.

The second day of the workshop was focused on exploring the different shades of indigo that are possible to achieve when dyeing using a fermented indigo vat - something he does at each of his workshops to help participants form relationships with the vat and the art form itself.  While there are theoretically an infinite number of shades possible, Aboubakar tasked us with creating seven different shades, varying from a true baby blue to nearly black: 

Photograph from Aboubakar Fonana's Instagram.   

Before we could start dyeing, we had to prepare two different water baths: one for presoaking and one for rinsing. In order for the pieces of fabric to take the color evenly, we had to presoak them before dipping them into the vat. The fabric we were using was clean, virgin (no starch, which is very important!) strips of textile.  

Hint: 70% of the success of a dye job comes from how you scour it.  If the fabric you are using is not virgin, you can boil it in hot water and mild soap to prepare it to be dyed. 

We filled the presoak bath with boiling water and added one teaspoon of dissolved soda ash (an alkaline mixture).  We then filled the rinse bath with room temperature water and two spoonfuls of the alkaline mixture.  Then, we were ready to dye!  

Like every other step of the process, the act of dyeing is not only marked by mindfulness and patience, but it is also very spiritual. With the first piece that is dyed in each new vat, Aboubakar makes an offering to the spirit of the water, the Goddess Faro:

He thanks her for blessing us with a healthy, beautiful vat: 

With the second piece dyed in each new vat, an offering is made to the God of Air.  Just as the first piece was submerged in water (the rinse bath) immediately following the vat, paying homage to the Goddess of Water, the second piece is exposed to the air immediately following the vat, paying homage to the God of Air.  This process, known as oxidizing, is what enables the indigo color to emerge on the fabric:


Then, it was our turn.  We lined up to start dyeing, trying our best to mimic Aboubakar's patience and control as we submerged each piece of fabric into the vat.  To achieve the darker hues of indigo, we left the textile in the vat longer, massaging it under the vat's surface to ensure the dye saturated every part of the textile. For the lighter hues, we would slowly dip the fabric in the vat and remove it with a steady speed, then transfer it to the rinse bath, just as Aboubakar had done.  

We oxidized the pieces after each dip in the vat, watching them turn from a green hue to a true blue hue - like magic - and then we took turns submerging them in the vat again, attempting to achieve the desired shade.  I knew it would be hard to create swatches of seven distinct hues of indigo, but I didn't anticipate it would be SO hard! At one point I was nearly positive I couldn't get a darker indigo, but sure enough, I eventually did (many dips in the vat later!). Soon enough, the entire studio was decorated with indigo swatches, ranging from the lightest blue to the darkest dark.

Don't they look like Tibetan prayer flags? With each swatch I completed, I felt such a large sense of accomplishment. The entire process was so relaxing.  It almost felt like I was in a trance - one filled with tranquility and passion.  

Then, before I knew it, it was already time to go home; another day with Aboubakar had come to a close.  Before leaving, we cleaned up the studio, making sure it was ready for the next day to come - the last day of the workshop.  We even made sure we cleaned the outside of the vat, making it as beautiful as the contents inside.  As explained by Aboubakar, cleaning the outside of the vat is "a question of respect - respecting yourself." Isn't that a beautiful concept? Treating your work space and creations as if they were an extension of yourself.  Aren't they, after all?

Until the next day.