A World of Blue

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.

Peru Indigo
Mantas from Chinchero, Peru, woven with the signature expanse of indigo blue. Photograph by Joe Coca from Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes.

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.

Peru Indigo

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.

peru indigo
Sorting Skeins of blue dyed with indigo. Photo by the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.

Mexico Indigo

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.

Guatemala Indigo

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.

Guatemala Indigo
A dye house in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Photograph by Joe Coca.

It’s powerful stuff, that indigo.

Learn more about the world of indigo in these Thrums Books, available at ClothRoads, Amazon, and at your favorite bookshop.



2 thoughts on “A World of Blue

  1. Deb Brandon says:

    I’ve toyed with the idea of looking into indigo traditions around the world (but found the idea too daunting). (Though maybe for a WARP article…)

    I’m fascinated by how indigo dyeing developed across the globe. I’m sure someone has written about it and the answers are probably somewhere in my library. But reading something along those lines in a Thrums publication would be infinitely more appealing to me than reading relatively dry accounts with photos that leave something to be desired. I.e. I’d love such a book from you guys.

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