How to Dye Natural Fabric with Natural Indigo Powder

By Natasha Hoover

The Indigo Plant

How to Dye with Natural Indigo
How to Dye with Natural Indigo | Source

Indigo - Natural Dye for Natural Fibers

Indigo is natural dye used since ancient times to produce beautiful blues that range from sky blue to deep, almost black blue. Frequently, people are nervous about dyeing with indigo. It is a tricky dye to work with, mostly because it is not water soluble and will not bind to fabric unless the dye vat is deprived of oxygen. Over the course of several years, I have followed various indigo dye recipes available online with little success. It could be my fault, not the recipe's, but the end result is the same. Finally, after year's of effort, I have discovered a recipe for indigo dyeing that actually works. The following recipe was adapted from The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing by J.N. Liles. It has worked for me every time I have tried it, and it will work for you, too, as long as you follow the steps carefully.

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Materials Needed to Dye with Indigo

First, you need to assemble your materials. Unless you live somewhere near a store that carries natural dyeing items, you will probably have to order several of these items online. I am sure there are many stores that carry natural dyes, but the only one I have personally visited is Earth Guild in Asheville, NC. Growing up, my mom and I used to make special pilgrimage-esque trips to Earth Guild.

How to Choose Natural Indigo

The type of dried indigo you purchase can have an impact on your dye vat, and the color of the items dyed. I prefer to use natural indigo that has already been powdered. The powdered form is easier to work with, but natural indigo also comes in lumps and cakes. If you purchase non-ground indigo, you will need to grind it. I highly recommend natural indigo over artificial indigo because it produces better colors. Historically, when artificial indigo became available in the nineteenth century, customers sought out goods dyed with natural indigo because it was considered superior. Natural indigo really is better - it can create a deeper blue, and, since it is not water soluble, you can wash natural indigo over and over without any color loss.

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Powdered natural indigoChunked natural indigoArtificial indigo - little balls instead of a natural, irregular ground appearance
Powdered natural indigo
Powdered natural indigo | Source
Chunked natural indigo
Chunked natural indigo | Source
Artificial indigo - little balls instead of a natural, irregular ground appearance
Artificial indigo - little balls instead of a natural, irregular ground appearance | Source

Needed Equipment for Indigo Dyeing

You will also need a jar or water bottle with a tight lid, a 2 gallon bucket with a tight lid, a pair of latex (or similar material) gloves, lye, thiourea dioxide (also known as color remover) and potassium hydroxide. Lye can be easy to find at a home improvement store being marketed as drain cleaner. For the thiourea dioxide and indigo, check online with Dharma Trading Company or Aurora Silk. Both sites supply natural indigo dyeing products.

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How to Prepare Indigo Stock

Next, prepare your "stock." Mostly fill your jar or bottle with hot water. I just use water from the hot tap of the sink. Then, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of lye and 2 or more teaspoons of indigo powder. If you want your textiles to be sky blue, go with 2. If you want them to be a dark, midnight blue, use up to 5 teaspoons. I usually use 2 or 3. Then, screw the lid on tightly and shake for 2 minutes. Next, add 2 teaspoons of thiourea dioxide, recap and shake for an additional minute.


How to tell if Indigo Stock is Correct

I know if is difficult to tell in the photo because I used a green water bottle, but the stock should not be completely blue. It should have a bubbly, coppery blue/green/purple appearance. If it looks funky, you're on the right track! Make sure the lid is on well to prevent extra unnecessary exposure to air and simply let the stock sit for at least 15 minutes. I usually let it rest for 30-40 minutes.


How to Prepare Indigo Vat

After your stock is ready, you can prepare the vat. I just put my 2 gallon bucket in the sink and fill it up with hot water. Then, you add 1/8 teaspoon of lye and stir until dissolved. I like using a big metal spoon, but you can use plastic, too. Do not use a wooden spoon to stir the indigo because the wood will actually absorb the dye. Next, add 1/2 teaspoon of potassium hydroxide and 1 teaspoon of thiourea dioxide. Stir again.


