I am mourning the loss of a friend. My dear friend died a slow, lingering death and I feel not only the loss and sadness of this recent demise; I bear the pain of knowing that I am the cause of it. Let me explain…

Here is a photograph of my friend in happier times. The photo was taken almost one year ago.
healthy vat
Fermentation was underway, bacteria flourished and all was well in the trashcan my friend lived in. Another harsh winter had passed, spring arrived and my friend revived once again. As the heat of summer settled in, my friend became fully alive after a bit of gentle coaxing and feeding. Wheat bran, ground madder, lye and hydrated lime, a tiny amount of brown sugar and ground indigo were the ingredients of the diet I fed my friend. The heat energized my friend and fermentation was strong and steady. After consuming all that I fed it, my friend began to feed me. Glorious blue color was given to me in return for my efforts. Here is a sample of what I received:
indigo cloth 2
My friend gave and gave until fall arrived and the cool nights lulled my friend back to the deep sleep of Minnesota winter. This spring arrived, my friend was still alive and by summer I committed murder. How did I kill my friend? Greed and carelessness! Let me confess…

The Crime

This spring was terrible and unusual here in Minnesota. It snowed in May. Besides the snow so late in the year, spring was very cool and wet. This June shear winds tore up trees all over town. The weather wreaked havoc on my garden (for anything that looked forward to sun and warmth) and slowed the awakening of my friend. Even the weeds slept longer than usual. As things began to warm up and calm down, signs of life in the trashcan occurred and I began the coaxing and feeding of my good friend. Everything around here was coming along, yet it was (and still is) a month behind schedule. In Minnesota, timing is everything because our growing season is brief. Last winter was eight months long. When things finally do warm up we work with the knowledge that four months is just about all we get to work out our gardening plans. The same holds true for fermentation in an indigo vat that lives outdoors. Summer and part of fall is precious and productive time for my friend and me.

With the strangeness and unpredictability of this season, fear began gnawing at me. I felt that the feeding and care of my friend wasn’t producing the desired results quickly enough. I feared that we wouldn’t have enough quality time together this season. It seems I became blinded by greed and I was careless in my feeding and coaxing. I wanted blue and I wanted it sooner than my friend was willing to give it. Healthy and strong, steadily fermenting is how my friend was earlier this summer. Slowly it released the blue color I was after! Rather than being patient and satisfied I allowed greed and fear to enter my heart. At that point I made some fatal decisions. I thought I could get my friend to consume more than it wanted. I force-fed extra bran and sugar in amounts that I had never done before. Fermentation was already underway and all was right, but somehow I thought I could speed things up. The weather turned really hot just as soon as I overfed my friend and what happened next is something I never want to see (or smell) again. Within two days my friend developed a huge cap of grayish-brown material that covered its entire surface. The look of the stuff was frightening! I removed it and it kept returning. The vat developed a truly “off” odor that any indigo-dyer could differentiate from the usual fragrance of a healthy fermentation vat. I could not bear to photograph the cap that developed. I should have but I couldn’t because it would have felt like photographing a friend as they lay dying. In retrospect, I am sorry that I did not photograph the final days of my friend’s life. Like an anatomy class for medical students, photographs of this process would be instructive to dyers as how this particular death progresses.

Post mortem…

Fermentation continued in the trashcan at a furious pace. The speed of the cap’s growth slackened, but did not cease. The material of the cap was like some moldy overgrowth: fluffy, light and extravagant. After a few days it took on a reddish tint. I assume that was the madder releasing its color. There was no hint of blue color anywhere to be seen. No blue in the cap, none in the liquid, not even on the inside walls of the trashcan. This cap did not dissolve in water or into the contents of the vat. It just floated defiantly on the surface. Whenever I am dipping cloth in my vat, onlookers (non-indigo-dyers) always complain about the fragrance. I rejoice at the same scent because I have come to recognize it as the smell of success. I have become fully accustomed to this scent. The dying vat smelled awful; it was the scent of failure and death. The nose knows! Even though I sensed that my friend lay near death, I continued to stir and watch and hope for recovery. The pH dropped and the contents stayed green. I tried to stave off the obvious with bits of its favorite foods. All my efforts were in vain. I had to admit that my friend was gone. Whatever indigo was in the trashcan was gone! No amount of air caused oxidation. I beat my friend for an hour just hoping to see a trace of blue appear. The liquid in the trashcan remained green. The cause of death was over-fermentation to the extent that everything in the vat was consumed – including the indigo. Rather than attempting to transform the remains of my friend I decided to dump the contents, scrub and sanitize the trashcan with bleach and begin again. I went to bed with a heavy heart that night. I had a funeral and burial to attend to the next morning. Here is a photo of the corpse:


Life goes on…

In my haste to get that blue color I started another vat at the very same time I was killing the first one. Here it is:

Fermentation is going strong!
Fermentation is going strong!

Earlier today I successfully dipped a couple of garments and a hand-woven shawl. Blue is back on the farm! The trashcan that housed my deceased friend is filled with water, lye, bran, madder and a wee amount of brown sugar. Fermentation is beginning and within a couple of days I will add the indigo. Here is the progress thus far:

No indigo is in the mix yet.
No indigo is in the mix yet.

Indigo is a great friend that always offers lessons in patience and mindfulness along with the glorious blue color.

One Reply to “Death of an Indigo Vat”

  1. So instructional. Feeling sad and happy at the same time, sad for the death of the original vat, but happy and relieved that “life” goes on. I KNOW you will succeed. It’s in your DNA, the way you figure things out and get right to work on positive outcomes. You’re a winner!

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