It was pretty blue at the Textile Society of America Symposium a couple of weeks ago, indigo blue. There was the indigo dye workshop on Ossabaw Island and a tour of its indigo history, an indigo art exhibition, and Catharine Ellis and Rowland Ricketts each chaired different sessions called “Indigo and Beyond” offering seven different presentations related to indigo.
Jenny Balfour Paul, author of Deeper than Indigo, spoke during one of these sessions about her long love affair with indigo and the intriguing back story to her book, which I’m reading now and enjoying immensely.
We also met Jeffrey Splitstoser from George Washington University—known most recently for a crazy-popular L.A .times article about the oldest indigo-dyed woven scraps ever found. His research now dates the use of indigo in Peru to over 6,000 years ago. It was so good to meet him and to learn about his ongoing textile archeological work in Peru.
You can’t talk about textiles traditions without talking about indigo. I thought it would be fun to take a little indigo trip through Thrums Books. Thinking about that ancient scrap of indigo-dyed cloth excavated in Peru sent me first to look at the perspective of dyers in Peru today who have worked diligently to maintain a natural dyeing tradition that was nearly lost.
In Textile Traditions of Chinchero: A Living Heritage, Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez wonders, “Are the methods we practice now similar to those practiced by the Inca of the past?” Nilda’s journey into natural dyes included a lot of research, experimentation, and interviews with elders of Andean communities. Achieving the colors and methods currently practiced at the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco involved tremendous work and it’s ongoing. The weavers like the natural dyes, though, especially because they don’t run or fade when washed like aniline and other artificial dyes.
In Textile Fiestas of Mexico: A Traveler’s Guide to Celebrations, Markets, and Smart Shopping, contributor Norma Schafer writes about “natural dyeing in the land of the gods” as she guides you through the great rug-weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle and illustrates the process of dyeing with indigo in her wonderful photographs.
Authors Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón write in Traditional Weavers of Guatemala–Their Stories, Their Lives:
From observing the indigenous population’s use of color, the Spanish had discovered jiquilite (or xiquilite), the species of indigo that grew in Guatemala. They determined that jiquilite yields an especially strong and long-lasting blue color used for tomb-painting as well as textiles. When the King of Spain saw the superior quality of the indigo, he ordered a major increase in production for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, the conditions created by the process for extracting the indigo were highly toxic, and entire villages of workers died. The Spanish king ordered the cessation of the most damaging practices, and even sent visiting judges as monitors, but with limited effectiveness. During that century, indigo passed cacao as the biggest export crop.
It’s powerful stuff, that indigo.