True Indigo Dyeing: The Fermented Vat

It’s a misty summer morning in Mullumbimby, tucked in the rainforest behind Byron Bay in northern New South Wales. Today’s weather forecast is 36 degrees Celsius – perfect conditions for fermentation.

Fermented Indigo leaf vats at Aboubakar's Bamako studio - photograph by Gianni and Tiziana Baldessoni

The air is filled with anticipation and the fragrant scent of frankincense. For seven days our group of seven eager students and one master indigo dyer, Aboubakar Fofana, have been lovingly tending to a naturally fermented indigo leaf vat, feeding it with organic wheat bran and balancing it with lime daily.

Today, like every other day, Aboubakar has arrived earlier than everyone else to spend time with the vat. His love for indigo dyeing is immediately apparent from the way that he speaks about this ancient natural dye and the careful way in which he handles the vat.

If we have been attentive enough, the ingredients are high quality, conditions are right and the stars are aligned, today we will have a naturally fermented indigo vat in which to colour our cloth.

Once the lid is gently prised off and set aside, immediately the eye watering scent of ammonia fills my nostrils. Physically, my body wants to recoil from this pungent aroma, but my fascination with this extraordinary solution and excitement for the colours that I will be able to draw from it brings me closer.

That aroma, and the metallic deep purple-blue foam flower, mean that this golden liquid is ready to accept our cloth for a few hours today.

Aboubakar working in his Bamako studio -Photograph by Francois Goudier

One by one, we gently lower our linen, feathers, silk, leather and wool into the vat, working the indigo through the fibres under the watchful eye of our teacher. Aboubakar believes in learning through watching and then by practise, so we’ve seen him demonstrate in the indigo and performed many rehearsals in clear water before we put our hands in this sacred liquid.

As we remove our pieces from the vat, they’re a golden, green colour. After a few minutes of gently waving them in the air, they oxidise to that indigo blue that we all know so well. Repeated immersion and working in the vat deepens these blues. I lost count after hours of working in the indigo, but I estimate that I immersed one piece over 30 times, resulting in a deep, midnight blue.

Like any living being, the vat can’t be worked all day without rest. After half a day of harvesting its colour, we gently replace the flower and close the lid. Any sudden drops in temperature can bring the vat close to death, so we wrap it in a woolen blanket to keep it cosy overnight.

In a small way, by using the same method that has been practiced in West Africa for centuries, we are part of Aboubakar’s lifelong project to revive this traditional practise that has been all but lost in his birth country, Mali.

A graphic designer by trade, Aboubakar has now devoted his life to reviving the Malian textile industry by sharing his passion for and knowledge of ancestral growing, weaving and dyeing skills with his community in Bamako and the world.

Ombre dyed organic hemp indigo shawl - photograph by Doreen Hemp

In Mali, the native indigo plants, Lonchocarpus cyanescen and Indigofera arrecta are more than just a textile dye. They’re healing plants that are used to treat wounds, repel insects, relieve pain and chase away bad spirits.

Traditionally, cloth dyed with its fermented leaves holds a place in every life stage.

Women wanting to conceive a child wear a skirt dyed with the fermented leaves to increase their fertility, and when they do conceive, lay their babies down to sleep in indigo-dyed sheets to open their young minds.

From the day that her son is born, a mother starts putting aside resources to create for him a special indigo-dyed shawl that he will wear from the day of his wedding until the day he leaves this world – and on that day he will be wrapped in that sacred shawl as he is returned to the earth.

Likewise, indigo is more than just a colour to Aboubakar. His fascination with the green leaves that yield a blue colour started when he was seven years old. Spending time at his Grandmother’s house in the Guinean countryside, he came to understand the different uses for wild plants, and the one that caught his imagination the most was indigo.

By this stage, natural indigo dye was already almost a completely lost tradition in Mali, having been largely replaced with synthetic blue dye. The relatively inexpensive and comparatively endless supply of synthetic indigo makes it irresistible to commercial textile dyers seeking to achieve this hue that, traditionally, has been one of the most difficult colours to achieve.

But as any plant-dyeing aficionado will attest, the depth of colour that natural indigo achieves can never be matched by synthetic substitutes. According to Aboubakar, even textiles dyed with natural indigo that has been prepared with toxic sodium hydrosulphite (the most common method of indigo dyeing worldwide) lack the richness that naturally fermented indigo produces. This is because the chemically developed vats, although much quicker and easier to prepare, will largely contain only indigotin, the component of the indigo plant that creates the blue colour. Naturally fermented leaf vats, on the other hand, also contain high levels of indirubin and isoindirubin (red) and isoindigo (brown) compounds, imbibing the textiles with a variety of colours.

Having come face to face with indigo dyed textiles that fit into all of the above categories, I can heartily agree with Aboubakar. There is nothing like the beauty of truly natural indigo dyed yarn and fabric.

Aboubakar is returning to Australia in May and June of this year to teach indigo and other natural dyeing and stitching workshops in Sydney and Melbourne, where a very limited number of participants will have the opportunity to learn the techniques that this master dyer has developed over more than three decades.

There will also be a chance to view and purchase his naturally dyed textiles in a show with Sibella Court at The Society in Sydney from the 11th to 23rd May.

Contact Johanna Macnaughtan  for more info and bookings.

Follow Aboubakar on Instagram to share his natural dyeing journey.

Indigofera arrecta - photograph by Aboubakar Fofana
Aboubakar working in his atelier - Photograph by Francois Goudier
Blue Trees by Aboubakar Fofana