For All the Indigo in China

Last year at about this time, I was in Guizhou Province, China, with photographer Joe Coca and fashion designer Angel Chang. Angel was in the process of building a fashion collection around the indigenous fabrics of Guizhou, an ethnic minority province, largely populated with Miao and Dong people. She graciously took us along and gave Joe the opportunity to photograph artisans at work and the stunning cloth they created.

Indigo in the breeze. Photo by Joe Coca.

The overarching theme was indigo. I hadn’t been attuned to the truly deep and universal presence of this dyestuff in rural China. In some of the villages we visited, nearly every household had a working vat, and clotheslines were flapping with deep blue cotton cloth everywhere we went. In this part of China, the plant used is Strobilanthes cusia. You can read a recent New York Times story on one of the villages we where they say having an indigo vat is as important as having a cow.

A woman works before an indigo vat at the Sendu workshop. Photo by Joe Coca.

The cloth was stunning, but the range of skills that went into creating it was even more so. We saw cotton being spun on a curious spinning wheel that had one treadle but two spindles going at once. Crazy two-fisted spinning. We saw warps of thousands of dark blue threads being measured in a dusky loft. We saw women (always women) applying wax resist patterns of astonishing detail—perfect circles drawn freehand, filled in with intricate swirls and curlicues. We call it by the Indonesian name of “batik”; I don’t know what the local name is.

A double spindle wheel. Photo by Joe Coca.
Warping the loom. Photo by Joe Coca.

The fabrics that were most intriguing to me, though, were the glazed ones—glazed with pig’s blood or egg white. And by glazed, I mean pounded vigorously for days on end until the protein of the coating substance has bonded to the fibers at the molecular level, creating a whole new thing. Walk along the streets in some of the villages, and there would be women with big stone mallets pounding and folding, pounding and folding, hour after hour.

Pounding pigs blood into the fabric. Photo by Joe Coca.

The fabrics, mostly cotton or hemp in plain weave or interesting braided twills, took on a high gloss or an iridescent sheen, impervious to the elements. So beautiful. Sometimes these fabrics were covered almost entirely in fine embroidery. Or sometimes they were crafted into shirts and jackets, so handsome.

An exquisite jacket assembled from a variety of cloth, including that glazed with pigs blood. Photo by Joe Coca.

It was almost too much. Too much to take in. So I’m going back, this time with my ClothRoads friend, Linda Stark, and our husbands (because they’re curious). We read so much about China in the news these days, and so much is alarming or at best perplexing. I look forward to finding some sense of balance among the lovely, welcoming people in the villages, the people tending their crops and making their exquisite cloth.


indigo in china

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