Indigo Rub-off

Recently I was looking through The Mulberry Dyer Debbie Bamford’s blog (  and read about the problem of rub-off from indigo-dyed yarns. I should add that Debbie was not experiencing the problem herself but had come across the comment in another blog. Debbie used this comment as an example of how poor dyeing techniques can harm the reputation of natural dyeing, leading to the belief that problems such as rub-off or fading are only to be expected from natural dyes. Like Debbie, I feel situations like this are a great shame, especially as natural dyes, when properly selected and applied, are as reliable as synthetic dyes, if not more so.

It can be very irritating to find one’s fingers becoming blue as one uses indigo-dyed yarn. In my experience there are two main reasons why this rub-off may happen. The first reason is that the yarns were not properly cleaned before dyeing, so the dye becomes attached to the dirt or grease, rather than to the fibres, and is then rubbed off as soon as the yarns are subjected to any friction. The other reason is that the yarns were allowed to dry before being rinsed. When indigo-dyed materials are aired, it is important to turn them round from time to time, so no sections dry out before the fibres are rinsed. This is because any loosely-attached indigo becomes more firmly attached once dried and is not removed by rinsing or washing. However, it will come off when used in any way that causes friction.

There are other precautionary measures I routinely take. Firstly, as soon as I take materials out of the indigo vat, I plunge them into a bucket of clear water and move them around under the surface for about 30 seconds to a minute. This removes some of the indigo that may be loosely attached to the fibres. As water contains oxygen, it is also possible to leave the fibres to oxidise in this clear water, although they must remain below the surface and it will take longer for the fibres to turn blue. In fact, if patchy indigo dyeing is a problem, this is one way of avoiding it. Also, after airing them, I usually put indigo-dyed materials through a washing-machine rinse cycle whenever possible. Of course, this can cause skeins to become hopelessly tangled if care is not taken, so to prevent this, I tie skeins firmly in a bag or pillow-case before rinsing them.

Whatever our preferred dyeing methods and techniques may be, I firmly believe that, as dyers, we are responsible for the reputation of natural dyes and it is up to us to make sure any naturally-dyed items offered for sale, or as gifts, meet the highest possible standards. Anyway, lecture over now!

8 replies
  1. Debbie Bamford
    Debbie Bamford says:

    Thanks for the support Jenny – it’s much appreciated!

    Keeping our standards as high as possible will show the world what fantastic dyes we use – I’m still waiting for someone to show me a chemical dye that’s been around as long as the Bayeux tapestry and kept it’s colour!!! (said very tongue in cheek!)

  2. neki rivera
    neki rivera says:

    interesting tip that of oxidising indigo dyed goods in a bucket of water.
    you can get 2 for one, rinsing and oxidising.will try it.

    neki desu

  3. Tricia
    Tricia says:

    I agree with your ‘lecture’… we do have a responsibility for the reputation of all natural dyes… I’ve not tried the cold water ‘plunge’ but will do soonest…

    best wishes

  4. Leena Riihelä
    Leena Riihelä says:

    I have to admit, that I have had trouble especially with strong indigo vats, even with good scouring and I always wash the yarns after dyeing so that the water runs clear. Thank you Jenny, I finally found last winter where the trouble propably was. I have let the yarns dry occasionally before I have had time to was them, in wind they dry really fast. Then I found your advise in your book not to let them dry and I have never seen it in any other books, but it makes perfect sense the way you explain it!

    I very much agree with you that the fastness of natural dyes is important to the reputation of the natural dying and it is important to make every effort to make the colors as fast as possible.

  5. Kathy Jolman
    Kathy Jolman says:

    Hi Jenny, Whats your opinion on using the iron rinse on wool fabric. I’m a quilter who natural dyes my fabric. I’m trying to get green from “nature” without overdying with indigo and am hesitant to use iron as I read in your book it will weaken the fibers. I have a pot of comfrey brewing, hoping I’ll get a green, I haven’t been successful so far with any plant. Also, I have a iron pot I thought I might fill with water and comfrey and see what that does. Do you think I’m damaging my fabric? (I always premordant my fabric with alum). Thank you for any help you can give.

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      Hi Kathy
      I certainly use iron as a modifier on wool fabrics & yarns & haven’t had any problems. I try to use a weak iron solution & I don’t apply heat unless I have to in order to get a colour change. Usually soaking the materials in a weak iron solution is enough. I think iron water may be less harmful to wool fibres than ferrous sulphate. Damage to the fibres doesn’t happen overnight so, unless you are dyeing for future generations, your wool fibres should be fine for many years. I hope you get a useful colour from your comfrey brew.

      Good wishes

  6. india flint
    india flint says:

    that’s certainly interesting…conversely when dyeing wool using eucalyptus in a warm bath it’s important to not only allow the yarn to cool in the dye bath, but also to dry before rinsing. if the excess moisture is spun out using centrifugal force and the yarn then allowed to dry [preferably in the shade] the dye will be colourfast.
    i’ve tested this theory by laying dyed yarns onto white wool sliver and then vigorously felting the lot together. no colour drift has been noticed thus far and what is intriguing is that the eucalypt-dyed wool is extremely difficult to bond with undyed sliver. the dye coats the fibre so thoroughly that it reduces the felting properties of the wool.
    no where near as vigorously as superwash, but certainly enough to make felting a challenge.

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