I’ve had a bit of a thing for indigo shibori and ombre dye effects for a little while now so I was delighted when Flora Arbuthnott invited me to join one of her organic Shibori Indigo dye workshops.
Flora is the daughter of fabric designer Vanessa Arbuthnott and the workshops are run from the studio at the family’s beautiful country home near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. It was a chilly November Sunday morning as I drove up the gravel drive and headed inside to meet my course mates for the day. There was a small, friendly and highly creative group of three other women as well as Flora’s mum, Vanessa, who was taking part as she was interested to learn more about shibori indigo techniques. Flora clearly really knows her stuff.
With cups of tea and biscuits to warm us up, we sat around a large workshop table topped with tins of beads and buttons, masses of different wooden shapes, metal clamps, lengths of string and clothes pegs as Flora told us a bit about the technique we’d be learning which originated centuries ago in Japan. Flora uses Michel Garcia’s 1-2-3 indigo method which he developed from time spent travelling the world, studying ancient dye techniques and adapting to modern times.
What you need
A tall cylindrical container with a flat bottom made of plastic or stainless steel
1 part indigo (indigo fera tinctora). Flora recommends Wild Colours
2 parts lime (calcium hydroxide/hydrated lime/slaked lime). Try ebay or builder’s merchant for this.
3 parts reducing agent (fructose). Flora recommends Buy Whole Foods Online
25g indigo – weak vat
50g indigo – medium vat
100g indigo – strong vat
We watched as Flora set up a new vat of indigo and saw the indigo ‘flower’ created on the surface. According to Flora you can keep a vat going for ages – you just need to keep an eye on its balance and add more fructose or lime accordingly. Experienced dyers, she told us, can tell the health of their vat immediately from the smell. Then Flora talked us through the simple process:
1 pre soak the fibres in water
2 Dip in indigo vat
3 rinse in water to wash off indigo particles (you can reuse)
4 oxygenate in water or air
When the cloth as gone completely blue, repeat the process. You need to do 3 dips to achieve a colour that stays.
Achieving Shibori patterns and shapes
So that was the process side of things covered. Now we needed to understand a little about how to achieve the patterns and shapes characteristic of shibori dyeing. Flora showed us how to concertina the fabric and then fold and clamp using wooden or plastic shapes to provide resistance to the dye as it makes its way through the layers of fabric. Margarine tubs are great for cutting out shapes to create patterns. The darkest folds would be the outer layers, Flora explained. While the faintest would be those in the middle, as the dye has further to penetrate. To achieve a line effect, Flora showed us how to use running stitch and pleating.
To create circles, you can tie bands or string around beads or buttons. Stitching in clumps can also create interesting patterns, as can simply tying sections with string. My head was slightly spinning with it all, trying to translate the sort of patterns I’ve seen and love into the techniques we’d been shown. I decided it would be better just to get stuck in and have a go without worrying too much about the end result.
Flora gave us all several pieces of fine organic cotton to practice on and I went for two totally different approaches with each of mine. The first one I concertina and then triangle folded before clamping on leaf shapes top and bottom. I popped that one in to pre soak in water before starting the second one. I went for much smaller, square folds on my second with a few stitches added in on some corners. I put that one in to soak as I took the first one out and gently lowered it into the indigo vat. Flora explained that it’s important to minimise the air bubbles created at the top of the vat as this can affect the oxygenation process. The weight of my clamp helped keep the fabric bundle underneath the surface of the dye and I attached it with a piece of string to a peg on the outside of the vat. It wasn’t long before the vat was full of our weird and wonderful clamped and stitched bundles.
A minute or so later, it was time to gently remove from the vat, minimising the amount of drips we allowed to flow back into the vat (again to minimise air bubbles in the vat) and then sluice around in a series of pans of increasingly clean water. (Flora would refresh these pans in rotation, pouring away the water and collecting the residual indigo to reuse.)
At this stage our fabric looked green not blue. After removing all the obvious dye, we allowed the air to get to our still-clamped and tied bundles and watch as they magically turned indigo blue. At this stage the bundles were returned back into the vat and the process repeated a couple more times.
After three dips, the bundles were ready to be rinsed and then carefully un-tied, un-clamped and any stitches picked ahead of the moment of truth as the fabric was opened up and the pattern revealed. We all gathered round each time someone was ready to unwrap and were really quite excited to see the beautiful – and massively varied – patterns that started emerging.
We broke for lunch (you bring your own) and more cups of tea.
I decided to press on and get started with the two plain white linen tea towels and table runner I’d brought with me. Flora also provides organic cotton scarves which you can buy for a very reasonable £5. I didn’t have time to do this as well, but would definitely do this next time as the others on the course did make one each and they really did look beautiful.
I liked the effect I achieved by clamping with simple shapes top and bottom on my trial pieces, so decided to do this again in different ways on my three linen pieces. I concertina folded all three first, then triangle folded and applied the shapes and several clamps.
Mine was the only one to break free of the peg and land at the bottom of the vat, but Flora is a calm, patient sort of person who really didn’t seem to mind fishing it out for me… twice!
Soon the washing line above our heads in the workshop was filling with beautiful indigo patterns. What was particularly enjoyable was how time slows down and conversation is easy with people you have never met before as you share a simple, creative goal.
Vanessa showed us some of the amazing shibori pieces of fabric she’d picked up on a recent trip to China which had inspired her new fabric designs. I already knew and loved her new collection so it was fascinating to get a glimpse at the creative process behind it.
I was totally thrilled with how my pieces turned out and have already decorated my table with the runner and hung the tea towels up in my kitchen. Not that I’ll allow anyone to actually use them to dry up! Not yet anyway. All in all a hugely enjoyable and creative day that I would wholeheartedly recommend.