The next part is a little difficult. You definitely want to wear your gloves. I only have the wrist-length gloves, but a pair of elbow-length gloves would be better. You must add the stock to the vat while introducing as little air as possible. I usually submerge the bottle, at least partially, and then remove the cap. Because indigo will only dye a material when it is deprived of oxygen, allowing excess exposure to air can ruin your vat. The vat will probably have a top foamy layer that turns blue. This is okay. However, the bulk of the liquid should be a deep green and the vat should have a coppery sheen. If your vat is blue, you can try to salvage it by mixing in more thiourea dioxide, but you may simply want to start over.

After closing up your vat, let it rest for at least 15 minutes. Then, you are ready to dye.


Dye Natural Fiber Fabrics with Indigo

You will achieve the best results when you only dye natural materials because the indigo does not bind well to synthetics. It basically doesn't bind at all. Wool, cotton, linen and silk are all fairly easy to dye with indigo. No mordant (a presoak solution that improves color retention with some natural dyes) is required when you dye with indigo. However, you should make sure to wash your fabric or other items before dyeing to remove any chemical finish that may have been applied in the manufacturing process. You should also soak whatever you want to dye in warm water for several minutes before dyeing. This encourages an even application of color. Make sure to wring the item out lightly before dunking it in the dye vat.


Unlike most natural dyes, the length of time the items spends in the vat does not dictate the richness of the color. An item should only be submerged for a few minutes at a time. If you want a deeper or darker color, simply re-submerge it after it has dried. I usually hold the cloth in the vat to make sure it remains submerged. When you are ready to remove the item from the vat, try to wring it out a little while it is still submerged. When you remove it from the vat, attempt to avoid letting the runoff dye flow back into the vat. This dye is useless for re-dyeing after it has been exposed to air, so letting it run back into the vat is detrimental.

Same vat as the earlier picture, just dyed more than once
Same vat as the earlier picture, just dyed more than once | Source

How to Make Sure Indigo Does not Bleed or Fade

You can either wave the cloth around in the air by hand until it dries, or, more practically, drape it over a line, shower curtain rod, etc. If you use a line, make sure it is a non-natural material. As long as the dye is wet, a natural material can and will leach dye from your textile. This includes wood clothes pins, so be careful! Because the wet dye will run, you may want to reposition the fabric every few minutes to make sure the dye application remains even.

Last, you need to make sure your newly-dyed textile won't turn you into a Smurf. Excess dye will remain in and on the textile, unbound and ready to rub off on you and your belongings. If you have ever dyed your hair, you know the drill - wash until the water runs clear. You can do this yourself, or you can just throw items in the washing machine on a quick cycle without any detergent.


After this, your natural indigo item will not loose any color in the wash, unless you do your laundry with lots of lye soap. However, indigo is only mostly light fast, so prolonged, direct sun exposure will eventually fade the dye.

If you cannot get the indigo vat to work correctly for you, you are not alone. I struggled with indigo for years and tried every recipe I could find, including ones that call for all manner of strange things (like wheat bran and corn syrup). This recipe is the best, most consistently successful one I've ever come across. I hope it helps someone achieve indigo dyeing success.

Watch the magic of indigo

The instructor in the video is a lady named Eve who conducted a workshop on indigo at an ALHFAM regional conference at Historic Brattonsville in late February, 2012 and I have posted this video with her permission.

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Comments 26 comments

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

Thanks much for sharing your experienced recipe and method. It is a great temptation to give it a try, but I'm glad to have a close look at the planning and time involved. It will be worth it when it do -- real indigo is beautiful!!!

Igg 4 years ago

Neat article, Tash! Beautiful pictures too. Might have to see this in progress sometime because I feel like I would create a disaster if I tried to do this without any previous dyeing knowledge.

Maddie Ruud profile image

Maddie Ruud 4 years ago from Oakland, CA

Wow, how beautiful! It just goes to show that the real thing truly is worth the effort!

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

You can still buy natural indigo blue jeans sometimes. I used to own a pair. Even after 8 years of washing, they still had a beautiful dark wash.

