Tag Archives: pigment

Indigo Noren at the Morikami

On October 16, 2017, an exhibition opens at the Morikami Museum in Delrey Beach, Florida, called Out of the Blue: Japanese Indigo Textiles. I am contributing a number of pieces from my personal collection of Japanese textiles and have also contributed a noren I dyed with the show in mind to help set the mood. I thought I’d like to share what has gone into producing it.

Indigo Dyers at Work, by John Marshall

Natural indigo from my garden was used to dye this piece illustrating the primary techniques used in Japan to dye with indigo: vat dyeing yarn, vat dyeing yardage, and painting directly onto yardage. The weave is called Miyako-joufu (宮古上布), a high quality hand-spun and hand-woven ramie from Okinawa Prefecture. The character 藍 (indigo) is outlined in sashiko-style stitching.

The piece will be displayed in one of the museum doorways. Noren panels are normally joined together several inches down from the top.  However, in this case I skipped the faggotting to accommodate a taller population and to help reduce some of the stress on the fabric through traffic by leaving the panels open all the way. 

Compare the fellows working in this block print to the men with their fabric stretched the full width of the finished noren above, running behind the 藍 character.

I’ve always enjoyed creating props for teaching. My studio is filled with them. I saw approaching this project as an opportunity to educate. I sat down and just rummaged. I rummaged through my fabric stash, through drawers of block prints, and through my library. Here and there I came across images of people  at work, I narrowed it down to just a few images of dyers immersed in their trade and had my starting point.

Stencil of standing dyer.

Selecting six or eight of  these images, I scanned them, re-styled them a bit and worked to give movement to their lines and character to their faces as I carved my stencils. Actually two sets would be required. Noren have an unusual need to be seen from both sides – coming and going. With the exception of any written words, the noren must not have a  wrong side to it. So a set of images facing one way would be needed for one side and a second set facing the other way for the opposing side.

Care must be taken in pasting each side of the fabric since some distortion will always occur as the first side dries and pulls in the fiber.

Once both sides have been pasted and the paste allowed to fully dry, I suspended the yardage over my dye pot and hoisted away as I lowered the yardage into the deep navy blue medium. After each dunk the dye must be allowed to fully oxidize. The paste must be inspected for any deterioration and repaired if necessary.  The second dip yielded a slighter darker shade and so on until I reached a moderately rich blue after six dunks.

Dipping the pasted yardage into the vat for the fifth time. The pot is actually an old soy sauce container from China.

The wet yardage was transferred to a protected area of my garden to hang in the shade and a gentle breeze. Once dry, it was ready for a different approach.

Vat-dyed fabric hanging in garden until dry.

Detail of stretched image to the right. The rice paste is the yellowish area protecting the fabric beneath from the blue. The shinshi stretch selvage to selvage.

Monochromatic indigo can be quite beautiful and become nuanced with age, as can the chance variations you find in indigo dyed with shibori techniques. Appreciation for this quality can be found in many cultures. The Japanese excel at going one step further and adding a multiple range of deliberate shadings. To prepare for this next step I found it desirable to first apply a coat of soymilk – a protein polymer that helps to seal in vat-dyed indigo and act as a bonding substrate when painting directly with pigment.

Since the fabric is pasted on both sides, it doesn’t matter which side the shinshi are applied to. Clamps, harite, hold the arrangement mid-air between posts.

To make the soy easier to apply, the yardage is sewn end to end to create one long piece and then stretched mid-air using traditional equipment – harite (張手) and shinshi (伸子) – somewhat along the lines of a hammock.

With the fabric sized and stretched to a convenient work height, pigment may be easily applied to both sides using a surikomi brush.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The blue pigment may be applied right over the top of the paste. As long as the paste is doing its job the image will remain well protected. Once I was satisfied, I set the fabric aside to cure for a few weeks and then washed away the paste.

As one of the final steps I went back and did one more application of paste to some of the areas that had been protected by the resist earlier. This allowed me to add highly detailed patterning to the blank areas of the clothing using antique Japanese stencils. In addition I added some direct-painted patterning to areas such as the tenugui the man below is wearing on his head.

Can you see the other way in which the shinshi may be used in the image above? They’ve been spaced along one selvage edge giving the worker a nice handle with which to dip the yardage, and at the same time fan the folded layers open while immersed in the vat to give even exposure to the dye. The man standing has just pulled his project from the vat and the man crouching is just now inserting his.

