What Is Indigo and How Is It Made?

Handwoven Natural Indigo Tablemats with Diamond Pattern Studio Naenna Chiang Mai Thailand Roses

What is Indigo?

Indigo is a dye for fabric to achieve a characteristic dark blue colour. It became famous when the indigo powder was traded from India to Europe. Even today, many of our clothes are dyed with indigo – from the traditional dirndl in Austria to the jeans we wear daily. Pelagonas Mai Table Runners are also dyed with natural indigo.

How is Indigo Made?

What Is Indigo and How Is It Made Indigo Leaves Fermented Foam
The indigo leaves started fermenting over night.

Indigo is made from a tropical plant. Its seed is planted in June. The harvest in Thailand is in September and October. The plants are bundled together and put into big buckets. These buckets are then filled up with water (around 12-16 litres per bucket). Heavy stones are put on top of the plants to help extract the colour. The leaves need to soak in the water over night, usually about 24 hours depending on the outside temperature.

Before noon the next day, the bundles can be drained and removed from the buckets which were closed with lids. After the soaking process, the colour has changed into a turquoise-greenish-blue tone depending on the plants. On the plants, some blue foam has built and you can also smell that some fermenting was going on. (I like to compare it to the smell of Kimchi or Sauerkraut.) The bundles are not thrown away, they are being used as fertiliser.

Builders lime is added to the water as enzymes. The water needs to be “beaten” for about 20 minutes: with the help of a bowl dipped into the water, the water is moved and oxidised. The colour of the water changes from the greenish-tone to an intense blue.

What Is Indigo and How Is It Made Indigo Vase
The yarns will be dipped in this liquid. The darker the shade of blue, the more dips are required.

The liquid sits overnight. The next day, the indigo paste can be collected from the bottom of the bucket. The liquid is removed and the paste is being sifted through a piece of cotton cloth to remove debris. The indigo paste can then be stored for about two years. In the West, the indigo powder is more known. This has a practical reason: powder is much lighter to transport than the wet paste.

Dying the Yarns

The paste is then mixed with ash water or fruit sugars to “feed the indigo” in what looks like a giant vase. This process of fermenting takes several days and is an art in itself. It requires a lot of practice, knowledge and finesse.

The yarn is dipped into the liquid. At first, it may look green and multiple dips may be required to achieve the blue colour. The yarn is then hung to dry in the sun and then died again. The darker the colour, the more dips are required. Once the yarns are dyed and dried, they can be used to weave beautiful products for your home.

Handwoven Natural Indigo Tablemats with Diamond Pattern Studio Naenna Chiang Mai Thailand Box
Learn more about our handdyed and handwoven indigo table runners.

The Artisans of Studio Naenna in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Indigo Handwoven Tablerunners Studio Naenna Slider

I am very glad to announce a new partnership of Pelagona. In June this year, I went to Studio Naenna in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. This studio was founded in the 1980s by Patricia Cheesman and is now managed by her daughter Lamorna who grew up in Chiang Mai.

Studio Naenna makes fabrics such as natural silk, cotton and intricate weavings. They also focus on apparel and accessories. I would call their approach a “from farm to home”-concept: every step of the production process is done by the studio and its associated weavers. This involves planting and growing the plants, producing natural dyes, spinning and dying the yarns, weaving and bringing the products to the customer.

Lamorna and I agreed that I would come back to Chiang Mai in September and I ended up spending two days at their “Main Gallery” in the North of the city. Lamorna not only gave me a detailed insight into her family’s story and the studio but I also learned a lot about weaving and indigo. September is the main harvesting season of indigo and I got the chance to witness the production process of the indigo dye. Furthermore, I personally met the weavers who made the beautiful Mai Table Runners which are now available on Pelagona.

Handwoven Natural Indigo Table Runners with Diamond Pattern Studio Naenna Chiang Mai Thailand

Mai Handwoven Indigo Table Runner

The studio is also a specialist in producing indigo – a natural dye to achieve an intense dark blue colour (like the dye used for our beautiful table runners). The original, natural indigo is made from tropical plants and labour intensive and, therefore, expensive.

Studio Naenna Indigo Production Lamorna Cheesman and Weavers Beating Indigo
Lamorna Cheesman and the women working at Studio Naenna making the natural indigo dye.

When the region became interesting for mass production, it was impacted by the use of the cheaper synthetic indigo. The workers had not been educated about the use and disposal of synthetic dyes and their health risks. They assumed they could work with them just like with the natural indigo and disposed of the synthetic indigo by just pouring it on the ground. The dangerous substance then got into the drinking water, chicken ate them and passed the toxic substances to humans who ate the chicken and their eggs. Patricia Cheesman has always been an important expert in fabrics and dyes and acts as an intermediary between the stakeholders in fabric production. Together they committed to prioritising natural dyes. Therefore, until today, Studio Naenna’s mission in addition to the in-house production is educating the public with dying and weaving workshops.

By purchasing products by Studio Naenna, you help to preserve the local traditions and culture. Weaving has always been an important part of Northern Thai culture. One or two generations ago, traditional fabrics were woven to produce clothes for the family. However, when cheaper Western apparel reached the region, the labour-intensive intricate artwork became less and less attractive. Young people do not want to wear traditional clothes, they want to wear something modern. Furthermore, they move to the bigger cities and look for better paying jobs.

The most important learning for me was that Studio Naenna takes the weavers’ needs and lifestyles into account when they plan the production. Lamorna explained in her interview for my blog The Pink Lookbook:

First of all, […] weavers are mainly women. They are not just weavers – they are mothers, daughters, cleaners, cooks, community leaders, famers. They help each other with the harvesting. They support each other. There is so much more to their lives than just making money from weaving. They are able to make an income when they choose to, with in their own time. We have to accept that. If we are working on an order, it is our responsibility to plan that into the time schedule. It is not as easy as saying 80 metres will be woven within 80 days. We also communicate this to our customers. Furthermore, it is important for us to show the weavers that they are important and appreciated.”

It takes about one month to weave two of our Mai Table Runners. (This excludes the amount of time to produce the natural indigo dye which adds another four months.) They are handwoven by Peerada who works at Studio Naenna. Saeng, who is also a weaver of the studio, dyed the yarns. The weavers do not need any drawings or draft patterns for the traditional diamond pattern.

By shopping at Pelagona you will receive a beautiful addition to your home but you will also make a significant impact.

Your Impact:

  • Empower female artisans
  • Preserve local arts, traditions and culture
  • Support women in becoming independent and providing for their families
  • Ensure prompt and fair payment of the weavers
  • Create awareness about the supply chain of your products, natural materials and our environment.
Handwoven Natural Indigo Table Runners with Diamond Pattern Studio Naenna Chiang Mai Thailand Table Weaver with Indigo Dyed Yarns
Saeng, who has been working for Studio Naenna for years, dyed the yarns for Pelagona’s table runners with the natural indigo dye made at the studio.