In the By Thistle By Thimble story, “Purple”, Lydia is a wealthy merchant who dyes and sells purple cloth to those who can afford it. She lives a life of luxury, but has a single regret—she hasn't heard from her son in years.
When he reached adulthood, her son turned his back on "serving the rich", and became a teacher to the poor. But when Lydia at last gets a letter telling her where he now lives, she resolves to travel to him. She doesn't realize how difficult and transformative the journey will be.
In our world of mass-produced cloth, it's hard to imagine how precious a bright purple cloak would look amidst a sea of raw linen and brown. Historically, one way to get that beautiful purple hue was by using indigo.
The way indigo works is a pretty fascinating chemistry lesson.
While most indigo is now synthetic, it originally came from a plant. But, in it's natural state, the plant isn't water soluble and can be used to transfer color.
To make the plant into dye, the indigo has to be “reduced” to an oxygen-less state. From there it can be dissolved in water—which will then turn a nasty color of yellow-green.
Dissolved in the water, the reduced indigo can penetrate fabric. When the fabric is then pulled out of the dye, the indigo—now trapped in the fibers of the fabric—oxidizes and turns back to blue.
While I'm sure that Lydia and her contemporaries had more arduous methods of completing that process, in our modern times I highly recommend ordering an indigo dying kit. They're inexpensive, and have everything you need to dye several articles of clothing or, as we decided to do, a set of dinner napkins.
Just one hint, before we get to it.
The gloves that came in the kit we purchased were not long enough. In a moment of distraction, I dipped my hand too far in the bucket. While the dye washed out of my skin pretty quickly, my fingernails still have a blue tinge even a few weeks later. If that's the kind of thing that will bother you, be sure to have a sturdy pair of elbow-length kitchen gloves in addition to the dying kit.
Alright! Now get a bucket, get a kit, and let's get started!
Indigo Tie Dyed Napkins
5-gallon bucket with lid or cover
Indigo dye kit (My kit included rubber bands, but if yours doesn't, you'll need to get those also.)
A long stick or yardstick
12 white, cotton towels or napkins
Long kitchen gloves
While the dye is settling, prepare your fabric. To do so, bind the fabric up in rubber bands. You can place all of the rubber bands the same way—to get matching napkins—or experiment with different rubber band placement to get a variety of patterns. Once the fabric is “tied” soak it throughly in cold water, and wring it out.
Now it's time to don those long kitchen gloves. Once you've got them on, uncover the dye bucket. You'll notice a bit of foam (called the “bloom”) resting on top. You can either gently push the bloom to the side, or you can pick it up and put it into another container while you dye.
Either way, gently lower one of your napkins into the dye. Hold it there without agitating it—you don't want it to touch the bottom of the bucket, and you don't want to add unnecessary oxygen to the dye bath—for a minute or two, then pull it out and set it aside. Repeat with the remaining napkins.
When you pull the napkins out of the dye they'll look yellow-greenish, but as the oxygen in the air hits them they'll turn blue. Keeping in mind that some of the color will rinse out the first time you wash the napkins, you can re-dip them several times to get a darker hue. (We cycled ours through the dye twice.)
You can save the dye to color other articles. Put the bloom back on top, then re-cover it with the lid. It will last several days, and when you're ready to get rid of it, it can be poured down the drain.
If you liked this tutorial, here are others you might enjoy:
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About the Author
The Sparkle Kitchen Series is created by Meryl Carver-Allmond.
Meryl lives in a hundred year old house near the prairie with her sweet husband, two pre-schoolers, one puppy, one gecko, and about ten chickens. While she's been writing since she could pick up a pen, in recent years she's discovered the joy of photography, too. She feels lucky to be able to combine those skills, along with a third passion--showing people that cooking for themselves can be healthy and fun--in her weekly Sparkle Kitchen posts.
When Meryl isn't writing for Sparkle Kitchen, you can find her on her personal blog, My Bit of Earth, where she writes about chickens, babies, knitting, gardening, food, photography, and whatever else tickles her fancy on any given day.