Noren often have the name or logo of a shop boldly displayed in a prominent position. Selecting the character for “ai” (藍) to serve this purpose was an easy task and I already had a font I designed for a similar purpose years ago. You can see the edges of the character in the image above which I’ve chosen to further highlight with sashiko stitching around the edges – not part of the original plan, but it gave greater prominence to the character.

To read more about how the pigment was prepared click Preparing Indigo Pigment from Fresh Leaves and Fermentation.

To read more about how to paint with the indigo pigment click Painting with Indigo Pigment.

 

 

Painting with Indigo Pigment

This article originally appeared in Turkey Red Journal, 2006

Dreams of Incarnations (or Holy Cow)
Vat dyed indigo on cotton with painted indigo and other natural pigments.

We are all familiar with the long and rich legacy indigo brings to the human experience of color in nature. But how many of you, as dyers and as artists, are familiar with painting with indigo? All forms of natural indigo fall into the category of pigment dyes. Pigments are topical dyes, and include most mineral dyes, such as Japanese ganryo (顔料), and naturally sourced paints, such as carmine (cocheneal). By virtue of the fact that they are topical, pigments are very easy to apply in paint form to just about any surface, including textiles. Pigments do require a binder of some sort, which is very different than a mordant, to make them permanently grab hold of your fibers. Iʼll be using soymilk.

The Binder: Soymilk is made from soybeans. Soybeans contain the
highest percentage of protein of all legumes. To make soymilk, simply soak a handful of dry beans in tepid water for about three hours, or until fully swollen. Rinse and place in a blender. Fill the blender 4/5 full of cold water, push the high or liquefy button, and churn until the soybeans appear to be fully mashed.

Soymilk ready to be strained.

Froth will form on the surface of the liquid. Pour the contents through a rag and into a bowl. The liquid that flows through the cloth is your soymilk, the crumble left in the rag may be tossed in the garden as compost. The soymilk consistency should be about the same as 2% milk (slightly translucent). Add water to thin if necessary.

 

Jizome brushes (jizomebake).

The Sizing: I always recommend a layer of soymilk sizing be applied to all weaves before beginning to paint. You may do this with a sponge or a spray bottle, but if you want consistent and streak-free results, I recommend the brush traditionally used for this step, the Japanese jizomebake . Applying soymilk as a sizing will prevent wicking and allow for much richer color, while at the same time reducing crocking.

Aibana (藍花) – the bubbles formed on the surface of an indigo vat.

The Pigment: You will need oxidized indigo. The most accessible source for most of you will be the froth of bubbles that form on the surface of your indigo fermentation vat, the aibana (藍花). This is the reduced indigo that has come into contact with the air and oxidized. Simply scrape it from the surface and use it wet or dry. Another reliable and consistent source is ganryo pigment from Japan made from Japanese indigo. This is basically an indigo lake. You may also make your own indigo pigment as described under Preparing Indigo Pigment from Fresh Leaves and Fermentation.

Various Japanese brushes useful in applying the indigo.
Starting at the lower left: mensou-fude, fude, various sized surikomibake.

The Paint: Add a little soymilk to the pigment, and you are ready to paint. Any watercolor brush will do to apply the pigment, as will sponges, crumpled paper, or bare feet. I use Japanese brushes called surikomibake (摺込刷毛) and mensou-fude (面相筆) for most of my work.

 

1. Fabric stretched in an embroidery hoop and sized with soymilk. Beginnings of bird outline sketched with pale indigo.

2. Layers of indigo/soy mixture are built
up to create darker tones as the image
takes shape.

3. Completed bird on branch.

4. Detail of head.

From this point on, work with the indigo/soy mixture much as you would paint with watercolors. The sizing will give your weave a stiff, paper-like surface upon which to work. (If properly applied, the stiffness will go away once the work is completed.) Images 1-4 below may help as a rough guide, starting with the lighter shades and working up to the deeper tones as layer upon layer is applied. I tend to work with a moist or nearly dry brush, rather than a wet one.

 

The Final Steps: The one drawback to using a natural protein is that it requires curing. Curing involves oxidation of the protein, which takes it from a water-soluble protein, to a non-water-soluble protein-polymer. Once cured, the indigo will not crock and will remain washable. It does no good (nor any harm) to steam the dried soymilk. The safest and easiest method is to simply let the fabric sit exposed to warm dry air. I recommend a minimum of four weeks curing for quality work, but some artists will pare this down to just a few days and still have very good results.

Once the soymilk dries you may handle it with ease, even sewing with the fabric if you like. However, it will remain somewhat stiff until you wash it once. Washing does not remove the soymilk, it simply softens the fabric. However it should not be washed before it cures.

Moojo. Vat indigo on woven nettle with detail showing painted indigo lines.

Indigo painting may also be combined with vat dyeing and resists. In the figures below I have used rice-paste resist along with multiple dunkings to create my imagery. In both cases, the rice paste has been applied with brushes to mimic a batik-like affect. As a final step I have painted in deeper lines and details with my indigo/soy mixture and a mensou brush (a 00 watercolor brush is a fine substitute).

 

 

Old Friends. Vat indigo on Russian linen with detail showing paste highlights applied before dipping and minimal painted indigo details (eyelid).

Shibori vat dyed silk handkerchief – tsujigahana style with detail at right showing painted indigo accents

Equally interesting results may be achieved by combining the painted indigo with tie-dye, shibori. This combination is what is referred to as tsujigahana.

 

Detail of Holy Cow (see beginning of article, above) showing a combination of natural pigments, including indigo, applied using soymilk as a binder.

Just What is Indigo?

Just what is indigo? Most of us start out thinking we know, but do we?

The term indigo is, of course, used as the name of a color. To me it is
a deep navy blue with an ever-so-slightly greenish cast. But this is the description of the color called ai (藍) in Japanese. When indigo appears as one of the seven colors of the rainbow in the West it exhibits a slightly reddish cast.

Indigofera tinctoria – “true” indigo from India

Next, most of us would list it as a plant. But, which plant? Perhaps Indigofera tinctoria, commonly called true indigo? This is the one associated with the blues of India. It grows as a shrub and is in the legume family of plants along with beans and wisteria. It likes a tropical climate. The basic material we extract from the leaves to create blue is called indican.

Indigofera suffruticosa from the Americas

But indican is found in many other plants and in many other parts of the world, such as Indigofera suffruticosa. Even though it is commonly called Guatemalan indigo, this plant is native to most of the tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas including the Southern United States and all the way down to the northern reaches of Argentina.

Indigofera bracteolata – West Africa

Indigofera bracteolata grows well in the moist savannah lands of West Africa and thrives in sandy soil.

Isatis tinctoria – woad, covering Europe and the Middle East

Woad, Isatis tinctoria, is another common source of indican. It is native to the steppe and desert areas of the Middle East and Central Asia, and is related to mustard and cabbage. It is the plant associated with the blues of Britain, going all the way back back to the Celts.

Marsdenia tinctoria – covering Southeast Asia

Marsdenia tinctoria is commonly found in subtropical regions including Nepal, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia. It is a winding shrub or vine that can grow up to fifteen feet long. It is related to a plant called dogbane.

Persicaria tinctoria – tadeai, or Japanese (buckwheat) indigo

And in Japan there is tadeai (蓼藍), (Persicaria tinctoria), also known as Polygonum tinctorium, or Japanese indigo. It is an annual that grows up to about three feet in height and grows well in temperate climates. It is classed with buckwheat.

Mercurialis leiocarpa – Japanese yama-ai

Strobilanthes cusia – Ryuukyuu-ai, Okinawan indigo

But even in Japan there are more plants than just tadeai that contain indican. There is yama-ai (山藍), Mercurialis leiocarpa, a slender perennial that hugs the ground.  Ryuukyuu-ai (琉球藍), Strobilanthes cusia, has leaves as large as a person’s hand. It is in the acanthus family and has been a long-time favorite source of blue for collectors of Okinawan textiles.

And of course, there is synthetic indigo. It made its first real commercial appearance at the tail end of the 19th century (1897) and quickly replaced the more laboriously produced natural sources. The actual core colorant of all of these sources, including the synthetic, are chemically identical. Slight visual variations can be appreciated among the numerous natural sources brought about by differing impurities in the plants or unique extraction techniques.

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.

Magic!

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.