Indigo: A Colour to Dye For

Indigo: A Colour to Dye For
Representative image: Cotton dyed in indigo Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A rich tradition of weaving magic with indigo and shibori

Aroshi Handu
February 24 , 2020
04 Min Read

As a photographer I’ve always been fascinated with colour, especially the whimsical nature of blue and its multitudes, which never fails to catch my eye—be it the soft blue skies, the cobalt blue seas, the neon blue of city lights or the diffused blue on foggy car windows. So naturally, I jumped at the chance to attend a workshop which promised to create magic with indigo, a dye with a rich history in India, combined by a classic Japanese dyeing style called shibori. It's a fusion of cultures waiting to be unfolded. 

Weaving magic before the dyeing


Scouring the kitschy lanes of Neb Sarai in Delhi brought me to a workshop held by Mura Collective, a clothing brand specialsing in using natural dyes, predominantly the striking indigo, to create their designs. After a quick introduction to each other, Kusum Tiwari, (co-founder of Mura), gave us an illuminating introduction to the unusual Japanese art called shibori. Usual printing techniques, such as fabric printing, requires the cloth to be laid out on a flat surface as a preparatory process. Imagine my surprise when I was told that in shibori, one can fold, scrunch, wrap or stitch the cloth before dipping it in a dye! In fact, it’s the most crucial step which determines how well the design will turn out after drying. 

The process of drying

The studio has an entire floor dedicated to workers, mainly women, who lay the stencils and painstakingly stitch the intricate designs onto the cloth. Heading upstairs brought us to the open terrace where the dyed cloth is hung out to dry and there are vats filled with indigo dye. 

Back downstairs, we all gathered around in a circle on the floor and each of us was handed a stenciled piece of cloth and assigned a worker to help us stitch. Folding is the most important step in shibori. If not properly done, the creases can mess with the designs. We started off by carefully stitching and locking the thread in place. The design was simple enough, but required all my focus to get it absolutely right. Once the designs were stitched, I watched with awe and marvelled at how deftly the workers moved their fingers while tightening the stitches. 

Once the stitches were secure, we headed back upstairs to watch how the designs are dyed. First, the fabric is immersed in a vat for 45 minutes to an hour, with the right proportion of dye to achieve the desired colour. To let the dye print onto the cloth, it needs to be properly ‘reduced’ by a reducing agent which turns the tub a bright, fluorescent yellow. It’s an erratic process and can often be time-consuming. In the olden days, the tribals got quite creative with the materials they used to help with the fermentation process. Things like meat, jaggery, iron shavings, palm, sugar, fruits etc could be used. (Interestingly, in Pompeii the indigo dyers used urine which produces ammonia. They used to leave empty pails outside their workshop which were generously filled by passersby relieving themselves in it.)

Getting the stitches accurate is the most crucial step in the Shibori process

After an hour is up, the cloth is taken out and dried in the sun for about 20 minutes. It needs to be correctly oxidised to get a uniform colour. It is then washed twice and dipped in a fixing solution to set the colour. After it’s all dried up, then comes the tricky part—removing the stitches. This can only be done by an experienced worker with nimble fingers. Once the stitches are removed, a beautiful blue design is revealed. 

Back in the olden days, the shibori workers of Nagoya, Japan faced a crisis because the markets were not in favour of this technique. It was Yoshiko Wada, a Japanese textile artist who popularised the art. Even though shibori has its roots in Japan, traditional Indian designs such as leheriya or bandhej are also considered under the gamut of shibori. It’s all about manipulation of fabric through various means and dyeing it using a natural or a chemical dye. 

Mura Collective says it is one of the first India-based companies which has brought natural dyeing using shibori to the mainstream markets. “Competition is good, it’s more like a compliment” says Kusum Tiwari. “It gives so many workers a livelihood—that makes us happy”. On what made her start this company back in 1998, she says, “I don’t come from a textile background. My daughter was born with special needs and I realised I wanted to start something that can cater to a person with special needs as well. And somehow everything started to unfold.”

This workshop was organised by Mura Collective in partnership with The Craft Catapult, under the India Heritage Walk Festival, which is a month long festival, in association with Sahapedia.

Workshop: Creating magic with Shibori and Indigo. The event is ticketed. You can find more details here.

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