Week 22: immersion

indigo dyed paper1

My maternal grandmother had an old fashioned laundry; concrete trough, mangle  wringer and single tub washing machine. An airy working space which was imbued with mystery, all because of the little ‘dolly bag’, a bag of laundry blue she added to the rinse water. This blue bag was used to make the household linen ‘whiter than white’ and consisted of a muslin bag filled with indigo dye and starch.

My fascination with indigo remains, for it is an elusive and disputed colour. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1747) included it as one of the seven spectra colours in a prism of light, yet subsequent experiments indicate that indigo is not present in white light, sunlight or even the diffraction of light from a torch beam. [1] Was Newton wrong? Or did he just want to reference the seven notes of the musical scale?

Numerous scholarly articles have been written tracing the physics and history of this elusive colour extracted from the dye yielding plants of the genus indigofera. Suffice to say that it is a tricky chemical process whereby the dyed material turns from emerald green to deep blue when exposed to the air. This is why indigo vats are carefully maintained or they lose their potency.

indigo green to blueindigo dye bath

I spent the day at a fellow artist’s house this week trialing the best methods of dying my banana paper with indigo. I tried painting the dye onto paper, dipping dry paper into the vat and finally it was suggested to wrap the paper first in muslin, roll it into a sock shape, immerse fully in water and then dip each side for five minutes into the indigo dye bath. Shades of my grandmother’s “dolly bag”!

The result being shibori type dye marks which reference the sound lines I have subsequently printed onto them.

indigo print

While Goethe says that we love to contemplate blue “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it”[2]; Steiner says that blue gathers itself together inwardly and is “the lustre of the soul.”[3] This seems to fit with my subjective textural analysis that banana paper is in itself ‘lustrous’. Indigo dyed banana paper doubly so!


[1] Thomas E. McDuffie, Jr., “The Search for Indigo,” Science Activities 32, no. 3 (1995).

[2] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1970), 311.

[3] Rudolf Steiner, Colour (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1992), 39.


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