Tag Archives: SummerOfBlue

A traditional indigo sig vat.

Oxford English Dictionary: Also seg, sigg, zig(g). Of obscure origin, the form does not correspond to older Flem. seyck, G. seiche, in the same sense. Urine.

Anyone horrified by the idea of working with urine should leave the room now…

Urine has been a valued ingredient in the dyeing process for many centuries: dyers had containers on the street to collect contributions from passing members of the public. Fresh urine is sterile, or nearly so (If you can’t get clean water to wash out a wound, the next best thing is to pee in it. Honest!) but bacteria soon begin breaking down the proteins, sugars and other compounds in the urine to produce ammonia, which gives stale urine that pungent, penetrating odour. Ammonia is a very useful alkali and, just as important for working with indigo, the bacteria that create it consume oxygen as they work. The resulting low-oxygen, alkaline environment is ideal for converting indigo into its soluble form for dyeing – and all that’s needed is pee! Incidentally, the first pee of the morning is better than any other, as it’s richer in nutrients for the bacteria. The urine of children is better than that of adults, as their higher metabolic rates mean more nutrients in the urine. The sugar-rich urine of diabetics is good, too. But beware the urine produced by those indulging in diuretics such as beer: it contains fewer nutrients as the body tries to flush out the toxins with higher volumes of fluid. Some urine vats fail to ferment for no obvious reason; it’s possible that some medications interfere with the bacterial action.

The simplicity of this process has interested me since I first read about it, and it’s an obvious candidate for inclusion in my Summer of Blue. So, as the teaser image on the first woad vat post suggested, I made some preparations.urine

That’s a 3 litre jar, half-full of our urine, with a bucket containing thermal insulation to keep the fermenting urine warm. I collected more urine over the next day. All that’s needed for a urine-based indigo vat: urine, natural indigo, and a twist of fine cloth to contain the indigo powder.

SetupThe cloth with the indigo is tied tightly and dropped into the jar. At this point the urine has almost no smell at all, certainly nothing offensive.

DayOneSigVatMayThe bag of indigo is squeezed gently every day to release more indigo into the fluid, which will be blue until bacterial action – fermentation! – creates the high pH, low oxygen environment in which the blue indigo converts to the form in which it dyes, the yellowish soluble ‘white indigo’ or leuco-indigotin. Fermentation requires gentle warmth; I was going to put the jar in that bucket on a hot water bottle surrounded by insulation, but the warmth of the sun persuaded me to try an easier solution:


I simply sat it on the warm soil in the pop-up greenhouse that is sheltering my Japanese indigo plants. That was May 13. On May 14 the temperature plummeted and we had rain; the 15th had slightly more sun, but was still cold. Today, the 16th, is warm again. I foolishly didn’t take a photo of the fluid surface before I squeezed the indigo, so I can’t show you the tiny patches of metallic scum, a sign that it is working. But in this photo you might be able to see the greenish rather than bluish colour of the liquid. More important is the smell: it has the rich organic odour of stable manure or something similar. Nothing like the acrid ammonia of stale urine.


And look at the change in pH over the course of three days! No lime needed here:


If tomorrow is as warm as today, I might put some wool in that jar tomorrow evening, just to see what happens. The urine fermentation vat works at a far lower pH than the vats reduced with thiourea, so they’re much kinder to protein fibres. At pH 9 wool and silk can sit in the vat for several days without damage, or they can be dipped repeatedly, both processes yielding darker shades of blue. Blue!


Woad Fermentation Vat No. One: Day Seven.

In fact a summary of days 2–7. In pictures and words. I really, REALLY wish I could share the smell as well, as I think that’s significant, but I daresay many of you wouldn’t enjoy the, er, pungency. It’s living in my office/spare bedroom, and I’m just hoping the smell won’t linger once the vat is finished. I had intended to keep it in the garage, but it wouldn’t be fair to inflict it on my husband.

According to the thermometer on the vat the brewing belt is running slightly hot, I think, nearer 28 than 23°C, so I’ve wedged a pencil between the belt and the vat to reduce the heat input.

pH papers from vat testing over the week:


The vat on Day Three, 12 May. pH 8-9
The organic matter is waterlogged and has sunk to the bottom. There are a few bubbles, some patches of scum, the vat smells of rotting vegetation. The pH is low (acid): I sprinkled 1/2tsp of garden lime on the surface and stirred it briefly and gently.


