From July 27-30, I had the great joy of attending an indigo workshop hosted by the Austin School of Fiber Arts. Our instructor was Gasali Adeyemo, a master artisan in the Yoruba tradition of indigo-dyed adire cloth. Adire literally means “tied and dyed,” but refers to several techniques that use some kind of resist–raffia (for tying and stitching), cassava paste (for stenciling or hand-drawing), or wax (for batik hand-drawing).
During the course, we practiced each of the primary adire techniques except for batik. On the first day, we learned how to cook cassava flour into a gelatinous paste resist. We applied this paste to our fabric (100% cotton) using Gasali’s hand-cut stencils. (We applied our paste with the back of a spoon, but Gasali said in Nigeria artists often use a corn cob for this purpose). Later in the day we watered the paste down a little, and hand-painted designs on to the cloth using three implements: chicken feathers, broom corn, and small palette knives. We set our cloths out in the sun for two days, since the paste needs to be completely dry before going into the indigo vat.
On the second day, we focused on tied and stitched resist techniques, which produces designs similar to Japanese shibori patterns. We used both raffia and cotton string for these resists.
I enjoyed all the techniques, but I was most excited to learn how to use the cassava paste resist. Being able to use stencils or freehand illustration opens up a wide variety of surface designs for cloth.
On Thursday, the indigo vats came out, and everyone was amazed at the strength of Gasali’s Nigerian indigo vats. The vats come from Lonchocarpus cyanescens, an indigo-bearing plant that grows wild throughout west Africa. The young leaves of the plant are pounded, shaped into balls, and then dried in the sun. When a dyer is ready to make a vat, he or she soaks the ash from burned coconut husks to create an alkaline solution, and then crumbles the indigo balls into the alkaline vat. After a few days, the plant matter is removed and the vat is soon ready to use.
Even the participants experienced with indigo were shocked by the rich color and long-lasting strength of Gasali’s vats. They yielded a deep, rich blue on the first dip, and the dried pieces retained a coppery sheen. The stitch or tie-resist pieces each received 2-3 dips, while the cassava paste pieces received 2 dips of no more than 4 minutes per dip, so that the cassava paste didn’t come dissolve in the vat.
On Friday, we soaked the cassava paste pieces in cold water for a few hours, and then worked together to scrap off the now-softened paste. It came off pretty easily, although we did have to experiment with the best implements for scraping (a non-serrated butter knife and credit card both worked pretty well).
Like so many amateurs, I am incredibly thankful for online resources, and I’m constantly amazed at the generosity of artists, bakers, musicians, and others who share their wisdom on platforms such as Youtube. However, this workshop reminded me that there really is no substitute for in-person instruction. Having a teacher tell you when the paste is at the right texture, how much pressure to apply to a stencil, how to fix an error before it derails the whole project — this kind of embodied wisdom is priceless.
Just as precious is working and learning alongside other students. Our workshop included folks who are quite experienced in textile arts, as well as others who are (like me) enthusiastic amateurs. You learn from one another through conversations, through questions about a certain technique, but also simply from eavesdropping. Sitting quietly at my work, I could turn my head one way and pick up tips for setting up a home studio, or turn it the other and listen to a discussion on various types of indigo vats.
The workshop was deeply refreshing and grounding. It reminded me of the very best kind of academic conferences, as earnest people gather to study and practice worthwhile things together. My head, heart, and hands together are going to feed off this class for months and years to come. If you have an opportunity to study with Gasali, don’t hestitate. He is a generous and glad-hearted master of his craft. I could so much about his wonderful teaching style, which is rich in storytelling and wisdom, but that will have to wait for another entry. His insistence that indigo is “deeper than blue,” and that cloth and clothing are deeply connected to spirituality, has also given me plenty to ponder.
Finally, let’s not underestimate one of the great gifts of the week — being able to sit and focus without two little people pulling at my apron strings.
Have you taken any in-person workshops lately? What do you look for in a craft or skill-building class?