Dye hard: Natural indigo undergoes revival, husband-wife team offer sustainable dyeing workshops around the island

  • Justin Cook Tripp and Wai’ala Ahn, Waiho’olu’u ola’s husband-wife duo, stand in front of indigo creations as they dry at a private workshop in Waikoloa. (COURTESY PHOTO/WAIHO’OLU’U OLA)

  • Wai’ala Ahn harvests wild indigo in Waikoloa. (COURTESY PHOTO/WAIHO’OLU’U OLA)

  • Finished indigo creations created using an organic fructose vat hang out to oxidize and dry. (COURTESY PHOTO/WAIHO’OLU’U OLA)

  • Gabriela Conliffe writes down the step-by-step process needed to create an all-natural fructose vat using local indigo during a workshop at Iwa Cafe in South Kona. (COURTESY PHOTO/WAIHO’OLU’U OLA)

WAIKOLOA — Wai’ala Ahn and Justin Cool Tripp are happiest when they’re feeling blue.

The husband-and-wife team are natural dyers, specializing in indigo. Their hobby-business — Waiho’olu’u ola — is a creative, collective, living color business based in Waikoloa.

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The two harvest and source plants from local farmers and make completely biodegradable dyes from fermented plants.

They have regular jobs; he’s a horticulturist and she’s an artist. But when they can find the time, they travel around the Big Island and inter-island teaching workshops on indigo dyeing.

People who attend the workshops are left with a newfound appreciation for an ancient art and, in some cases, blue hands.

“The blue will wash off your hands but if it gets on your nails it will stay a day or two, so you may want to wear gloves,” Ahn advises attendees.

Participants think about that for a minute before some of them opt to go glove free. It seems blue hands are a badge of honor — proof of a session spent in harmony with nature and the arts.

For Ahn, indigo dyeing was a logical evolution from the natural dyeing she learned as child.

“I learned about plant dyeing growing up because I danced hula and we used native dyes for kapa and for dying our pa’u (skirts),” she explained.

An opportunity to learn about indigo came in 2017 when she was in Northern California teaching lei making at a women’s conference and met an indigo dyer from Australia.

“She wanted to learn how to make leis and I’d always been intrigued by indigo,” Ahn remembered.

The two agreed to trade knowledge and soon Ahn was able to experience her first all-natural fructose indigo vat. But she was still intimidated by the chemistry part of it all.

“My Australian friend said to me, ‘Isn’t your husband into alchemy? He can help you get it all going and balance it.’”

So when Ahu got back home to Hawaii, she asked her husband for help. As an experienced botanist, hobby alchemist and horticulturist by trade, Tripp couldn’t have been more excited.

He studied books, ordered supplies and made their first fermented indigo vat.

“We had the dye mixture alive for months. Justin was making and creating it,” Ahn recalled.

He surprised her further by creating some amazing shibori design and patterns, and even made a katazome resist paste for stencils.

“It’s turned into a thing we do together that we both really enjoy,” Ahn said.

There are more than 7,500 varieties of indigo growing in the world. Ahn and Tripp utilize a Guatemalan variety because it grows well in Hawaii.

Indigo is not indigenous to Hawaii as some people think, but it can be found growing naturally by the side of the road. However, it’s extremely invasive.

“It can totally take over, to the point where workers in the Waikoloa Dry Land Forest Reserve have to remove and dispose of it,” Ahn said.

She and Tripp grow a small amount of indigo at home in pots to show people what the plant looks like at workshops. They forage to get the leaves they need for dyeing.

“We go out and pick them,” Ahn said. “We’re helping get rid of an invasive species by actually putting it to use.”

The indigo dying process, which can be done by beginners at home, begins with harvesting indigo leaves and allowing them to ferment. Hydrated lime and fructose are added to create a liquid “stock” solution, and when the pH and temperature are in balance metallic cobalt-colored bubbles rise to the surface, indicating the mixture is ready.

At their workshops, Ahn tells the story of indigo and demonstrates how to get fabric ready to dye while Tripp tends to the vats, testing readiness by dipping individual swatches of material.

The magic happens when the fabric is dipped in the dye, agitated slightly and then removed. When indigo molecules that sit inside and on top of the fabric get exposed to air, they oxygenate and turn blue.

The “reveal” is pure joy in its own way, Ahn said.

“We love seeing people’s reactions to indigo molecules literally taking a breath and — poof — coming to life in front of them. I can see how, throughout time, when they said indigo seduced the world, it really did,” she said.

Workshop participants often exclaim, “Oh, I didn’t think it was going to look like that” and “It looks even better than I expected.”

“We love to ignite that fire within people,” Tripp said.

Indigo dyeing is believed to have originated in the countries where it is endemic. Japan, for example, used it as a pigment for dye and tattoos and for their iconic shibori. The Japanese also felt indigo dyed fabric was worthy of a samurai. Warriors wore indigo beneath their armor due to its antimicrobial properties to help prevent bacteria and protect wounds. It is also known to reduce inflammation and irritation on the skin.

Japanese dyers discovered another miracle about indigo: that it is fire retardant up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.

“They would dip fabric 300, maybe even 500 times, to make firefighter uniforms. It took several years,” Ahn said.

The excessive dipping made the fabric very dark, puffy and fire-resistant.

Indigo was likely introduced to Hawaii by King David Kalakaua, who saw its potential value for the monarch’s agriculture-based economy and brought it home with him in the 1800s. Manoa Valley still has descendants from those who grew indigo there the 1800s. Acres of it also grew on the land where Schofield Barracks now sits.

Ahn and Tripp dream of the day when they can study under an indigo master in Japan but there’s currently a long waiting list. So for now, the two are absorbing information through reading, accessing the Internet and sharing information with contacts made through social media.

“It’s all about creating with nature and fostering a relationship of reciprocity,” Ahn said. “It must be rooted in a deep harmony with nature for us as artists, co-creators and people to offer this art form and share this plant’s beauty, history and alchemy.”

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Future Waiho’olu’u ola indigo dye workshops are scheduled in locations around Hawaii Island August through December.

Info: Go to www.waihooluuola.com/workshops