October 2

Life And Death Of An Indigo Cloth Undying

Life And Death Of An Indigo Cloth Undying

The Nantongese Granny was furious. She thought her grandson was coming to see her indigo dyed fabrics with a potential bride and not a group research team. Her daughters and sons laid out 100-year-old handloom-woven Calico fabric, two Nantong indigo dyed aprons and a pair traditional Chinese cloth shoes. I struck by the worn indigo colour and the shoe’s age and I ask her grandson for their history.

Slowly, the story emerged from translations back and forth between English and Mandarin Chinese. The Granny’s mother-in-law dye a piece of cloth that was use to make the shoes. The Granny made shoes from pieces of cloth that had worn out during daily use to preserve the memory of her mother-in-law, who taught her how to dye indigo cloth.

Granny’s indigo-colored cloth shoes were the theme of the Living Blue Project team. This was in keeping with our two-years of research in India and China on natural indigo dyeing, sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Indigo dyed objects capture the life and death social values, relationships and structures in India, China.

The History and Theory of Design Anthropology class that I taught at Swinburne University explores the life history model for artefact analysis, which was create in 1976 by Michael Schiffer, a behavioural archaeologist. It argues that everything goes through the processes of production, use, cultural disposition (disposal), decay and reclamation. This model can help you understand the indigo dyeing process and Chinese society, as told by Nantongese Granny.

Procurement Indigo

In the Nantong area, the procurement process for herbal indigo-dye cloth has lost. The Granny’s grandson, her friends, and others unable to recover it because it lost in the 1930s when Guomingdang, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomingdang), confiscate land for rice and cotton production. This land was need for the army’s battle against the Japanese and Communists. As a reminder of China’s past, finish cloth, indigo vats and plants were destroy.

Because she is no longer able to remember the exact ingredients to make the indigo dark-blue colour, her granddaughter cannot help her grandson or his friends.

Indigo Manufacture

Although many of the old weaving machines are now in disrepair, the manufacturing process for indigo dyed cloth remains intact. The majority of indigo-dyed products in Nantong are manufacture in factories, not at home. Even though the cloth not made by hand, the industrial vats require that indigo cloth dye manually.

Indigo Use

Indigo-dyed cloth is becoming more popular. Indigo cloth was traditionally use in Nantong to make wedding blankets, other bedding, curtains, room dividers, and aprons. It also made clothes (pants and tops, jackets, and shoes). Because Nantong was once a place for fishing, agriculture and salt production, the apron had a special cultural significance.

Scarves are the main use of Nantong’s indigo-dyed cloth today. They can be use instead of wedding blankets for aprons, purses, bags, and even purses. Cloth shoes still have a market in China. I was able buy a pair of modern Chinese cloth shoes in Beijing with the Nantong cloth patterns.

Disposal Indigo

Indigo-dyed cloths can be dispose of at any time. This is a sign of the changing values of societies and cultures. Indigo, especially cotton cloth, is well-known for its ability increase the fabric’s durability. People have shared with us the beauty of indigo dyed cloth through interviews. They love how it changes colour over time and how it softens in texture.

A cloth is usually thrown away when it’s no longer usable, whether as a diaper or house rag. The cloth is discarded as it is, but may be composted to grow plants. Professor He Yang, Director of the Chinese National Folk Costume Museum and one of the project’s research partner, said that the difficulty in finding textiles older than 80-100 year old in China is due to the prolonged use of cloth.

Cloths with high artistic value but low sentimental value are sold to collectors. Collectors will pay a premium for cloths with high artistry. The family must be open to the possibility of the cloth being sold with low sentimental value.

Low sentimental value is often due to the younger generation not seeing the cloth as modern or fitting into their lives. They don’t feel attached to the cloth or the person who made it. Sometimes, people will have to sell high-strung cloth to support their daily needs.

At disposal is the point at which indigo cloth ceases to be useful. This is when people declare that it has lost its cultural or social value and are unable to find economic value for it.


A family’s disposal can be another person’s reclamation. We often see high-quality cloths with low sentimental value but high artistic merit being dispose of in museums. It is not clear if the indigo cloth dieth when it is display or stored in museums.

Indigo dyeing, for example, has many supernatural attributes. It is consider a living dye, whose essence changes over time in colour, sheen and smell. Museums often take the cloth out of circulation to stop its decaying process, which is the living changes it experiences.

In the Granny’s case, however, it is her grandson who undertakes reclamation. He attempts to replicate the indigo dyeing process, sometimes with or without her help.

Reuse And Recycling

Reuse and recycling differ in the extent to which elements of the indigos cloth have broken down and reconstitute. A cloth can be reuse if it has not been use for its original purpose. A faded wedding blanket could used as a dust cover to protect a storage container.

If the cloth has been remanufacture in a certain fashion (ex. It can be consider recycle if it has cut and re-sewn into another form. Recycling is evident in Granny’s transformation of an old indigos apron into a pair cloth shoes.

Feeling First

My passion lies in stories about the disposal and reclamation, and re-use of indigo-dyed herbal products and services. What social values make an object lose its sentimental worth for the next generation of people? It is possible to increase it, so that objects and practices don’t need to go extinct.

Next Un-Design post will discuss indigos dying in India and China. It will also examine some of the people’s efforts to increase the sentimental value of indigo dyeing and its objects.

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Posted October 2, 2021 by coin in category "Uncategorized