Over the next three days the vat liquid became darker, the smell of rotting vegetation intensified, the greyish scum became thicker. Daily pH tests gave readings of 7–9, lowered by the acids produced by the rotting woad and bran; I sprinkled another 1/2 tsp of lime on the vat on Days 3–7. When in doubt, go alkaline as indigo will not convert to the soluble form in an acid environment. The smell became more complex. I can’t think of a good way to describe it, but no longer ordinary rotting vegetation. Richer, darker.

Day Seven. I suspect fermentation has peaked, as after yesterday’s lime the pH remains high – it’s well over 9, the maximum on my packet scale. The vat liquid is dark, there are now scattered patches of a thin shiny, almost metallic scum on the surface. The smell is richer, more complex, and not particularly pleasant (I much prefer the odour of a fermenting urine vat!).


The combination of changed odour and high pH made me think it might be worth testing for blue: the strings are tied to some scraps of scoured muslin that I’ll leave in overnight, and for multiples of 12 hours. I have a strong suspicion that 100g of woad leaves won’t produce a strong blue in any case.

Woad Fermentation Vat No. One, Day One.

So it begins. Over the last couple of days I’ve been assembling and collating information about indigo, woad, and fermentation vats. I’ll post a summary in due course; today I started my first woad vat using my first ‘best guess’ for a process based on my reading. It’s largely based on the instructions for a woad vat in Liles’ The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, but without the addition of indigo powder: I want to see what blue I get from 100g of woad ball before I add indigo. I aimed for the pH levels described by Dorothy Miller in Indigo, from seed to dye.

In Indigo Jenny Balfour-Jones describes the couching of woad balls. According to her sources, when the process is complete good woad is dry and mouldy, a condition known as “well beavered”. Mine wasn’t completely dry (I’d left it covered), but it was covered by a remarkable fine grey-white mould. The entire couching process seems to have taken place very quickly, perhaps because I used rainwater rather than tap water to avoid chlorine and other inhibitors of bacterial growth: on 7 May I crushed 100g of woad ball, moistened it with rainwater, and set it next to my desk so I could see what happened. I kept a lid on the dish to retain moisture. It heated up within hours; I turned it on the 8th and again on the 9th, by which time it was cool.


I assembled my kit. The white bin holds 25l/6 gallons; the black strip on it is a liquid crystal thermometer, and the orange thing is a ‘brewer’s belt’ that should maintain a good fermentation temperature, somewhere between 22-28°C. I plan to put that coil of plastic mesh or something similar at the bottom of the vat to keep cloth and fibre away from the fermentation debris.


Liles gives quantities for 6-8 gallons; I halved them for a 3 gallon/12.5 litre vat to begin with, and used washing soda rather than lye as an alkali. I dissolved 0.5oz washing soda in 1 litre hot boiled tapwater (boiling should drive off the chlorine), added 0.5oz wheat bran (slow release carbohydrates to fuel fermentation) and 0.5oz madder root (traditionally added because the bacteria on the roots kickstart the fermentation process). I left this to soak for an hour to hydrate the bran before pouring it into the bin and adding 8 litres of rainwater (total 9 litres). I boiled 2 litres of tapwater, added 1.5 litres of rainwater, and brought the entire volume to 70°C on the stove: woad contains both indican, the precursor for indigo blue, and isatan B, a related compound that will create blue, but which according to Balfour-Paul requires a higher temperature at the start of the fermentation process followed by rapid cooling.

I scraped the couched woad into the hot water, stirred it thoroughly for 5 minutes, then dumped it into the vat solution to cool it rapidly.


Maintaining the correct pH range is critical for a healthy fermentation vat, and the dyeing process. If fermentation is too enthusiastic, lactic and other acids will drop the pH to the point that the vat will not dye. The acidity must be countered by an alkali, but if the pH is too high fermentation will cease and the vat will damage protein fibres. A pH of c. 10 appears to be good for both fermentation and dyeing, although the woad vat should operate down to pH 8. I decided to aim for pH10 in the vat before fermentation starts. According to my pH meter I was bang on. Remarkable! I therefore omitted the 1/2 tsp lime called for by Liles’ recipe; it may be that our rather alkaline tapwater (pH 8.4) rendered it unnecessary.

I bought pH paper – litmus paper – to check the pH of my fermentation vats a couple of years ago, but neglected to check that the range was appropriate. Mine are intended to check the pH of body fluids (don’t ask, I don’t know and I don’t want to know) and the chart only goes to pH 9 whereas for these vats you’ll need them to go all the way to 11. However it seems that the paper will indicate the higher readings, I just have to create my own calibration records based on the pH meter. Note that the pH 10 paper is in fact more blue-green than it appears. The very blue paper on the right was the 1 litre initial stock solution, which had a pH of 11.2.


