Weaving Indigo Dyed Denim
I‘ve worked exclusively with wool fiber for the past two years. I reside in the Pacific Northwest where the climate tends to be wet and cool. Wool is the perfect fiber for this weather. However, in June, Portland turns into a sunny bright city. Then, for two or three months, I find myself wearing all cotton: t-shirts, button-down blouses and jeans. Cotton is a fiber that as a weaver and natural dyer, I have had little interest in—which is strange because I grew up in the rural south surrounded by cotton fields. After a closer look at my wardrobe and realizing its cotton contents, I decided to produce quality indigo dyed handwoven denim. I would give the completed fabric to local designer Adam Arnold to create a pair of jeans.
My MFA practicum titled Pastoral: Growing regional clothing from sheep to shoulder investigated the processes and viability of sustainably made wool garments. This expanded my role from weaver and textile designer to visualizer and systems creator. Just as I developed and created woolen textiles for garments, I knew I could approach denim in the same manner.
The first step in producing a sustainably made garment involves yarn sourcing, a frustrating endeavor due to the lack of American grown and milled yarn available in the marketplace. I searched for a suitable cotton yarn to weave denim. For me, suitable meant the yarn had to be US grown and organic. I was surprised to find several sources including Fox Fibres and New World Textiles. I chose New World Textiles. They had yarn that was US grown, organic and in green and brown varieties! I bought a cone of each.
After referring to the Levi’s website, technical papers, and looking at my own jeans with a pick glass, I determined I would need to dye my warp with indigo. The weft in denim is white—or, in my case, light green or brown. After counting warp threads per inch using my pick glass, I knew my ends per inch needed to be 60. This would create a tight durable weave.
Since the finished cloth was going to be used for clothing, I needed significant width. I determined 24 inches was perfect. Based on finished width, length, and ends per inch, calculations, I needed approximately 13,000 yards for both the warp and weft. I would dye the warp half of the yardage with my organic indigo vats.
Many people are intimidated by indigo. I once was. This was until I took a workshop with Michel Garcia. He is a polymath, natural dye expert, and chemist who has studied natural dyes and their ethno botanical origins for the past 30 years. His instructional methods are simplified enough that any curious student remains eager to learn more. The workshop’s first lesson was on the subject of organic indigo fruit vats. With three ingredients (fruit scraps, slaked lime and indigo powder) he made a healthy vat in 30 minutes. I was sold. Since the workshop, I’ve always had a vat going. I’ve taught and encouraged this technique to indigo curious friends and colleagues.
I used this type of vat to dye the warp skeins of yarn. The fruit vat isn’t always an intense dark indigo, so the dipping required 7 dips in the vat. After the final dip and rinse, I neutralized the pH by soaking the yarn in vinegar water. This also softens the yarn a bit.
My mentor, Marsha Hahn, head fabric designer at Pendleton Woolen Mills, has always encouraged me to weave a sample swatch. I threaded a 2.5-inch sample on my Nilus Le Cleric table loom. Denim is a left twill weave structure that can be woven with a 2/1 or 3/1 twill. I decided on 2/1 since my table loom had 4 harnesses. I wove the sample and cut it off. The variegation of the hand dyed warp danced before my eyes; I was excited to get a slight strie effect. I was more enthused as soon as I’d cut the sample and could rub it between my fingers. It felt soft but sturdy.
The true test came when I handed it to the fashion designer for approval. He described the feel as “comfort food for fabric”—just the validation I needed to persevere. I knew my floor loom wouldn’t be able to effectively handle this type of job. I had been weaving on Macomber floor looms for the past three years and I love them because they are workhorses. I rented one from my old MFA program and gave myself two weeks to warp, thread and weave.
Two weeks for such a hefty project combined with my daytime work schedule was tight and unrealistic. By the time I finished threading the loom, I only had three evenings to wind on my warp and weave. This is the absurd part of my practice. Before I even throw the shuttle I’m emotionally exhausted with the project. At this juncture, the warp has been wound on the back beam halfway. Due to the density of the ends per inch and the size of the yarn, the task of winding onto the back beam has been arduous. I tried different techniques to prevent yarn tangle and breakage through the heddles but haven’t found the perfect solution. Therefore, every 4 inches, I have to re- comb and tension the warp. Needless to say, this is frustrating and time consuming. However, I am able to pause and appreciate the formal qualities—the linear plane that the unwoven warp creates. This is one of the payoffs.
Presently, the remaining warp is waiting to be wound onto the back beam and woven into cloth. This task will take at least 30 additional hours of labor. When the fabric is woven, I will deliver it to Adam Arnold’s studio and start the process of collaborating on the perfect jean. I’m often asked if it pains me to know my work is going to be cut up. The short answer is always no. The idea that I’ve created something of use by my own set of values and beliefs and am able to share it with another maker is priceless. In the end, I will have a well-made pair of jeans that tell a local story and have lasting value.