Monday, November 14, 2011

Blue is good

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, textiles, dyes

There are very few natural blue dyestuffs. Of course, these days synthetic dyes are universal, and only a few craftspeople with time on their hands use the old plant-based (or in the case of carmine, insect-based) dyes. The bluest of the blues, and the most time-consuming to use, is indigo. As it happens, indigo is also probably the most time-consuming to research. Catherine E. McKinley spent at least a couple of years doing so, including many months in sub-Saharan Africa. Her travels there, supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, are chronicled in Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World.

Ms McKinley is half African-American, one of the few black children adopted into a white family. She was well-received in Africa, where there are many of mixed race. Beginning and ending in Ghana, she also visited Togo, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal. Early on in Ghana she was invited to "sit a spell" in a shop, where the spell grew into many months, between her goings elsewhere. When she offered to help around the shop, her patroness cajoled her to take it easy, "Your presence is good for business." She also warned her that her desire, even obsession, regarding indigo was bound to be frustrating. It was. She never really got to see the whole process of making the dye and using it. It takes weeks.

A little here, a little there, the author was able to purchase one cloth and another. In the cosmopolitan cities, "Dutch Wax" batik is the main fashion cloth, using synthetic dyes exclusively. She had to go to the hinterlands for most of her research and most purchases. Some of the styles she was able to find are summarized here; all images in this montage are from her collection:

The Levi blue jeans that your great-grandfather or grandfather may have worn were dyed with indigo. More recently, a synthetic version has been used, at least since the time I was born, and probably longer. Synthetic indigo, made from aniline, is chemically a little different from the natural indigo molecule, and does not rub of on your skin. This quality, of indigo dyeing the wearer, is prized among the Tuaregs, the "blue men" of Saharan Africa.

The journeying was, for the author, not just a fact-finding tour but a spiritual and soul-nourishing quest, even a pilgrimage. She was able to visit several famous dyers and, albeit briefly, view the workings of a dyers' guild. As interested as she may have been in the process, it was the cloths themselves that drove her, that were her obsession.

Her adoption was apparently open enough that she knew her black birth mother. Her white grandmother (whether on her natural father's side, or one of her adoptive parents' mothers, I cannot tell) opposed her yearning toward her African roots. That did not stop her. Every root is important, like the four roots of a molar tooth: If one is damaged, the whole tooth is in jeopardy. The author's quest resulted in a new wholeness for her, making her more comfortable with both her blackness and her whiteness. She needed blue to see both.

My own researches have produced conflicting results, whether indigo is chemically identical to woad, the blue dye of the Britons and other ancient Europeans. I think they are probably slightly different, because woad is considered less color-fast than indigo.

I regret that most of us will never see the true colors of indigo. The image above is not quite right, because the range of indigo blues is outside the color gamut of both synthetic dyes and of computer (or TV) monitor phosphors. The deep blue of a Northern winter sky is just the palest of the colors indigo can produce, and its own gamut ranges to near black. I hope textile museums that own indigo-dyed cloths will keep them on display. Here in the U.S., we are unlikely to see genuine indigo anywhere else.

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