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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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