SanneL profile image

SanneL 4 years ago from Sweden

Great images and very useful hub!

I'm bookmarking for future use.

Thanks for sharing.

kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA

I will have to visit Earth Guild next time I'm in the mountains.

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

That was fascinating Natasha; we have a small lavender business and we make cloth necklaces stuffed with lavender and we are always looking for new ways to present the product. I think you just gave me an inspiration. Thumbs up!

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

I love lavender! I don't think I've ever seen a lvender stuffed cloth necklace - that sounds amazing.

shai77 profile image

shai77 4 years ago

Thanks Natashalh :-)

Truly wonderful Hub.

Rated and voted.

Pleasure reading your Hubs.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

The color results are so pretty on each of the materials shown in the photos. Great hub topic and so interesting. Thanks for sharing.

randslam profile image

randslam 4 years ago from Kelowna, British Columbia

Nothing like being an "indigo" child, Tash...great hub. Voted up and a lot of other things.

Nice to meet a living historian here.



Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Randslam: Thanks for reading, commenting and following! I think you are the first person to call me Tash here on HubPages, which is funny because that's what a lot of people call me in person. You must have met another Natasha at some point in time.

Thanks again.

Janis Goad profile image

Janis Goad 4 years ago

I love your hub, Natasha!! I used to dye wool with natural vegetable dyes when I was into spinning and knitting a few years ago, but kind of left it behind when I got busy raising my daughter and working. I did enjoy it, and your hub brings it back. There is always an element of surprise in the process since it is a little unpredictable.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Surprise is right! You just have to wait to see what the first item from that day looks like, but since dyes adhere differently to different fibers, even that might not let you know how something will look.

Thank you for stopping by and I am glad you enjoyed it.

Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

Useful tips. I sometimes dye my old jeans.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Nice! It hadn't occurred to me, but I could probably re-dye an old pair of jeans while doing this program. Thanks for the idea.

jouri 4 years ago

can you use it for hair? i mean is there a recipe or something? because the only indigo i can get here is this one that used for fabric.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

Hair is very structurally similar to silk - the amino acids are almost identical. I've seen people suggest using indigo for hair. I, personally, wouldn't do it because the dye solution is caustic and you could get a chemical burn on your scalp. But if you want your hair permanently blue, I think it probably would work.

jouri 4 years ago

thank you

i wouldn't use it either ;)

just the color is so awesome.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii Author

You could probably very carefully dye the tips of your hair. I agree, the color is pretty!

CthePower 2 years ago

Thank you for the wonderful post, I have not dyed anything outside of using RIT many years ago for a school project. You give me courage to try this out. I never pick easy when I try something new it seems LOL :)

Have you ever tried hemp fabric with this method ? I am in the mood to sew me up some nice things and I love the indigo color.

Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 2 years ago from Hawaii Author

I have dyed linen, cotton, and wool, but not hemp! It is a natural fiber, so it should dye well as long as the indigo is prepared correctly. I hope you enjoy!

Rottsy 7 months ago

I am assuming that the indigo used for fabric is different, or at least further processed than the one used for hair. I have some of the powder indigo for dying hair shades of brown-black in conjunction with henna. However, it looks NOTHING like the powder you show! Mine is a green powder that becomes a greenish-brown paste that is applied to the hair. Leave it on for several hours and blonde hair is dyed blue, red or brown hair becomes dark brown - midnight black when used alone. It can also be mixed with henna or applied either before or after henna in various percentages to get different shades of brown to a beautiful raven black! Perhaps I will have a go at it on fabric and just see what happens! :)

Jo 6 months ago

Hi Natashalh,

I have a quest

Jo 6 months ago

Hi Natashalh,

I have a question similar to Rottsy, is the natural indigo powder from your article similar to indigo powder for hair dying ?

Please share your opinion, thanks

Lindsay 6 weeks ago

From your post it sounds like you need both sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide to make this work. Am I misreading that? Also, haven't gone looking yet, but is the color remover you're using the same thing Rit has available to use before dying something that already has color? It's so super to have this recipe available, but I want to do it right. Thanks for your help and years of experimentation!

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