Indigo Dyeing Waiala
Indigo Dyeing Waiala Justin And Son
Indigo Dyeing Wai’ala Ahn Justin Cook Tripp

Did you know that indigo is the only color that takes a breath? Known for its beautiful blue hues, from light turquoise to the deep, dark navy of the night sky, indigo is a fascinating natural dye pigment. While the plant has deep roots in many cultures around the world, Indigofera suffruticosa is a highly invasive species in Hawai’i. Artist Wai’ala Ahn and her husband Justin Cook Tripp began working with indigo in 2015 – discovering a delightful intersection between creative expression and environmental stewardship.


The first time Wai’ala Ahn got her hands in some dye, she was in the second grade at Pāhoa elementary. It was almost May Day, and her mom was dyeing about one hundred hula costumes for her class performance in their bathtub. It was one of those vivid moments where you look back and realize: oh, that was a sign, a nudge from the universe.

The next nudge came years later, in her twenties, when she found herself camped next to a master indigo dyer from Australia in the California forest. They were both teachers at a two week traditional arts and craft skill sharing conference. Inspired by each other’s work, they struck up a skill trade: Hawaiian lei making for indigo dyeing.

The serendipitous rediscovery of natural dye was right on time. A creative soul all her life, Wai’ala studied digital art and design at Hawai’i Community College and special effects makeup artistry in California. Yet, she felt disconnected and unfulfilled working in those mediums. There was so much waste and no connection to the land or nature. “Natural dye just felt right. It gave me permission to create, to make art again,” says Wai’ala.


After the conference, she brought everything she learned from the Australian artist about indigo dyeing back to Hawai’i and her husband, Justin. The fractions and chemistry associated with formulating an indigo vat were intimidating, but Justin ended up being the perfect alchemist with his background in biology. The pair met in 2004 at the HCC bookstore. Justin was working behind the counter wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and Wai’ala’s mom, who was a huge Zeppelin fan, kept pointing him out. “Go talk to him! He seems like a nice guy!” (It turns out, Mom was right.)

In 2015, Wai’ala and Justin set up a makeshift indigo dyery in their tiny studio apartment in Waikoloa. They had a bunsen burner, a laulau steamer, and polite neighbors who didn’t ask too many questions about the strange smells coming from their ‘ohana. Indigo was easy to come by – growing like a weed in their backyard.

Justin focused on the chemistry and formulating the dye vats, while Wai’ala did the shibori and sewing. “It was the three of us, myself, Justin, and nature,” says Wai’ala. Nature being a third rogue artist with a mysterious, magical hand in the process. There’s a wild card element when it comes to indigo. No two pieces ever come out the same. “We both fell in love with the wabi sabi of it,” says Justin.


The indigo dyeing process begins with the harvest. The couple has a few different locations on Hawai’i Island where they harvest indigo plants, timing it before the plant goes to seed to prevent spreading. While natural dye on kapa is an ancient art form in Hawai’i, Wai’ala says she prefers to save traditional native dye plants for Kūpuna cultural practitioners. Her approach is to focus on what’s abundant and needs to be managed: invasive indigo.

After harvest, the next step is fermentation. The plants need to sit and ferment in water for at least two days. Following fermentation, straining, and then pigment collection, the vat is prepared. The PH of the water must be raised to eleven before the indigo is added. Then sugar is added. Wai’ala and Justin often use natural sugars in the form of dates, bananas, or figs in the vat.

Once the vat is ready, it’s time for Shibori. Shibori is a traditional Japanese manual dye resist technique that creates patterns using binding and folding, similar to tie dye. Then the cloth is added to the vat. Once submerged, the fabric is massaged and caressed in the dye.

Nature’s Magic

“The indigo molecule is like a fish in the water,” says Justin. Instead of just floating on top like other dyes, it dives deep and shrinks down very small. For this reason, in the vat, indigo does not look blue. Rather, it appears green, gold, or even a yellowish brown color. It is not until the fabric is removed from the vat and exposed to the air that the indigo takes a breath and turns blue, right before your eyes.

As the indigo molecule breathes in the oxygen, it expands, stretching the fabric of the dyed cloth. If you dye a piece of clothing in indigo, you’ll notice that it comes out slightly larger, airier, and looser fitting than before. How cool is that? “It’s the intersection of art, magic, and alchemy,” says Wai’ala of the process.

Shades of Blue

Oxygen isn’t the only thing that affects indigo and the outcome of the dye. It’s a sensitive plant. Everything from the moon phase, the season, water quality, and soil composition can affect the color you get when dyeing.

For instance, here on Hawai’i island, our young volcanic soil makes a very light blue indigo, often referred to as ‘Hawaiian indigo’. In contrast, indigo from Kaua’i dyes darker since it’s an older island with older soil. Different parts of the world are known for their distinct shades of indigo dye. In China, where indigo dyeing is a centuries old tradition, cows’ blood is added to the vat, creating a blue so dark it’s almost black. (No cows were harmed in the writing of this article.) Perhaps most interestingly, if the indigo plant is sprayed with poison, it refuses to work as a dye at all. Touché, you humans!


Wai’ala and Justin love sharing their passion for indigo and natural dyeing. They have taught indigo dyeing workshops at the Donkey Mill Art Center and the Volcano Art Center. Plans are in the works for them to teach another workshop at DMAC in the fall of 2022, with dates to be announced.

In addition, the couple teaches private natural dye workshops. They enjoy traveling around Hawai’i Island, to neighbor islands, and to the mainland United States to connect with communities who want to learn the art form. “Our goal is for our students to reconnect with nature,” says Wai’ala. “The cool thing about natural dye is that it’s part of everyone’s ancestry, no matter where you’re from on the planet.”


In 2018, Wai’ala and Justin relocated from Waikoloa to an off grid homestead in Ka’u. At 4,500 foot elevation, they grow food and an incredible array of flowers – dahlias, roses, poppys, calendula, zinnias, camomile, daisies, coreopsis, marigold, and cosmos to name a few. In addition to indigo dyeing, they do flower bundle dyeing and cut flower arrangements.

Perhaps the couple’s latest and most exciting creative collaboration to date is their one and a half year old son, Kupuohi.


To stay connected, follow Wai’ala and Justin @petalsandpigments on social media, or find them online at: If your community or group is interested in hosting them for a private workshop, contact Wai’ala at: