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Feeling ‘blue’? An experience to ‘dye’ for!


Feeling ‘blue’? An experience to ‘dye’ for!

200 kilos of indigo plant…all ready to be bundled and soaked.

Elena Edwards
In the cool of the early morning at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain, with the mist and the memory of the previous days’ rain not yet dispersed by the sun, a gathering of a small number of Westerners, Thais and Japanese breath in the cool, fresh green- growing fragrance of a field full to overflowing with Indigofera tinctoria plants, the source of indigo, the blue dye used all over Asia for thousands of years. 

The first dyeing session…to be followed by at least three more over two days.

We are there, under the instruction of Patricia Cheesman, owner of Studio Naenna and an expert in traditional dyeing, weaving and the history of costume, to gather the plants and extract the precious dye which will be eventually stored as a dark, midnight-blue ‘wet paste’ used to rejuvenate the culture of living, fermenting enzymes in the ‘mother jar’ from which each batch of dye will originate. There is, traditionally, a close relationship between the dyer and the ‘mother jar’, involving an understanding of what the live culture needs and a vocal appreciation of its beauty!  The crop is planted at the ascending moon, and should be harvested at the descending moon just as the flowers appear and the young seeds are forming, with each planting giving 2 crops annually. Every two years, the plants are ploughed back into the soil to replenish the nitrogen essential for the growth of a new crop.
Moving carefully, and inspecting creatures found on the plants in case they are harmful to humans, we cut the stems of the tall plants approximately 18 inches from the ground, and pile them high on plastic sheets, ready to be taken back for processing The weight of each piled sheet needs a person at each corner to lift and carry! We cut for an hour and a half, after which, (to our relief…) Patricia tells us that we have enough!

Checking the remaining contents
of the bins after the filtering process has begun.

Back in the dyeing area, we are amazed at the huge pile of cuttings we’ve managed to gather. Our next task is to trim and bundle them into 14 inch parcels to be weighed and then soaked overnight packed in bins to extract the colourless indican from the leaves which, after soaking, will produce green indoxyl. We are even more amazed when the bundles are weighed – we have gathered 200 kilos of plant material, as well as having discovered some muscles we’d forgotten existed! Ouch! The bundles are placed in bins full of water, with rocks placed at the top to keep them submerged overnight.

The end of a wonderful experience and the final results of the dyeing…imaginations ran riot and some great designs were produced!

The following morning, we check the bins and begin removing all the bundles to be dried on racks. When totally dry, they will be burned, and the resulting ash mixed with water to form a high-PH lye which will be used as a wash to brighten lighter colours during the dyeing process. It is also used in the mix contained in the all- important, living ‘mother jar’. When we’ve stacked all the bundles for drying, we are then able to immerse the white cotton articles we have provided into a batch of already-prepared dye. To achieve the desired results, the tees, cloths and my nightdress will need up to three or four immersions. Several of us have decided to make ‘tye-dye’ patterns, and have, after instruction from Patricia, bound up their articles with elastic bands in order to achieve the desired effect.

Ready to go…the bundled cuttings in soak for 24 hours.
Then the hard work begins…the water remaining in the soaking jars, now a murky green, has to be oxidised by ‘beating’, in order to produce the blue indigotin.  The beating is done by removing a bowlful of water from the soaking bin, raising it to head height, then emptying it back into the bin! The result of the introduction of oxygen into the water in this manner is that the greenish water gradually becomes blue as the indigotin is produced. The effect on the aforementioned underused muscles of the beaters is obvious….ouch again, as each bin will take around 20 minutes of non-stop oxidisation to complete, and there are a good number of  bins…
On the last morning, we arrive to find that the indigotin has, as expected, precipitated to the bottom of the bins; the next step is to carefully remove the bulk of the water, and filter the remainder, with its precious cargo, through squares of cotton into small containers. Then we see it, the result of hours of labour, (mostly heavy!), spread over three mornings – a beautiful, almost glowing, incredibly rich dark blue ‘wet paste’, with an aroma which, diluted somewhat in the air, has been present almost all the way through the process. Our sore muscles and our distinctly blue-tinged feet and hands are forgotten in the sheer joy of what we’ve achieved!  We finish dyeing our own articles and hang them up to dry, as happy as children at a festival, ‘grounded’ in a way unusual in these modern times, and so very glad that we had taken the opportunity to learn the same processes our human ancestors had discovered over 4,000 years ago.
For more information about Studio Naenna and the local weavers it supports, please visit the website at

Cutting the plants in the cool of the morning – avoiding centipedes and interesting examples of local insect life.