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Preparing Indigo Pigment from Fresh Leaves and Fermentation

There are many, many ways to go about preparing pigments from indigo. They all share one thing in common in that the colorant (indican) must first be removed from the plant.

In this article I’ve chosen to use a simple fermentation process. This is not the highly developed method of composting indigo under controlled conditions that is the bedrock of most of the indigo dyeing you seen done traditionally in Japan, but a simple backyard approach to working with fresh plants.

Fresh Polygonum leaves harvested first thing in the morning.



The leaves are harvested with stems, weighed (I’m using 10kg of leaves), and placed in a copper cauldron outside in a sunny location.




Adding warm water to the copper cauldron – just enough to cover the plants.

Cover the plants with  just enough water to cover all the leaves. The pot will be covered and the pot allowed to warm in the sun to encourage fermenting. It will speed things up a bit if you pull warm water from your utility sink as I am doing here.

Plants covered with perforated copper tray.

Stone tortoise added to top of tray to keep leaves below surface.

As the leaves begin to ferment they will float up and rise above the water level. Adding weights will help to keep all vegetation below the surface level.

I’m working in the middle of a California summer, highs are averaging around 100ºF. After the first day, the surface of my liquid has begun to turn a bit blue and little bits of indigo color can be seen floating here and there. The leaves are looking a bit tired – like yesterday’s salad – but there is still quite a bit of green in them. The temperature of the pot at 2:00 in the afternoon is around 80ºF and hovers at about this temperature for the rest of my project.

Day two shows more of a peacock blue on the surface and less green in the leaves, so I decide to let the whole thing go one more day to see what develops. I’ve added a sprig of fresh leaves to the detail shots  to help you compare the difference in color.


Day three looks more along the lines of what I remember Popeye’s canned spinach to look like, and the liquid now has a decided slick of navy blue floating across the surface. It doesn’t look as the the leaves could get any less green.



The next step is to strain out all the vegetable matter, which I will contribute to the compost pile. I’ll be adding calx (calcium hydroxide, or pickling lime) to help the indigo particles precipitate out (flocculate) as the indican combines with oxygen to form indigo. I’ll be moving the liquid to a stainless steel pot. For the 94 liters of liquid I have remaining I’ll add 940g of calx. Generally it follows a 15g/1.5 liter ratio.

New sump pump right out of the box.

Sump pump with ABS pipe contraption I added.






Now comes the really fun part – aerating the mixture! You may stir the whole thing until your arms are ready to drop off or find another way. A clean cement mixer would be really cool if you are looking for an excuse to buy one, or in my case I had plenty of fun with a sump pump. No matter how you decide to proceed, you must keep mixing the liquid until it froths heavily and the mixture turns a deep blue.

Remove the pump, skim the bubbles from the top (which I also save to use as pigment later), and allow the mixture to rest and the particles to settle. In most cases this will take one day. Once the liquid appears to be translucent and there is a sludge at the bottom, you may gently remove the upper layer of waste liquid. It is very alkaline. I pour mine on my compost pile. The sludge at the bottom is what I’ll be saving.

My intention is to use this as a pigment for painting – not for a reduction vat. Reduction vats are very alkaline, so the current high pH of my sludge wouldn’t be an issue. However, I’ll be saving this pigment to use in direct painting on silk and a high pH may damage my protein fiber over time.

With that in mind, I took a sampling from my larger batch and filled a pilsner. The pigment quickly settled out within a couple of hours. You can see the color of the orangey color of the liquid remaining below and the settled blue pigment at the bottom.

These pilsners are 24″ tall. pH from left to right is 10.5+, 9-, 8, 7.5 and 7.

To reduce the pH I will have to repeatedly wash the whole batch – which is what I have done. Washing means pouring off the waste liquid and adding more water. This removes any excess calx from the mixture. With each rinsing I took a new sample.  As the pH level dropped the color of the liquid became more clear, but the pigment yield went down. I probably should have stopped with the center sample with a pH of 8, but I kept going.

