Both as a plant and in the dye vat, indigo takes on a life of its own. “I remember one night when [the plants] were kind of big, I went to look out and I thought I killed them. But they actually sleep at night,” says Donna Miyashiro, a tiny woman from ‘Aiea with enough humble exuberance to fill the narrow dye room of Hawaiian Blue, located in Lana Lane Studios in Kaka‘ako. Miyashiro grows the Hawaiian indigo that she and founder Tokunari Fujibayashi use to dye her sewn creations and other items like stained shirts or toe socks—anything they can get their hands on, really—in the courtyard of her home. Her dog likes to take morning naps in the shade of the indigo leaves.
Known for producing the deep hue of a twilight sky or workman’s dark denim, indigo can also make for the washed-out blue of faded jeans or the shoreline of Lanikai, depending on the vat and the amount of times a garment is dipped into it. For Miyashiro and Fujibayashi, these lighter shades are a chance to reflect the gradients of the Pacific Ocean. “It’s such a cool process because when we dip, it comes out like a light yellow or beige and the oxidation brings out the color,” Miyashiro says. “It’s almost like a Polaroid when you’re waiting to get the image to come out. The first time I did indigo, I felt like I was dreaming.”
Standing next to her is Fujibayashi, a tall, lean man whose enthusiasm takes a different form, expressed in heartfelt but brief statements and an insistence that you experience the process yourself. The 12th generation of a Japanese textile-designing family, he began weaving and dyeing under his father’s tutelage in fourth grade, and now teaches workshops at the University of Hawai‘i, where he researches Hawaiian indigo, or Indigofera suffruticosa (which is different than Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium) and medicinal crops. “We’re seeking dyes better for the people’s skin,” he explains, contrasting these with chemical- and oil-based dyes now predominately used for black and blue garment colors. Natural indigo, he says, has antibacterial benefits, and turmeric is good for the liver. One of Hawaiian Blue’s products is a kitchen towel that Miyashiro sews from linen, which also has antibacterial properties, that they dip-dye a light ocean-hued blue.
In the Hawaiian Blue dye room, jars of dried indigo paste occupy shelf space alongside a stained-blue door. A bag of shriveled turmeric root rests on a ledge lining the rear wall. In a far corner, indigo fermenting in a plastic trashcan awaits its next feeding of sake (Japanese rice wine) and honey. “The indigo is considered a living being and needs to be fed,” Miyashiro explains. “The sake helps facilitate fermentation.” To get to this point, Miyashiro, under Fujibiyashi’s guidance, waited for the perfect time to cut fresh indigo leaves, which she then soaked, sifted, skimmed, reduced to a paste, and mixed with water infused with wood ash to control alkalinity.
Just like every vat before it, this round of indigo will be eagerly and tenderly cared for until it is ready to offer up its unique blue. Appropriately, each gets its own name. “We start off with ai because Tokunari is from Japan and ai is the word for blue,” says Miyashiro. “This vat’s name is Aimi, which means beautiful blue.”
Hawaiian Blue products are available at Fishcake, located in Honolulu at 307 Kamani St.