Indigo Dyeing: Part I

Indigo Dyeing: Part I

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 I: Preparing A Fermented Indigo Vat

Fashionkind is an incredible community. The people we work with are far more than designers and artisans – they are our friends and partners in creating a better world. When Michael Nelson, the designer of our exclusive Fashionkind Sunglasses, found out that Aboubakar would be in Brooklyn to lead a three day indigo dyeing workshop, he reached out to me, knowing it was right up my alley.  We signed up to take the class together, and before you knew it, it was June 27th: the first day of the workshop.

I traveled from Philadelphia to Cara Marie Piazza's beautiful studio in Brooklyn each day of the workshop, as I had to be home at night to take care of my pup, Vela (it's like having a child!).  The first day, I walked into class, and Aboubakar offered his hand and said "I'm Aboubakar" and I responded, "I'm Nina!" while shaking his hand.  His six-foot-something stature towered over my five-foot-three (three and a half on a good day!) frame.  He commanded attention from the get-go, in the most gentle, unassuming way. 

The first day of the workshop was focused on learning about natural indigo and preparing our fermented indigo vat: the vessel that is used to mix and hold the indigo dye mixture.  Did you know there are over 800 species of Indigofera (plants that contain indigo) in the world, nearly 600 of which can be found on the African continent? However, the dye is only found in the young leaves of the plants, explaining why it is so precious (and pricey).  Only once these green leaves are crushed does the distinctive blue color come alive - like magic.  

In order to produce indigo dye, the indigo in the leaves needs to be made hydro-soluble. This process can be done in a few ways, which differ from each other based on area, such as India, Japan and West Africa.  Traditional to his Malian roots, Aboubakar uses an ancient method indigenous to West Africa, which utilizes whole green leaves to create what is called a "fermented vat." The young leaves are harvested, crushed into a paste (often by foot, much like wine!), formed into balls and left to dry.  Once the balls have dried, after roughly ten days, they are crushed into a powder and ready to be used in the vat.  

As Aboubakar put it, the entire process of creating a fermented indigo vat is "quite time consuming and also very physical," and we couldn't possibly perform the same steps in our little studio in Brooklyn.  Instead, we started with indigo pigment (in the form of powder).

Here is where the fun begins.  

Aboubakar walked us through each step of the process, explaining its importance and the mindfulness that it commands. We precisely measured the indigo pigment, hydrated it with a dash of water, and mixed it in a mortar and pestle to make it as fine as possible. We each got a chance to mix, which you would think would be an easy task, but Aboubakar promptly corrected us.  As he moved the pestle swiftly yet gently around the mortar, we began to hear the noise of the stone rubbing together, and Aboubakar smiled.

"You have to hear the music," he explained. 

Once the indigo paste was complete, we added it to the vat, which we had filled with boiling water.  Stirring thoroughly after every new addition, we added fruit sugar, which acts as a reduction agent - making the indigo hydro-soluble - and builders lime, which acts as an alkaline agent. In Mali, Aboubakar feeds his dried leaf vats with ground porridge, banana, and, when possible, honey, which he notes is "a luxury!" 

With everything in the vat, we stirred the contents, and the most magical thing happened: a foam quickly began to form on the top of the liquid.  I can only describe it as something that looked like it was from outer space, almost like a soft lava rock that took on a purple iridescence when you looked at it from certain angles.  Aboubakar quickly added that the quality of the foam is how you can tell if the ratio of the vat ingredients was correct - the thicker and more voluminous the better.  If the foam is thin and pale, the vat is "not very happy." Luckily, ours seemed pretty happy! 

How amazing is it that this foam appeared before our eyes?! I couldn't believe it.  After the foam had formed, the vat had to be left alone for at least an hour so the lime could settle to the bottom.  It was the end of the day, so we wrapped the vat in a blanket to keep it insulated and warm overnight. Aboubakar explained the importance of tending to our vat with love and care: "it is your baby."  

Traditionally, the lifecycle of a single vat is roughly nine months, mimicking the human gestation period, but Aboubakar's oldest vats are 14 months old.  Appropriately, he fondly calls them his "old ladies," reflecting on how "fantastic and wise" they are.  As a vat gets older, the bacteria inside of it gets weaker, meaning the shade of indigo that the vat can impart on fabric gets lighter and lighter; for the lightest indigo pieces, Aboubakar uses his old ladies.  It is their last service to him before they are broken down and their contents are given back to Mother Earth.   

Aboubakar ended our first day by burning fresh frankincense.  The aroma quickly filled the small studio and our nostrils as we took a deep breath to process the day and the creation we had brought into being.  I went home inspired and ready for the days to come. Then, I was off to bed to dream of indigo, Mali, and how lucky I was to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

Until the next day.