Indigo is the oldest plant-based dye in the world, the technique of indigo dyeing appeared around the 3rd millennium BC. The oldest specimen of indigo-dyed fabric was discovered in 2009 at an ancient temple in Huaca Prieta, Peru, dating back to 6200 years ago. Indigo was introduced to Europe early on and is best known during the flourishing period of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Peru, Iran, and Africa.
Later, many ethnic groups in Asian countries such as India, Japan, China, Vietnam, etc. have used indigo as a typical dye for traditional costumes for millennia. Especially for ethnic minorities in the northern mountainous region of Vietnam, indigo dyeing has become one of the indispensable traditional features that make up a very unique identity for the ethnic community in Vietnam.
A H'mong woman's hand with indigo dye
Indigo dyeing techniques of minority people in the mountains of Vietnam.
In the highlands and mountainous areas of northern Vietnam, ethnic groups have long known how to use natural products to create dyes on their costumes. In the minds of the people, this is one of the very important achievements, as meaningful as divine blessings to the community.
Dye trees were discovered by the local people by chance, while clearing the fields for cultivation, or going to the forest, the latex sticks to the fabric, creating patchy colors on the limbs, skirts...; or while digging up tubers and roots of forest trees, picking colorful fruits... from which came the idea of creating fabric dyeing colors.
Different shades of Indigo in hemp pillow cases
Hemp clothing has become one of the indispensable cultural features for many ethnic groups, especially the H'mong. The profession of sewing and weaving has been handed down by H'mong women for generations, through the custom of mothers taught to their children. Indigo dresses imbued with national identity are also a measure of the ingenuity, hard work, and tactfulness of H'mong girls, conveying their dreams of reproduction, proliferation, peace and happy.
Not only good at weaving, the H'mong also have indigo dyeing techniques that are hard to match. Indigo dyeing is a very elaborate job which takes a lot of time and especially should not be done in haste. To create beautiful products, only people, usually women, who are skillful, patient, and experienced in the selection and use of raw materials can create desired products.
Elaborated through complex processes, the indigo color on the hemp cloths created by the H'mong people is always durable over time, becoming a proud cultural heritage of the community for thousands of years.
A H'mong artisan working on her indigo dye
Indigo growing process of H'Mong people
According to traditions, when the H'mong people move to a new place, an essential thing to bring with them is the indigo tree.
Young H'mong girls often follow their mothers to the fields early in the morning. They often take seeds from the forest to plant in the field near their house. Some years, the crops failed, the villagers had to go deep into the forest to find seedlings.
The H'mong grow indigo along the hillsides. They often plant by sowing branches in the ground to grow quickly. Indigo will be planted in February. At the end of summer, which is around July, is the time when people go to the fields to cut indigo leaves to start making indigo dye to dye fabrics.
The process of making indigo dye of the H'mong.
Indigo dyeing is an indispensable step in the fabric-making process of highland women. Indigo costumes bring many benefits to health as well as spiritual values, according to the concept of the H'mong.
To have a beautiful fabric, it is necessary to combine factors such as: fabric, dyeing technique of the artisan, ingenuity, meticulousness, patience, and external factors such as weather, location, date for indigo dyeing,...
Cotton yarn in indigo dye
Basically, the indigo dyeing process of H’mong woman will go through 3 main steps:
Step 1: Make ash water.
First they will boil the water. When the water is about to boil, they will put the cloth on the basket that has been prepared in advance, put the basket in a basin, and then pour the ashes into the basket first.
Then the women will pour hot water that has just boiled in to filter the water from the ash in the pot. They put the excess ashes in the basket away.
Step 2: Mix indigo with ash water.
After having the ash water, they will pour it into the prepared dye tank to dissolve the indigo. Next they poured the indigo into a bowl, then the wine into the bowl.
Then they scooped up the ash water into a bowl of indigo, then used their hands to rub the indigo for a while and then poured the water in the bowl into the bucket. The women keep repeating this operation until the indigo is gone, and the remaining stones are removed.
Step 3: Stir the indigo barrel and wait for fermentation.
Immediately after mixing the indigo with ash water, they will use a stick to stir the dissolved indigo into the yeasted ash water for about 15 minutes - 25 minutes and then stop. They will cover the dye drum with a curtain to prevent items from falling and damaging the indigo barrel.
According to the H'mong method, the woman will stir the indigo barrel twice a day (Usually in the early morning and evening), each time stirring from 15 minutes to 25 minutes, and maintain that activity for 3 days. Successfully fermenting indigo will have a beautiful aroma, iridescent dark green color.
Once you have indigo dye, you just need to put the fabric to be dyed in the fermented dye tank, soak for about 15 minutes to 20 minutes. Then take it out and dry the dyed fabric. Then dip into the dyeing tank until the fabric is dark enough to use.
Finished indigo colored cloths
It can be seen that indigo dyeing is not a simple process, it requires a lot of patience, meticulousness, as well as the experience of the indigo dyer. The indigo dyeing process may be similar among ethnic communities, but factors such as fabric material, weather, time taken, etc. also greatly affect product quality, which requires a woman to be careful and always put her heart in every piece of fabric.
Although there are many difficulties and the manual process is somewhat complicated, it is thanks to the things that the H'mong women are able to produce the unique indigo clothes of the northern mountainous culture of Vietnam.