In an age of sustainability and slow fashion, natural dyeing is having a moment: University of the Arts London is offering courses in it, workshops are springing up all over the capital, and this year’s London Craft Week has been punctuated by people teaching and learning how plants can be used to colour fabric. So, naturally, we decided to dip our inky fingers into the trend.
Our setting for the workshop is Coal Drops Yard, one of London’s newest creative neighbourhoods. It’s been celebrating Craft Week in a number of inventive ways, the most eye-catching of which is an installation of hand-dyed indigo flags by Tokushima-based art collective Buaisou. Coal Drops has rolled out the blue carpet for the Japanese creatives, two of whom are at today’s workshop. Although founder Kakuo Kaji speaks no English, it’s quite easy to tell from his hand-dyed double denim and encyclopaedic knowledge that we’re in good, albeit indigo-stained, hands.
Full disclosure: I know nothing about fashion. Still, it doesn‘t take me long to realise that natural dye differs significantly from synthetic (unnatural?) dye. The dye that Buaisou produces from indigo flowers takes a whole year to develop, going through a process of planting, harvesting, drying and composting repeatedly over a number of months, until what’s left is a sort of dark blue compost called sukumo. This is mixed in a vat with lye made from wood ash and baked oyster shells which, along with the necessary fermentation, makes for a pretty pungent scent when the enormous barrel at the top of the room is opened. Yep, it doesn’t smell great.
Other things I didn’t know: the dye gets darker every day that you leave it alone, as evidenced by the scraps of different-toned cloth in Kakuo’s artfully compiled notebook. Also, the dye itself can ‘die’, if the bacteria in it is left to get too strong. Unlike synthetic dyes, this indigo concoction relies on having a constantly cultivated bacteria culture inside, allowing the pigment to be transferred from the sukumo into the cloth. It’s a bit like a giant Yakult.
For today’s dyeing session, I’m armed with a plain white bandana. While others are using clamps, wooden sticks and rubber bands to create straight lines and geometric patterns, I’m keeping it simple by tying mine in three chunky knots for a classic tie-dye effect. I step up to the barrel, almost overwhelmed by the smell of fermenting plant matter and oyster shells. Under Kakuo’s instruction (and refusing the offer of protective gloves), I plunge my hands in.
My hands and the cloth are deep in the vat. I’m told to massage the dye into it then remove it from the murky depths and allow oxidisation to do its work. After a rinse in cold water and several minutes spent untying the fiddly knots, I’m left with a gorgeous, weirdly symmetrical, richly coloured bandana that wouldn’t look out of place at the most stylish of street-style pop-ups.
As for my sickly-looking hands, Smurf-blue up to the wrist? Well, I probably should have worn the gloves after all, especially judging by the looks I get on the tube home. There’s always next year, I guess.
Workshops have finished, but you can see Buaisou’s ‘Indigo Hands’ flag installation for free at Coal Drops Yard until Thu May 30.
Wanna try it yourself? Natural Dye House will run an indigo dyeing workshop on Sunday May 12. Find out more and keep an eye on future events here.
Feeling crafty? Find out more about London Craft Week.
Or try these weird and wonderful London workshops.