Recently I was looking through The Mulberry Dyer Debbie Bamford’s blog (http://colourextractor.blogspot.com/) 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!