Investigating Indigo in the Art of the Anatolian Kilim

On view through June 10 in the Textiles Gallery at the de Young, The Art of the Anatolian Kilim: Highlights from the McCoy Jones Collection showcases extraordinary examples of flat-woven kilims from the 15th to the 19th century. Considered to be the most important group of Anatolian kilims outside of Turkey, these kilims are notable for their elaborate design patterns, unusual color combinations and the weavers' mastery of natural dye processes. The intense blues presented in these textiles are made possible by the unique properties of indigo dye.

2003.87.5

Kilim, 17th–18th century. Turkey, Central Anatolia, Ankara Province. Wool; dovetail and slit-tapestry weave. The Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Collection, Gift of Caroline McCoy-Jones. 2003.87.5

To learn more about Indigo and the dye process, we contacted artist and Textile Arts Council member Barbara Shapiro. Shapiro brings extensive knowledge of historic and ethnic textiles and broad technical experience in weaving, dyeing and basketry to her work, which appeared in To Dye For: A World Saturated in Color . For many years she has specialized in indigo dying and has taught many students the “Greener indigo,” a process that is safer and more ecological than common chemical formulas.

Can you explain the Indigo dye process?

Indigo dye matter is extracted from the leaves of one of the half-dozen or so indigo-bearing plants. The blue matter is then collected and dried into a paste form. Indigo dye in its normal state will not dissolve or dye cloth, but when reduced chemically or through organic fermentation, the dyestuff becomes available to attach to cloth. When wetted cloth or fiber is soaked in the reduced indigo solution, which is usually yellow or yellow-green, the reduced indigo attaches to the fibers. After 2 to 10 minutes of soaking, the cloth comes out of the liquid appearing yellow or yellow green. When the oxygen in the air hits the cloth, it turns blue before your eyes. It’s just magical!

Cloth Turning Blue

Barbara Shapiro dying cloth in indigo

Repeated dipping will darken the color. The cloth must sit at least overnight for the dye to fully attach before being rinsed out. Some dyers leave the cloth for weeks before rinsing and finishing.

How is Indigo different from other types of dyes?

Other natural dyes may require a mordant to attach to the fibers. The mordant is often a metal salt solution in which the fiber is soaked either before or after dipping in the dye bath. Indigo dye falls into a different category from all other natural dyes because it doesn’t require a mordant to attach to the fiber. This greatly reduces the number of steps needed to obtain good permanent color–Indigo is the only provider of a true, long-lasting natural blue dye.

Flotsam by Barbara Shapiro

Flotsam by Barbara Shapiro

All the dyes in the exhibition were harvested locally, whereas Indigo was imported–why is that?

Although Indigo producing plants are found in many parts of the world, including Anatolia, the Indian species of indigo-bearing plant contains the richest dye material, and from as far back as the time of the Ancient Greeks, it has been imported from India. Indigo was a large component of the Spice Trade, and the dye and indigo-dyed cloths were traded along the Silk Route for centuries. The history of trade in indigo is a fascinating subject.

The McCoy Jones kilims are known for their variegation in color. What role does Indigo play in this gradation of color?

Indigo provides a wide range of blue yarns that, when over-dyed with yellow and red, produce rich greens and purples (respectively). It could also be used in combination with other natural dyes to produce blacks and browns.

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Kilim, 18th–19th century. Turkey, Aegean Region, Usak or Denizli Province. Wool, cotton; slit-tapestry weave. The Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Collection, Gift of Caroline McCoy-Jones. 2000.202.6

Interested in indigo? See this intriguing dye at work in The Art of the Anatolian Kilim currently on view at the de Young.