Attending the 9th International Shibori Symposium and discovering indigo in China

In early November we flew to China to attend the 9th International Shibori Symposium held at the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou. With so much ground left to cover on our journey of learning more about textiles and getting our techniques right we sometimes tend to get stuck in the cocoon of our own work. We have to remind ourselves to spend more time on connecting with others in his greater artistic world, to marvel at their creative discoveries and experience the cross-fertilisation of ideas. The 9th ISS provided a fantastic opportunity for us to do just that: gain a better feel for the international textile scene and engage with the many innovative artists and their creations on display. The amount of knowledge condensed into the space of several days was awesome with presenters of lectures and artworks originating from every corner of the globe and diverse disciplines like fashion, archaeology, conservation, sustainability, technology, anthropology and more. We were even lucky enough to meet a few textile designers whose works we had seen at exhibitions in Thailand and elsewhere.

Following the main program in Hangzhou was a trip with overnight stay to the mountainous countryside of Wenzhou where the theme of the day was indigo. We made our way up steep winding country roads sandwiched between rows of heavy stone houses built to withstand the test of time and freezing winters. The destination awaiting us at the top was a thick sturdy house overlooking a breathtaking vista of daring valleys and jutting mountain peaks: the home of the indigo dyer known as Cheng Song Yao who works with sets of carved wooden clamp boards (also known as kyokechi in Japan) to create intricate images on cloth in blue and white.

wenzhou mountain

After catching our breath from the climb we gathered around to witness the unfolding of a freshly dyed bolt of cloth.

carved indigo clamps

The boards are ingeniously constructed to allow the indigo to flow where it needs to during submersion and back out during oxidation.

carved indigo clamps   carved clamps indigo dyeing

The images are good luck blessings of fortune and fertility and will eventually be sewn up to make futon bedcovers for newlyweds.

carved boards indigo clamps

carved clamp indigo dyed

An insight into indigo dyeing wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the farm so off we went, higher up the mountain where terraced plots hugged the hillside and ancient people peeked out of ancient dwellings at the procession of foreign visitors winding their way through the plots of cabbages and sweet potato. In the middle of the fields stood a crop of indigo and a rugged old man who mixed the murky blue water in a low lying concrete fermentation pool. The species of indigo cultivated in China is different from the Thai variety but we found the pigment extraction process to be somewhat similar, the only notable difference being the much larger scale on the Chinese side.

indigo plants china

indigo extraction in china

The leaves are collected once a year and soaked in the upper tank which is then drained to the main circular chamber and allowed to ferment for several days. Lime is introduced and the mixture is agitated to introduce oxygen. According to our teacher this process is helped by the gentle rays of the setting sun (but not the harsh glare of the hot afternoon). An interesting addition is linseed oil which is added close to the end of the agitation process. This causes the frothy purple pigment-rich bubbles which would otherwise remain floating above the solution to break and surrender their pigment to the liquid. The solution is allowed ample time to stand as the indigo collects at the bottom after which the top liquid is discarded, leaving behind a rich blue mush. 

indigo pigment extraction china   extracting indigo in china

collecting indigo pigment china

We learnt many things through our conversations with the teachers, presenters, artists, designers and fellow participants during our short stay in China which was, overall, a superb experience that we look forward to repeating at the next ISS. A newfound sense of confidence and wonder at all the possibilities was instilled in us and guided us with fresh vigorous into new worlds of work upon our return. Under it all was a deep current of new hunger which pulled us toward more knowledge and the promise of a future where we might one day find our own works as exhibitions and inspirations to others.

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