TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, October 9, 2008

For the Love of Indigo: Miao Tradition in Blue

Contemporary Miao Batik Indigo Cloth, $30

If you had to pick one main background color to show off all the other colors in the rainbow, what would it be? The Miao have picked indigo, and I have to agree with them: the deep blue enhances and compliments all of their rich textile traditions perfectly. Many other cultures have used indigo dyes around the world for centuries. But, while this labor intensive technique slowly dies out in many places, the Miao continue to use it today, still preferring the old ways to commercial alternatives available on the market.

Miao Indigo Cotton Cloths on Etsy
I just listed a few Miao indigo batik and tie-dyed cloths on Etsy. Click on the photos to take you to the listings. If these have been sold, search the store as I try to keep them in stock. (I also often carry embroidered Miao textile remnants. Search the store using the keyword, "Miao") These cloths use traditional techniques, but are contemporary pieces aimed at export for the Western market. Intended as tablecloths, they are perfect center pieces for quilts. The soft cloth and their designs lend themselves to easy quilting.

Miao Indigo Tie-dyed Cloth with Embroidered Accents, $30

The Miao tend to live in remote mountain areas with limited agricultural use, thus making a living through their textile productions has become their main form of sustenance. Their traditional techniques involve batik or tie-dye, a long process, using indigo and other natural dyes, then layers of applique and embroidery. These cloths are a simplified version of what they would make for themselves, allowing us to enjoy their beauty at an affordable price. As the Miao become more savvy about the value of their work, their costumes increasingly command higher prices, allowing many of them to access better health care, education, and other resources.

Who are the Miao?

Miao Woman from Peace on Earth

Gina Corrigan has written a couple of books on the Miao living in Guizhou Province, China, home to the largest concentration of Miao.

Books mentioned in this article:

In Miao Textiles from China, she describes how the Miao, the largest ethnic minority in China, are thought to have arrived into Guizhou as migrants from the Yellow River basin around 5,000 years ago. Their history has been fraught with persecution by the Han majority, poverty, discrimination, and migration, including flight into Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. (The Hmong are ethnically Miao, retaining similar textile traditions and oral history.) The Miao are divided into four main dialect groups and many subgroups, dialects so different that they often cannot understand each other. Yet, their textiles are their common language and indigo the color of cultural coherence.

Indigo wreaths and butterflies.

Indigo Central to Miao Cultural Expression
Of indigo, Corrigan has much to say, starting with:
"The most common dye in Guizhou is vegetable indigo, usually made by women, which is used on all base fabrics. ... In September the leaves are collected and soaked in barrels of water for anything from four days to two weeks, depending on the ambient temperature. Once fermented, the leaves are taken out and lime is beaten in to introduce oxygen. After several days, the indigo pigment precipitates to the bottom. The water is then drained off and the dark blue indigo paste scooped out into baskets lined with leaves. If sealed, this can be kept all winter, and some families make indigo paste to sell at market.
Domestic dyeing is also usually done by the women, who reconstitute the indigo paste with ash and water in a wooden dye vat, found in most Miao households. Rice wine is added to encourage fermentation, which gradually reduces oxygen in the vat. The dyer tastes the vat every morning to see if it is right for dyeing. Both hand-woven and bought fabrics are dyed, normally in the warmer months of September and October. They are dipped and aired many times to build up the dark blue colour, sometimes for as long as twenty-four days." (pages 13,14)

David Newbegin has a wonderful collection of photos he took in Guizhou, not necessarily about the Miao. Many are of people in their daily tasks and routines or dance performances while others show the gorgeous landscape of the region. I encourage you to visit his collection, but here are some of his photos with Newbegin's captions specifically related to indigo dyeing:

A Dong lady dyeing cloth, which the Zhaoxing villagers weave themselves, with indigo solution. The cloth is dipped and aired many times to build up the darker colour.

Various shades of indigo dyed cloth being aired along the river frontage in the Dong village of Zhaoxing in Guizhou Province. The cloth is dyed many times to produce a darker blue colour. Also rice straw ash and pigs blood is added to the indigo solution to produce a black or brown colour.

Miao lady in Biasha (Basha) village in Guizhou Province applying the finishing touches to another dress. The women wearing pleated skirts with white insets are married.

My little source book for Chinese crafts, Arts and Crafts of China (pictured in the Amazon slide show above), offers a bit more technical information on the art of dyeing indigo:
"Today, it remains almost exclusively the minority peoples who preserve the traditions of planting and cultivation to assure a steady supply of natural vegetable dyes. The ubiquitous lancao (indigo) in widespread use throughout China is especially popular among China's sourthern minority peoples, such as the Miao and Buoyei. Although synthetic indigo has been used in China since the early twentieth century, natural indigo remains the preferred choice among many minorities.
Mordant dyes are especially popular for the rich, permanent colours produced when bonding occurs between the fibre and dye compounds. This may result from soluble matter being released naturally by the plant during boiling, as is the case with tannic acid released during the boiling of sumac or gall nuts, or from the addition of special mordant substances in the preliminary or post-dyeing baths. The most common chinese mordants are alum and potash, which are obtained by boiling hemp or rice straw. Their use in varying amounts allows a broader range of tonalities to develop amont textiles submerged in the same dye."
(page 15)

I found a video on YouTube that shows some of the dyeing process:

Miao ethnic people dyeing cloth with indigo colouring - 2007

When I think about it, I realize that I, too, pretty much live in indigo.... blue jeans, my daily wear, the older the better! Maybe that is why I am so attracted to the Miao language of blue, or maybe it is simply because it is so beautifully rendered.
Miao Indigo Butterfly Batik



  1. So much work behind these pieces. I enjoyed learning about this process - Thanks for posting.

  2. Another informative article. Thanks!

  3. Very Nice and Useful Information... Keep Working..........


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“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

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