Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Not the blues I expected

This post is about indigo dyeing gone wrong. It's also about figuring out how to treat disappointments as "learning experiences," even when it's not clear at the time what you should learn. Get ready for an extensive post!

I've been carefully, lovingly tending a little pot of Japanese Indigo plants this summer. So it was with great excitement that I prepared for my indigo dyeing this weekend! Several days ahead of time, I dyed up yarn samples local yellows -- chamomile, goldenrod, marigold, rudbeckia, and sweetfern -- so that I could overdye them with indigo to get greens.

On the morning for indigo dyeing, I plucked enough leaves to fill a large mason jar, lightly packed. This came to about 40 g by weight -- not much, but it was only a small initial experiment, and I only planned to dye about 20 g of yarn.

Trying to follow the directions from Rita Buchanan's "A Dyer's Garden," I filled the mason jar with water, placed it my larger dyepot as a double boiler, and slowly brought it up to 160 F. I let it simmer at temperature for another hour and a half, and then the leaves steeped for another hour. The leftmost photo shows it while steeping - you can see that the dye liquor was a dark brown, with not so much as a hint of blue.

I strained out the leaves, added half a teaspoon of baking soda, and began to pour the liquid between two jars to oxidize the indigo pigment. Supposedly, the liquid should change color and become a dark blue. When that didn't happen, I added a bit more baking soda, and then a bit more again. The color never seemed to change. The middle picture above shows the dye liquor when I finally gave up on the pouring.

The next step was to add a reducing agent. I added about half a tablespoon of RIT dye remover, and let the jar sit in hot water (110 F) for about ten minutes. This time it did indeed change color -- not to the pale yellow that I expected, but to a light yellowy green. I added more dye remover to try to get it lighter, then let it sit for another twenty minutes. This is shown on the far right, above.

I added seven merino wool samples - six different yellows and one undyed, all previously soaked in warm water. They sat in the indigo dyebath for about half an hour, and then I started to remove them, squeeze them out, and hang them to dry. This is the first one, which was undyed. It's a light yellow coming out of the jar:

And in another minute, it had turned to a turquoise color. This photo below really doesn't show it well. I gave it half an hour to fully oxidize and turn blue, and then I thought I'd darken it with a second dip.

This is when the dyeing experiment took a turn for the worse. To my grave disappointment, the second dip removed more dye than it deposited on the yarn, leaving the yarn even lighter than the first dip. Even worse, when I gave the samples a very mild wash and vinegar dip the following day (according to Jim Liles' directions in "The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing"), almost all the remaining indigo color was removed. The lovely mossy greens reverted to putrid yellows, while the pure indigo sample has barely a hint of color left. Here's the lot, with the yellows on the right, the "greens" on the left, and the "blue" in the middle:

I can't tell you which yarn is from which dyes, because in a fit of anger, I ripped them all off the drying line and threw them away. But this is where the concept of trying to salvage the learning experiences comes in. I retrieved them, let them fully dry, and will sometime try to figure out what is what. And I went back to the books to try to figure out what the heck happened with my indigo.

I think that I found one answer in Jim Liles' extensive section on different indigo vats (note: his recipes use indigo powder rather than fresh indigo leaves). He says that if the vat is too alkaline and has excess reducing agents, then the fiber cannot adequately absorb the indigo. On subsequent dips, the already-deposited indigo will be stripped. Remember how I kept adding baking soda and dye remover when I wasn't seeing the color changes I'd expected? Seems to fit.

But it still doesn't solve the mystery of why the indigo that did adhere to the fiber was rinsed out the next day. Could there have been enough reducing agent left in the unwashed yarn, so that when I dipped it in water, it made another reducing solution?? But if there was that much left on the yarn, then why did I get any blue (i.e. oxidized indigo) at all? Furthermore, what about all the other things on Buchanan's list of what can go wrong: picking the leaves too early or too late, heating the water too slow, too fast, or too high, etc? And what was up with the strange colors of the dye liquor?

This is the problem with learning experiences: when there are so many things that could be responsible for the bad outcome, it's hard to know what to learn.

This issue has been on my mind because I'm trying to deal with another unfortunate outcome: I'm withdrawing from my PhD program. It's mostly a relief, since I've never felt happy or competent in it. But there are deep undertones of sadness and loss, too, since I walk away with nothing to show (no masters degree even) for three exhausting years of my life. So I'm trying to figure out what kind of learning experience I can salvage from it. Would love to hear any thoughts that you have about this kind of process...

For now, I'm seeing one clear upshot -- I'll probably get in a lot more knitting in the next few months!


Anonymous said...

I know how you feel... I am facing a severe re-evaluation of my PhD program (two years in) and though I haven't withdrawn yet, the process of figuring it all out is very uncomfortable. The project I thought I would be doing for my dissertation has for various reasons probably slipped out of my reach, and the sense of loss is devestating and disorienting. I so much want these years to be worth something, and... it might not be so. My thoughts are with you, I hope you find peace and I know you will find value in the experience, even though it seems so sad now.

Ellen said...

H, I think that graduate school is a very difficult experience for many people (I'm sure you've read my various exegeses on my blog about my harrowing first three years in the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, which were characterized largely by outright misery, extreme homesickness and disorientation, and feelings of exhausting and demoralizing incompetence, so I won't go into it further here) and that it is *not* a necessary complement to a rich, full, and rewarding life.

I know that it is so very hard to withdraw because of the immense investment of time, intellect, sweat, suffering, etc., but this could well be the bravest and smartest thing you've ever done.

When you are in school, though, all the messages you get are that if you don't finish and become an academic then you are a failure. SO not true! I think once you have some distance from it, it may well come to feel like the best decision you ever made. I have several friends who had that experience, so I think that too is common.

So acknowledge the sadness and then go forth and be well and do all the things that matter to you. (Including maybe another run at the dyeing?)

You will be in my thoughts.

Veronique said...

I've also known many people who have dropped out of their PhD program. Of course, it is sad, but if it's wrong for you, why force yourself to suffer for 5-6 years?! I'm sure you will find what you are meant to do.

I loved reading about your dyeing experiments! I'd heard that indigo is a tough one, but I hadn't realized just how hard it was. You've read That Laurie's posts on the Yarn Harlot blog, right?