Katy and I first went to Thailand about 8 months into starting STORY in the hopes of finding more natural dyers, hand weavers and craftspeaple to expand our pool. We did a lot of research and settled on the North West, and sure enough a few conversations later we had a guide who knew all the last bastions of natural dyeing. We jumped in a car and drove around remote villages, eagerly awaiting blue fingers and the distinctive smell of natural indigo fermentation.
Except, we didn't find that. We found indigo dyeing, sure - but it was all synthetic. Natural dyeing had died in the region, replaced for ease with chemicals and imported fixatives. Place after place we were disappointed, and after an ungodly amount of driving we headed back to the nearest city feeling dejected.
The next day we decided to let loose and visit a night market, mostly to get watermelon shakes, but also in the hope we might see something interesting. After hours on our feet we were headed back to our rented room when we caught the sight (and whiff) of natural indigo. There, right at the edge of the market was 'Suchada', a smiling lady selling the indigo dyed fabric her family dyes and weaves on the opposite side of the country. I was skeptical, we've met charlatans before, so I likely came across quite rude - asking pointed questions, insisting on pictures. She answered everything with a broad smile and showed us pictures and videos of her family on her tablet. More than that, she invited us to visit - so we did!
Not only does this family (they refer to themselves as sisters and brothers, but they are more related by community than blood) grow and harvest their own indigo, but they do the same with their cotton too.
Most of the cotton used is grown in small gardens, alongside beans, veggies and even rubber trees by retired farmers who continue their natural dye and weaving craft as a hobby and supplementary income.
They harvest the indigo, and spin it into yarn themselves, using traditional wheels. The little bottle above is a local oil used to keep the wheel and spindle nimble.
The kind of indigo they choose to grow here is actually the same type the guys grow in India, but the climate being different makes for some interesting shades. We've noticed the Indian extract is redder, while this stuff is a little greener.
While the indigo plant here is the same as in India, the vats are quite different. Our Indian indigo dyers use grain, water and a little lime to dye in vast underground vats, but these ladies in Thailand use tamarind juice, ash water (filtered through bbq'd leaves) and rainwater in a series of small clay pots.
These pots are reffered to as little 'children' that need to be kept fed, watered and airated to live. They're just the right size for dyeing one hank of yarn and nothing else. In fact, weather permitting, our dyers will dye just one hank a day by dipping it once in each of the six pots until the vat is exhausted and the yarn is a deep dark blue.
We've been working with these ladies for a few seasons now - you'll find the plain indigo fabric in our Sundae Jackets from SS16 (and back again in SS17) and for AW16 we've also made a light brown fabric as well as a 'rain ikat'. To make the ikat yarns the ladies wrap plastic at intervals around the hanks (see above) before dyeing, leaving white spaces in the yarn.
We've been told all kinds of 'rules' for drying indigo, and here they like to dry the hanks of yarn outdoors under shade.
Once dried, the hanks are washed again in rainwater before being mounted on a loom and hand woven into fabric. It's laborious but meditative work. Some like to do it alone, others keep their looms in a central location so they can chat with the other ladies in the community while they work.
Finally the fabric is softened with water and given a good iron to get the shrinkage out so we get a stable, soft and breathable fabric. The absolute best thing about this entire process is the myriad shades we get - meaning no two jackets are ever the same.