200 kilos of indigo plant…all ready to be
bundled and soaked.
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
The end of a wonderful experience and the final
results of the dyeing…imaginations ran riot and some great designs were
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.
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.