Fresh-Leaf Indigo, It’s Magic!

As a child, do you remember ever rubbing flowers and leaves between your fingers, perhaps smearing them in a coloring book hoping to preserve the beauty of that moment? Unfortunately, without some assistance most colorful plants won’t give us much more than a spinach-spittle brown.

Pokeweed berries are a wonderful temptation in red for young children’s artistic expression. Unfortunately for the tykes, it is poisonous.

Indigo, however, is one of the exceptions.
Try this: Take an indigo leaf (any of the varieties will do) and rub it well into the palm of your hand. Wait a moment and just like magic it will turn from green to blue and even remain on your hand after you wash it! While it is not the green of the leaf, it is something far more rare.


The magic of indigo, even in this simple and direct method, is the expression of the blue as it breathes in fresh oxygen. Can’t you just imagine it coming to life in the palm of your hand as you watch it at first timidly, and then boldly declare its true nature?

All forms of indigo dyeing involve this concept of taking on oxygen to express the blue. The color essence contained in the leaf is called indican. It is colorless and water-soluble. In the presence of water it breaks down into β-D-glucose and indoxyl. It is this indoxyl that produces indigo blue when exposed to oxygen. Getting from here to there successfully is the joy of growing your own plants and exposing the beauty hidden within.

Let’s start with one of the most direct approaches, similar to the hands on method used above. Collect several nicely shaped indigo leaves. All varieties work, but what you have been able to grow will depend upon the climate in which you live. I live in the mountains of Northern California, so Japanese tadeai is my pet plant. It grows well in temperate climates.

The two leaves on the right were transferred using a large marble bead to give a pointillist look. The full leaf on the left was transferred using a wooden mallet – the flat surface of the mallet allowed for greater detail and definition. The partial leaf, on the far left, has additional lines of aibana pigment applied for definition. This will be explored in a later blog.

Prepare some silk, wool, cotton, or hemp (that is to say, any natural fiber) by washing thoroughly. Once dry, make an attractive arrangement with your leaves. Lay a plastic bag over the top and have at it with something hard. A mallet will work, but so will a large bead, rock, or that Tonka Toy you tripped over in the dark last night. Each has its own unique texture and will affect the outcome of the image transferred. Feeling better? Remove the plastic and peel the lacerated pulp from the surface of the cloth. Can you see what is happening? This is simply a more controlled version of the hand trick above. Allow the fabric to oxidize for a full day before washing to allow the blue to fully develop. Each leaf contains a different volume of indigo allowing for a wide range of variance. If the transfer is splotchy or ill defined wait until you are having a worse day and try again.

Arranging fresh tadeai leaves

Using an embossing machine to transfer a large arrangement of leaves. In this case the leaves are sandwiched between two layers of yardage–one hemp and one wool.

Pressed leaves on silk jacquard

Fresh-Leaf Cold Vat Scarf by John Marshall


The image at the left was dyed with the help of my sister and brother-in-law.  I put them to work picking and chopping leaves, dunking and wringing. The silk was immersed in a cold-water, fresh-leaf vat for about an hour. Once dry, I pounded in the image of the leaf with freshly picked indigo from my garden and a handy rock.

(click on the image to the left or just below for more information)


Left: John at work: Scruffy and unkempt, I’m in my element! (Notice the green of the scarf I have just pulled from the cold-water vat.) Right: Sienna is keeping an eye on us to make sure that there are no slackers. (You can see in this shot that the dye has oxidized into a beautiful robins-egg blue.)

While not as therapeutic, the wringer from an old washer or an embossing machine will give equally splendid results.

I live in an old flour mill. During renovations many boards were exposed that were worn smooth by particles of flour over time. Several of these have quite beautifully raised grains as seen in the rubbing below created with the help of the board above.

And this is just the beginning! Try placing your handkerchief over the bark of a black walnut tree or your mother-in-law’s tombstone, roll the leaves into a wad and rub vigorously. Just like transferring the image of a coin to paper with a pencil, the image beneath will be transferred to the surface your cloth. You are only limited by your imagination and the forbearance of your family.

My studio as viewed from the back. The tadeai indigo patch is in the foreground.