One thing is very clear from my reading: a good working fermentation vat is as much a matter of luck as judgement. Japanese indigo artisans pray to Aizen Shin, the god of Ai (indigo) for success. I shall drink a toast to Ai tonight, just in case.

I’ve started preparing for the next vat, too. Guess what that will be based on?


2015: A Summer of Blue

Or so I hope.

I’ve had a thing about indigo for longer than I care to remember. I think it started when my mother included indigo vats in a summer school dyeing class she taught in the early 1970s; in my mind’s eye I still see the shimmering metallic blue-copper-purple surface of the liquid and the cloth emerging from the vat green, turning deep indigo blue as I watched. Some years ago I started to recreate the magic. I began with the simplest chemical ‘colour run remover’ (I’ll explain these terms later) vat, and managed to dye some spinning fibre blue. I felted it too, but still: blue! I read of traditional fermentation vats and HAD to try to establish a sig vat based on the bacterial breakdown of urine. I briefly managed to get it working and saw a different blue, murkier and darker, on wool that 4 years later still retains the faint barnyard odour that for centuries indicated the finest blues.


In 2013 my first attempt to grow Japanese indigo failed to thrive outside in a typical British summer, but I discovered that woad – the traditional blue of northern Europe – thrived. I wrote a blog post “Blue! From leaves!” about the fun I had crushing the leaves and extracting the indigo to dye blue, then using the ‘waste’ leaf matter to dye a second completely different colour known as woad pink.

The fabulous gift from A. of John Marshall’s new book on working with fresh indigo has inspired me to plan greater efforts this summer. Woad and the various plants known as ‘indigo’ that grow in warmer climates all contain the same compound – indigotin – that produces indigo blue, but woad contains less than most other indigos.

The summer of blue

I’ve made careful preparations. I want to try some of the interesting techniques that John describes; to be sure of them, I need fresh tadeai, the Japanese indigo Polygonum or Persicaria tinctoria. It won’t thrive in our semi-continental climate and clay soils; it requires a warmer maritime climate, higher humidity and reliable summer heat, and moist soil rich in organic matter. So I’ve bought a tiny greenhouse, the appropriate size for our tiny garden, complete with raised bed that I’ve filled with compost and leaf mould. I’m hoping this will allow me some control over heat and humidity.


I sowed the tadeai seed that John Marshall kindly included with the book indoors in April, keeping the seed tray in the warmth upstairs next to my computer. I even repurposed my drawing desk light with a grow light bulb. And I’ve had some success! Now the tadeai seedling are hardening off in the greenhouse, and seem to be thriving.


In theory woad leaves could be used for the same techniques, although the colours might be fainter.  I need more woad! Sadly my first woad sowing either failed to germinate or, equally possible, the seedlings were eliminated by the horde of slugs and snails that reside in the garden. To the far left of the greenhouse there are three rows of woad re-sown a week ago, and I’m about to go outside to apply slug pellets and cover them to protect the birds and other animals.

Fortunately there are other sources of woad in the UK. The Woad Centre in Norfolk has been growing and harvesting it for some years. They sell indigo pigment extracted from the leaves and a variety of other products, but I am most interested in their woad balls. For centuries woad was a valuable commercial crop, preserved and transported to dyers in the form of balls formed from the chopped and kneaded fresh leaves, then left to dry. The balls can be reconsitituted for various forms of indigo vat, including the same extraction process I used in 2013. I’m now more interested in the various forms of fermentation vats, and have begun to prepare for my first attempt by ‘couching’ 100g of woad ball. This entails crushing the balls as finely as possible, moistening the mass, and leaving it to rot down/ferment into a dark green-black mass which is then used in the dye vat. I haven’t yet come across any explanation of the reason for the couching process; my guess is that the fermentation breaks down cell walls to ensure more of the indigotin compound is available to the dyeing process.

WoadBallPrepThe crushed woad ball in that dish were prepared and wetted with rainwater two days ago and I’m very happy: the mass is darker and warm to the touch. It’s working! It has a strong odour, the smell from the centre of a pile of grass clippings, and that seems right.

I have three 25litre plastic fermentation bins waiting in the garage, along with 2kg wheat bran (I can’t find rice bran) to fuel further fermentation, a pH meter, LCD thermometer strips and a ‘brewing belt’ heater to warm the vats if the British summer fails again. I have commercial natural indigo to add more pigment for a deeper blue. I am almost ready… I just have to set up a, er, urine donation facility next to the toilet 🙂