In the end I wound up with  a total dry weight of 192g for all my efforts. If I had stayed with the pH 10+, I would have probably had double that weight in return. Having said that, I wound up with an exceedingly fine quality of pigment – perfect for use on silks and other very fine weaves.

Applying my indigo pigment to very finely woven ramie.


What Does “Tsujigahana” Mean?

The term tsujigahana starts out vague and can grow a bit more confusing as we delve further. You’ll find that the Japanese use the term to refer to a great many different techniques, but they all have the same general aesthetic in common. So let’s just take it bit by bit.

woven silk

woven silk tsumugi

The characters for tsujigahana are 辻が花. The first character, 辻 (tsuji), means crossroads. You’ll see it used in other compounds such as 辻堂 (tsujidou, a wayside shrine), 辻店 (tsujimise, roadside stall), or the hopefully extinct custom of 辻取り (tsujitori, an archaic term meaning taking a wife by kidnapping a woman passing by on the road). が (ga) is a term used to link two words, and 花 (hana) means flower. So simply translated it means flower by the side of the road. While this is not a term that describes a specific technique, it does cover a general look. Above and below are a few samples of the design style accurately referred to as tsujigahana along with a description of the techniques employed in creating them. Scroll to the bottom of this article to see more examples.

all shibori on silk tsumugi

all shibori on rinzu silk (collection of the author)

printed or brushed paste along with painted background on silk tsumugi (collection of the author)

fully printed on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

Kinkakuji – The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

And that is about it! Any time you see a flower (or leaves, birds, etc.) drawn, painted, woven, or carved in this style it may legitimately be called tsujigahana. The style itself is said to have become popular in the Muromachi Period (c.e. 1336 to 1573) – this is the time that the famous Kinkakuji was built, Edo (old Tokyo) was established, Europeans arrived, and firearms were introduced. It was a busy time.

the late Itchiku Kuboto

During this period very high levels of weaving had been achieved, but not a lot in terms of surface design. Techniques such as shibori and direct painting had been around at least as far back as the Nara Period (roughly most of the 700’s). It was during the Muromachi period that combining the two into whimsical imagery became popular. During the mid and late 1900’s, the artist Itchiku Kubota worked to revive and expand upon the technique and it is primarily through his efforts that those of us in the West became familiar with this form of artistry.


Additional Shots

woven silk

woven silk and metallic threads (collection of the author)

printed paste over hand-drawn images with painted background on silk rinzu (collection of the author)

pasted outlines and painted background on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

tsutsugaki-pasted outlines and painted background on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

painted wax resist and shibori on silk, painted stamens

fully printed on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

fully printed on silk rinzu (collection of the author)

shibori with gold-leafed grasses and hand-embroidered flowers (collection of the author)

hand painted on silk/gold kinshi (collection of the author)

hand-painted image on silk tsumugi (collection of the author)

hand painted on kinshi with hand-embroidered details (collection of the author)

all shibori and hand-painted details (collection of the author)

kanoko- and nui-shibori on silk rinzu with hand-painted details (collection of the author)

nui-shibori and hand-painted images on silk chirimen

nui-shibori and hand-painted images on silk (collection of the author)

The Beauty of Tsujigahana

Sometimes I’m asked, “So what’s the big deal about tsujigahana? It’s just glorified tie-dye isn’t it?” Well, yes and no…

First let’s take a look at two of my favorite shibori pieces in my collection. The first is all tie-dye, no embellishing details or techniques to augment its beauty. (Larger photos of this piece and a more detailed description may be read here on my blog.)

beautiful and nuanced landscape created through repeated tying, capping, re-dyeing (collection of the author)

I selected the above example to focus on the sophisitication of image and not so much on the colors involved. Next let’s take a look at a very colorful piece. It is still done in the same manner as the kimono above – wrap, stitch, and cap areas to prevent dye from getting where you don’t want; building up areas of color while repeating the process over and over again.

furisode of compound kanoko-shibori dyeing (collection of the author)

