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Dyeing a silk camisole with fresh indigo leaves

Last month, heading clockwise around Killearn's Open Gardens I met a friend who was going anti-clockwise.  

We stood and chatted on the pavement, about gardens and textiles and how she had grown indigo last year but hadn't done anything with it.  It seemed complicated to build a vat and, by the time she had done the reading and got all the bits together, the frost had come and her indigo plants were mushed and spoiled.  

She had decided to give it a miss this year.

I have a lot of indigo growing in the garden and poly tunnel - it was much easier than I had anticipated and all the seedlings germinated and grew happily.

I know that if I decide to process them into a vat I will dither and lose time and then head off on holiday knowing that there is a high chance of frost while we are away.

So instead I have been buying up pre-loved silk camisoles, scarves and blouses and using the salt rub method to turn them into clothes fit for a mermaid.

vintage silk camisole drying

I'm sharing a step by step tutorial here on how to dye a silk camisole with fresh leaf indigo.  

I took a lot of what I do here from this video of a Japanese woman dyeing a silk scarf with indigo.

Other excellent online resources are produced by Liz Spencer The Dogwood Dyer.



The indigo I am growing is Persicaria tinctoria 'Seborn', I am in the middle of Scotland, our frost free period is from the middle of May until the middle of September and cold nights in the spring can make half hardy plants susceptible to slug damage. Because of this I have some crop growing out in the dye garden and some in the poly tunnel. The leaves in this tutorial come from the outdoor crop.

The chemistry of this is very simple - the leaves of the indigo plants contain two different compounds which are kept separate while they are in the undamaged leaf.  When they combine - through being damaged/massaged/pulverised they quickly make a insoluble blue and what you are trying to do is to get those compounds into the silk before they turn blue.  It is a little like those tubes of glue that you need to mix

The silk camisole is second hand, it came from Vinted and is from 1980s/90s. It weighs 100g dry.

The faster you can process the leaves the better - so ideally pick them just before you are ready to use them. Be careful when stripping the leaves from the stem as if the leaves get bruised then the chemical reaction begins before you are ready.  Heat seems to speed up the chemical reaction so doing this in a cool part of the day is easiest.  Don't panic though - I am not exactly the quickest moving person and I had plenty of time.  Just don't pick your leaves and then go and do something else (or if you must, if something urgent comes up, put them in a bag in the fridge).

what you need to do indigo dyeing

You need

  • Fresh leaf indigo leaves.  Approximately twice the weight of the camisole weighed when dry. This doesn't need to be exact - I know that each cut stem of indigo has leaves weighing 4-5 g so I used 50 stems of indigo (5 plants)
  • Silk camisole (or other small item of clothing)
  • Bowl with shallow sides, you need to be able to get your hands in easily.
  • Gloves unless you want blue hands and spooky looking fingernails.
  • 1/2 tablespoon Salt - I find that hard grains of salt work better than table salt but either works so use what you have.

Step 1: Scouring

This is a fancy name for washing - with silk all you need to do is wash in a silk detergent and rinse really well. 

Then drain it so that it is damp but not wet.  This helps open up the fibres so that the indigo can get into them but doesn't dilute the dye.

scoured silk camisole for botanical dyeing

Step 2: Processing the leaves.

Strip the leaves fro the stems and put them into your bowl along with the salt.  If they won't all fit start with a smaller amount and add in more as the leaves wilt.

Put on your gloves and start to squish the leaves about.  If you have ever wilted kale with salt for a salad or pie, this is very similar.  The leaves will reduce in size and begin to get wet looking.

fresh indigo leaves for salt rub method

When the leaves are wet you can add in the camisole - use it to pound and massage the leaves into the fibres, wrap it round the leaves, roll it, squash it - the aim is to get as much of the liquid as possible from the leaves into the silk fibres.

starting to dye silk with indigo

To begin with the silk will look unredemably patchy - keep going . . . . . 

how to dye silk with fresh indigo

Keep going . . . .

salt rub indigo dyeing

And then at a particular point - maybe after 15-20 minutes the bowl begins to get foamy liquid in it - this is when you can make sure that the silk takes up all that liquid.

Unwrap the silk and check whether there are light patches - you can then work on them, massaging in the liquid using the leaves to squash it in.

Step 3: Dry and rinse.

When you are happy with the colour and coverage you can unwrap the camisole and take off any stuck leaves.  Rinse briefly in cold water and leave to dry naturally out of sunlight.

how to dye a vintage silk camisole

After 48 hours you can wash with a silk detergent.  Indigo has a habit of sticking to the surface of fibres and can rub off so I wouldn't wear your camisole with anything white until it has been washed a few times.


If you find that the coverage is patchy or the colour too light then you can simply do it all again with another batch of leaves (even if that is next year!)

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A few people have asked for a list of the restaurants in Hvar that we loved best. To be honest we didn’t have a single bad meal - the food is beautifully sourced and cooked, informal, seasonal delicious. But there were a few places that were particularly good. 

First if you are flying into Zadar airport and have time to spend in the town then @konobastomoricazadar is worth a visit. The cuttlefish and chickpea soup/stew was the best thing I’ve eaten this year. 

