5 years ago

Indigo Dyeing in Portland

I lived in Portland over the summer of 2017 and was looking for ways to meet people and experience something unique when I stumbled across AirBnB’s brand new concept – the AirBnB Experience.  I’d been staying in quite a few AirBnBs and while playing around on the site I activated the Experience feature and sifted through hiking experiences, honey making and lavender picking until I found something I’d never done before – indigo dyeing.  The photos on the post of goats and wood cabins on a cute little farm drew me in and I signed up.

On the morning of my Experience I pulled into a small grey gravel drive and maneuvered around a towering tree with a thick trunk to park my car near the garage-converted-studio.  The smell of pine mixed with coffee and a hint of dye welcomed me as I stepped into the space and took in my surroundings.

Fiona and Ferdinand were very eager for treats

Our host Carolyn greeted me and the other guests, taking us on a short tour of her half-acre farm.  She explained that she’d bought the place with just the main house and had added the small cabin and quaint yurt herself.  She’d had help building the barn that housed her goats and coop where her chickens slept.  She built exactly the life she always wanted and now soaked in the beauty with which she surrounded herself.  Carolyn introduced us to her goats, Ferdinand and Fiona.  Ferdinand had quite the appetite and was not shy about grabbing pellets from my hand, whether they were intended for him or not.

Carolyn lead us back into the studio where she passed around coffee in mugs she’d crafted herself out of clay.  I sipped my coffee and snuggled a goat in my lap as she explained the different techniques we could use to dye our tote bags and scarves.

Photo from AirBnB


According to Carolyn, Indigo dye is extracted from the leaves of certain plants (namely, the Indigo plant) and dried into powder before being mixed to create the dye we use.  She described the process of Batik, which originated in Indonesia and is characterized by wax-resistant dyeing.  We’d use binder clips, clamps, wax and other objects to create unique patterns on our material.  Carolyn also encouraged us to use Shibori technique, a Japanese system of folding and twisting cloth to produce the desired effect.  She gave us rubber bands to cinch our fabric to create blended rings in our design.

For around 20 minutes we set to work folding and twisting, clamping and pinching.  I am not the most creative person and often make the mistake of continuing to manipulate a project until it looks messy and ugly.  I decided to keep it simple this time in an attempt to avoid this mishap.  I focused on rubber bands with a few binder clips to create accent designs and took my creation to Carolyn for the dying process.

We took turns dunking our wadded cloth into the dye that Carolyn had premixed using baking soda and other ingredients.  Because indigo is organic, she has to keep the balance of ingredients just right and keep the solution oxidized.  I pulled on a pair of yellow rubber scrubbing gloves and plunged my bunch into the dye.  Carolyn timed us to ensure we stayed in the dye long enough for maximum color.  She advised us to enter and exit the solution quickly with our fabric waded tightly to avoid allowing too much oxygen to enter the solution.  The whole concoction and maintenance sounded like a precise science and I was grateful for Carolyn’s expertise.

Photo from AirBnB

After pulling my dye-soaked cloth from the pot, I rinsed it off with a hose over a kiddie pool.  This process removes all of the extra dye and turns the fabric a light green color.  I found it hard to believe that my witch-green items were going to transform into the rich blue color of the dresses hanging from the wood rails of Carolyn’s back porch.  I set my scarf and bag in the sun to dry and sat down with another cup of coffee to commune with the other attendees.  There was a mother-daughter pair of artists on a journey across the United States, a science teacher looking for something new to do (she was very interested in the chemical process) and a pair of sisters celebrating a college graduation.


Once things settled down Carolyn sat down with us and we learned that she’d previously worked for AirBnb and was one of the first to host an Experience.  She rented out her cabin and yurt on the site and sold her art at her own co-op gallery and off her website.  She has an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and  has shown her work internationally.

Finally we released our cloth from the clamps, band and folds to reveal beautiful patterns and deep blue color.  I love and still use my scarf, though I seem to have misplaced my tote bag.  I actually ended up staying in Carolyn’s yurt for a few weeks that summer, writing and playing with her goats.  This experience stands out even amongst many wonderful memories I made that Summer in Portland.

Photo from AirBnB

Photo from AirBnB

Dresses made by Carolyn

Carolyn gave us eggs from her chickens


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