There is another, softer approach that can be taken in shobori in which the dyes are allowed to wick into other areas, overlaying them, combining with them, and just generally allowing them to fraternize. This can create a blurry image, much like looking out at a garden through a heavily rain speckled window, or putting on your spouse’s eye glasses by accident.

a very soft mood comes from allowing the dyes to run together a bit during the dyeing process

The textile shown above is a beautifully subtle example of repeated layers of dyes in combination with shibori techniques. It is exquisite as is. Having said that, it could also be described as blurry and ill-defined.

notice what a difference it makes to add just a few crisp lines and a little shading

Add to this a few crisp, clear lines and the result is no longer “blurry and ill-defined” but subtle and understated. The difference? The crisp lines give a point of reference stating clearly that the artist is capable of well-defined imagery, and has deliberately chosen muted for the background. It gives the brain something to focus on.

a fine example of how the painted details of tsujigahana can perk up a piece out of proportion to the volume of dye added (collection of the author)

An analogy that comes to mind is a tip given to me when I was young and working in Tokyo. It was expensive to have my suit dry-cleaned on a regular basis, and having only one, it was also a matter of timing. To prolong the “fresh” look of a dark suit, I was told to simply make sure that the handkerchief in my breast pocket was always immaculately clean, well starched, and ironed. The pristine handkerchief gave the employer/client something to focus on in judging the rest of my attire, distracting them from the fact that the suit itself was looking a bit tired. The crisp lines in tsujigahana can have the same effect on the viewer – emphasizing that the blurry lines are indeed a subtle, deliberate effect, not simply washed out or ill-set dyes.

Creating the Tsujigahana “Look”

Despite the fact that many textiles employ the aesthetic discussed under What Does “Tsujigahana” Mean?, it is the mastered combination of shibori (string resist) and hand painted images that first comes to mind when we speak of tsujigahana, and this is what we will be focusing on in this article.


Here are a few sample designs representing typical images found in tsujigahana. I’ve redrawn them from  samples in my collection.



The first step is to prepare a cartoon. A light table comes in handy when transferring the image to the silk.

using blueflower and a brush to transfer the cartoon image to silk with the help of a light table

Blueflower (青花, aobana) is used as the transfer ink. It disappears on contact with water. The next step varies with the artist – the permanent lines may be inked in at this point, including the shading, or the images may be inked in once the shibori process has been completed which is the example I will follow below.

The next several images have been borrowed from this site to allow me to add captions in English.

aobana design stenciled onto cotton used as a guide in stitching

Most shibori techniques employ very strong string as the primary resist, allowing the craftsperson to pull the gathers tight.

strong cotton or hemp thread is used to stitch around the outlines of the design and pulled tight




Once the outlines are tied off, the areas that won’t be dyed for the time being must be protected.

top: old-style bamboo sheath cap bottom: the sheaths that cover bamboo shoots as they emerge in spring have many uses in Japan

These areas are capped off. Traditionally the sheaths from bamboo shoots were used, but today various types of plastic are preferred.

top: contemporary artists prefer to use a form of plastic wrap as caps bottom: contemporary plastic caps

Section by section, color by color each segment of the design is addressed.

left: all areas except that which is to be dyed green are capped off center: once the green is set, the fabric is untied and then retied to expose only the areas to be dyed purple right: the stitched threads are removed and the results inspected

To ink in the lines a number of synthetic dyes may be used, or simply soot or indigo pigment mixed with soymilk. A fude-style brush is used for the outlines to give sharp detailed lines, and a surikomi brush is used to do the shading around the edges to soften the look and add some whimsy.

left: inking in the details with a fude-style brush right: finished textile

Black is not the only color used to paint in designs. The colors and designs are limited only by the artist’s imagination.

natural dyes on silk tsumugi using a wide range of colors with a traditional look (collection of the author)

nui-shibori edges between the green and orange, coupled with more realistic looking leaves gives a more contemporary impression (collection of the author)