In Hvar itself @konobamenego is a cosy restaurant with a great menu of traditional food, including vegetarian options, we shared a plate of marinated fish (eel I think) and then I had courgettes and aubergines in a sweet and sour sauce prepared to a family recipe. Go early as once they are full that’s  it, there is no squashing in extra sittings, the kitchen staff need time off. I loved this. 

Our nearest town was Stari Grad and we lived @antikastarigrad - tables set outside so we could people watch, great food. Celery and smoked mussel soup with pine nuts 👌🏻

The dog is the photo was snapped at #konobahumac - a deserted hilltop village which featured in last week’s Friday film. There is a small restaurant with a wood fired kitchen - you can either order 24 hours in advance for traditional dishes cooked under a dome or have simple grilled meats and salads. Simplicity is wonderful. 

I’ll continue this in the comments.
Back from holiday, looking a little less frazzled than my pre-holiday photo and I'm trying to keep it like that (which is why Instagram posts are now in the afternoon - I'm reading in the morning).
In this week's Friday film I talk about the difficulty that I've always had in not working while on holiday and why that is a great mistake and what changed this year.
For me getting proper rest is important for living my best life.  It isn't a sneaky productivity trick - I don't want to rest on holiday so that I can work more efficiently when I get home.  I want to rest so that I can feel more alive, stand taller, be more vibrant.
I've also added in a film of the sea, a courtyard garden and a deserted hilltop village to show you why Hvar is one of the best places to go if you need a little relaxation.  The link is in stories.

#hvar #mudridolac #smallbusiness
This is a woman who is about to head off on holiday but has packed absolutely nothing.

Today’s Friday film is out - I’ll post the link in stories - and it’s all about why I’m deleting social media apps while I’m away, what is the kind of ‘work’ that I find revitalising on holiday and what stops me relaxing. And a tour of what I actually do day to day (minus the boring bits). 

Here till 5pm today and then away for a couple of weeks. 

Knitting is #heirloomquiltcardigan by @katrynseeburger
I seem to have spent this year writing about plants that have turned out to not be what they were meant to be . .  but that I have grown to love more than whatever it was I thought I wanted.

There were meant to be Hopi black dye sunflowers, Tceqa' Qu' Si, (Helianthus annuus macrocarpus). They clearly are not.

I've never actually grown giant sunflowers - and these tower over the sweet pea tunnel, gawky, heads bowed.

I love them.  The birds will love them even more.
I'm not really a person who is very good at theory.  I'm not enthused by swatches.  I was never good at experiments in science class.

I mean I appreciate the science in botanical dyeing, and I really, really appreciate the people whose brains work that way, but it just isn't me.

I love the process but even more I love the result.

I think that the most obvious example of this is the ongoing knitted blanket - three stripes from every plant that I try dyeing with in the garden.  A record of sorts. The best I can do.

At the moment a lot of the dyeing and making and embroidering that I do is centered around clothes - bought second hand and made more beautiful. I'm inspired by @prophet_of_bloom and @thedogwooddyer and they way they wear their creativity.

I've bought this silk camisole from Vinted (it was described as vintage but I refuse to believe that the 1990s are vintage). I've now dyed it with fresh indigo for my younger daughter, a mermaid blue, gently mottled teal.

The photos of the process are up on my blog - last night I gave it another coat of leaves so I am now waiting for it to dry to check the colour before I post it to Katie.

#botanicaldye #naturaldyeing #prelovedclothes
In the early summer this rose - nicknamed the
This week's all about managing my energy - I go on holiday in a week and traditionally I've been terrible at pacing myself in the run up to a break.
Everything seems to get out of hand and pile up on my desk, leaving me exhausted and crabby. 
This year I'm determined not to let that happen so I'm building in plenty of the things that I know buoy me up into my days - rest, creativity, nature.
The rest and the making are being combined in making squares for the Heirloom Quilt Cardigan - a wonderful pattern by @katrynseeburger - which I'm knitting in a linen/bamboo yarn that I botanically dyed a couple of years ago and have been hoarding ever since.
You can see what I'm on about in stories . . . .
Often people tell me that they would love to learn to dye with plants but they don't have a garden, or they worry about foraging for plants or that they run out of time and never get around to it.
I completely get that. I am the same.  Life is busy and unless things are easy I often let the desire slide.
It is why I am spending time each day drying out the dye plants that I grow here and packing them up into sealable envelopes - each decorated with a drawing.
I want to make it easier for people to try out botanical dyeing with a wider range of plants than is generally available.  So far I've been packing up willowherb and dahlia flowers alongside the more traditional marigold and dyer's chamomile.
I'm not completely sure what form this will all eventually take - kits that make everything easy perhaps, possibly a 'workshop in a box' kind of thing.  I'm currently trying to work out all the practicalities while prioritising making sure the flowers and leaves are packaged properly so that they won't spoil while I work out the details.
At some point, if you are on my newsletter list, you will no doubt get an email with some questions in it! 
But in the meantime let me know what you think - what would you value in a botanical dyeing kit? Help me make something that will inspire people to create something beautiful.

#dyersofinstagram #botanicaldye #botanicaldyersofinstagram #tagetesdye

About Snapdragon Life

At Snapdragon Life I help bring the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

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