Hands in an Indigo Vat

What we’ve got here…is a giant indigo vat. Isn’t it beautiful? I’d love to tell you that I’ve started dyeing my own denim, and that the above indigo vat is mine, but I have to confess that it isn’t. This pot of bubbly indigo goodness belongs to Drew from DIY Vat.

Earlier this year Drew got in touch about doing a collaboration project. He offered to send me some natural colored selvedge denim that he would overdye in his indigo vat, and I would get to make something for myself with the overdyed denim. Pretty awesome deal right? How many opportunities do you have to get to work with custom hand dyed fabric?

I’ve developed a love for indigo dyed garments and fabrics since I started working with denim, which goes back to the beginning of the blog. Although I’ve never worked with indigo dye, I’m fascinated with the fabric dyeing process in general. So obviously I said yes to Drew’s generous offer and I am really excited about the collaboration. He is still dyeing the denim, but offered to do a little interview explaining the process, indigo, and dye vats.

indigo dyed oxford cloth shirt

Taylor: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your blog?

Drew: I’m a father of two and I live with my wife in Topanga Canyon, CA. I teach at a local university and I work as an interpreter in the Los Angeles area. DIY Vat is not focused on one thing exclusively. A little bit style blog, little bit daddy blog, little bit maker blog. I also occasionally get on my soapbox about the virtues of knowing who makes your clothes and how those workers are treated — but I try not to be too self righteous about it.

Taylor: What inspired you to start dyeing with indigo?

Drew: I had read quite a lot about the process around the time my obsession with jeans began. When my wife and I were getting married we did a lot of things ourselves including the invitations. We started a little vat in our back yard and dyed a bunch of watercolor paper — watching the oxidization process fascinated us. I started playing around with the paper, trying a bunch of different techniques and marveling at the results. We’ve had a vat going since then.

Taylor: What exactly is a dye vat?

Drew: In essence, it’s a vat of deoxygenated water with the PH altered a little. Under these conditions, the pigment undergoes some molecular changes that makes it cling to organic material. There is also quite a lot of history, folklore, and cultural significance behind indigo dyeing. I make absolutely no claim to be an expert on the topic — much of what I know I’ve learned from the book Indigo: From Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans by Jenny Balfour-Paul.

synthetic indigo crystals

Taylor: Are there different types of indigo?

Drew: Yes! You can find the pigment in a handful of plants that grow all around the world — the shade of blue you can achieve from this natural indigo depends on the species. Most things we see that are indigo dyed are made with synthetic indigo. Synthesized in a lab, it is chemically purer than what you can get strictly from harvesting from nature. It’s like the Walter White extra pure blue meth, but for making jeans. Natural indigo, as you might expect, has the higher status of the two.

Taylor: Could you briefly describe the dyeing process?

Drew: If you’re using natural dye, the process can take months. Growing and harvesting the plants and composting their leaves is one thing, but the vat has to ferment for a while before the indigo will take to anything. I’ve only ever used synthetic indigo so the natural process eludes me, but I imagine there are some parallels with home brewing. Synthetic indigo comes in a crystalized form which dissolves more readily. All you need is a large enough container full of warm water and a kit you can get at many art supply stores. Janome makes a box kit that can have you up and running in just a few hours.

Once it’s ready, the basic technique is to get your fabric wet, wring out any excess water, and put it in the vat. The next steps require a little more finesse — after you remove the fabric, you have to hang it open and make sure there are no folds or creases. Anywhere that doesn’t touch air won’t oxidize well and, thus, wont turn as blue as it can.


Taylor: What are your future goals and plans for your blog and dyeing projects?

Drew: My goals for the blog are not grand. I committed to a three day a week posting schedule a few months ago and have done well. The challenge now is to make sure the quality doesn’t drop. I also want to network with other bloggers with similar interests. I’d like to collaborate with others on projects like the one you and I are working on. I’m also kicking around the idea of a clothing swap project.

As for dyeing, we’re going strong with indigo. For my wife’s birthday we’re inviting some friends and their children over for a dye party. I am, however, itching to experiment with other natural dyes — weld specifically, so I can make Lincoln Green (interesting read here).

shades of indigo

All images provided by Drew.