I fell in love with Indigo textiles when I lived in Japan and China. It is a gorgeous deep blue, and goes through an elaborate process of dyeing that has been used for thousands of years. It is said that the oldest Indigo dyeing centres was in India, making its way to the Greeks and Romans.
Helena Schmidt Thurow has been working in the field of business development and marketing in Sweden and internationally, at Ikea in Malaysia, Singapore and China and is the author of two Swedish Management books on Retailing. It was while living in Shanghai that she started to get interested in Blue Nankeen. After researching it thoroughly she set up a company called True Blue, making products out of blue Nankeen in China and importing them into Sweden. In Stockholm they are sold at high end interior stores such as Svensk Tenn and ROOM. Helena will also be participating at Stockholm’s Design fair Formex from the 20-23rd January.
Can you explain the process of Indigo dyeing?
The colour indigo was named after the indigo dye derived from the plant Indigofera tinctoria and related species. The plant is harvested in mid October, both leaves and tender twigs are used for the making of the dye. The process of making the dye, then takes several months. Usually cotton is used, sometimes linen. The textile is first washed and dried before the patterns are applied. There are several methods of making patterns. The paste resist dying process used in the textiles I work with uses stencils and soya bean paste. After the patterns have been made by saving the white areas, the fabrics is dipped in indigo dye several times. The more times, the deeper the blue. After drying, the paste is scraped off, and the textile washed again. This process is typical for China, while in India, where they also use indigo, block printing is common which is a faster printing process.
What is the history of blue nankeen in China?
Blue Nankeen is the British name of the indigo cloth found in China, dating back to the silk road. Nankeen being the old name of Nanjing that was famous for its textiles.
The Chinese name for blue nankeen is lan yin hua bu, which means blue-printed flower cloth as many of the patterns featured flowers. What is interesting is that when the blue dye was brought over from Europe in the 17th and 18th century it was expensive and rare, making it a status symbol. In Sweden the colour was reserved for royalty and nobility.
Are the dyes being used still natural dyes from plants today?
Yes, but in few places since the process of producing the dye is complicated. The chemical dyeing process is cheap and fast, although not as resistant as natural plant dye.
How are indigo fabrics viewed in China? Is it attractive to the locals?
These indigo textiles are connected to Old China, as the Chinese often call the era before Mao. This is when most people made their own textiles. Many appreciate the tradition but are not interetested in buying these traditional textiles for the home. They prefer western designs and prints. Blue is not big in China, while in Sweden it has always been a popular colour in home interiors especially in the summer.
What made you decide to start a business dealing with these fabrics?
Pure chance and a love for these prints that I discovered at a market. I found a village with craftsmen who kept traditions alive. My background is in retail development so working with design and production is a new and exciting challenge.
As the process is a rather painstaking one, and not being able to make large quantities, is there a risk that this could be a dying art?
It is a dying art and I hope that my business can contribute in some way to keeping it alive. At the moment I am discussing with resellers in other parts of Europe. More people should be able to enjoy these products.
What are the challenges working with such a business in China?
Since this is a handicraft and the production is dependant on the weather, the lead time is long. Also, even after many years in China there is both a cultural and language barrier in doing business there. Misunderstandings occur. As with all things in life, if you can see things with humour, it makes it easier.
What is the concept of True Blue as a company?
We want to work with high quality and sustainable products and directly with craftspeople. With natural processes, without chemicals and with people that take pride in what they do. This means that what we offer is true, but doesn’t always have to be blue. We are currently developing a range in bamboo.