Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Bleu d’Enfer

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Bleu d’Enfer: Textiles contemporains indigo, creations recentes de Betty de Paris
La Galerie de Textiles Marine Biras
5 rue Lobineau, Paris, France
May 18 – July 9, 2005

Indigo is a paradoxical substance. In its natural form it is one of the oldest dyes known to mankind. In its synthetic state it colors one of the most pedestrian and ubiquitous pieces of clothing worn today: our blue jeans. Over the course of history indigo has been the cause of both celebration and condemnation. Some have poetically referred to the plant as “butterfly flowers” , while fierce competition between European woad farmers (a plant which produces a very similar blue) and indigo traders in Africa and Asia earned it the nomenclature “Devil’s Dye”.  Indigo was considered the most valuable of colonial trade stuffs; today the plant’s growth is strictly legislated California, Utah and Washington due to its virulent weed-like nature.  Of all the colours in the ancient Bayeux tapestry it is the only colour to have remained true today.  But perhaps we should leave the last word to William Morris who, in the eighteen hundreds, proclaimed that, “Of blues there is only one real dye, indigo”.

Despite its complex and often contradictory history, the art of natural indigo dyeing is now an endangered species. This makes the work of French artist Betty Goldberg all the more pertinent. After studying urban planning and the Japanese language, Goldberg embarked upon a journey that turned into a formidable research trip: to learn the ancient art of indigo dyeing from the masters. She made her way to Japan, first to study the traditional printing techniques of katazome, shibori, itazome but soon became enchanted with indigo, eventually studying under the master indigo-dyer Hiroyuki Shindo. Today, Goldberg creates large indigo dyed wall hangings, yardage to be used as table runners and accents and a small selection of clothing. Carefully sourced fabrics allow viewers to appreciate the varying depths of color only attainable with natural indigo. When patterns do appear, they are used sparingly and often suggest, rather than adhere, to a strict mechanical repeat.

Historically, the city of Paris supported small indigo-dyeing ateliers, but the time Betty de Paris (as Goldberg calls herself) spent in Japan has allowed her to re-discover techniques long lost to French dyers. Her atelier now exists as a fusion of western and eastern traditions, with materials sourced from countless countries. “All my work travels in a big circle,” she explains, “and I bring it together here in Paris. The yarn is spun in Italy, woven in China and dyed here in Paris with indigo imported from Japan!” The key to it all is the imported indigo compost or fermented cake of leaves, now produced by as few as five individuals in Japan. But Goldberg is certain that her success lies in her devotion to a specific recipe of materials and consistent source. For centuries indigo’s expense has not been due to the rarity of the plant, but rather it is the intricate and mercurial process of converting the plant into dye cakes and then vats for dying that create its value.

Thus the imported Japanese indigo allows for one constant in a process full of permutations. Indigo vats have long been considered living, often temperamental, entities dependent on a generous amount of their own sheer good will to dye with the desired depth of colour and consistency. Some even believe that an unused vat will grow cranky and refuse to cooperate, possibly out of loneliness. In the cold Paris winters, Goldberg explains that dying slows to a minimum because her vats are too cool to work effectively. Ironically, along with the perfect balance of temperature and dye stuff it is the oxygen we need for life that is the enemy of a good indigo dye vat which works through the process of reduction, causing the colour to oxidize and set fast to the fibre only after it has made contact with the air outside the dye vat.

While indigo is by far the least fugitive of natural dyes, the use of natural indigo today is modest. Its more popular replacement is a synthetic counterpart derived from the sticky and toxic detritus of the coal industry. While the list of the paradoxes indigo contains could go on and on, it can only be hoped that what was once the most popular of dyestuffs does not succumb to the greatest paradox and eventually vanish from our textiles entirely.  Acknowledging the considerable efforts Betty de Paris has spent learning this ancient tradition – and the subtle beauty on display in this exhibition – is reason enough to hope that the art of natural indigo dyeing never faces total extinction.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2006: 59-60)