Undying: the Life and Death of an Indigo Cloth

October 2, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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The Nantongese Granny was angry. She believed her grandson was bringing a potential bride, not a group of researchers, to see her collection of indigo-dyed fabrics. Her sons and daughters laid out her bolts of 100 years-old handloom-woven calico fabric, two special 60-70 years old Nantong indigo-dyed aprons, and a pair of traditional Chinese cloth shoes. I was fascinated by the faded indigo colour and wear of the shoes and asked her grandson about their history.

Translated back and forth between English, Mandarin Chinese, and the Nantong dialect spoken by the Granny, the story slowly emerged. The shoes were made from a piece of cloth originally worn and dyed by the Granny’s mother in law. When the cloth wore out from daily use, the Granny took pieces of it and fashioned them into shoes in order to keep the living memory of her mother in law who had taught her to dye indigo cloth.

The theme of Granny’s indigo cloth shoes resonated with the focus of the Living Blue Project team and our two years of research on natural indigo dyeing in India and China sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. The life history of indigo dyed things captures the life and death of social values, relationships, and structures in India and China.

In the History and Theory of Design Anthropology class I have taught at Swinburne University, we explore the life history model for the analysis of artefacts that was introduced by behavioural archaeologist Michael Schiffer in 1976. The model argues that things go through processes of procurement, manufacture, use, cultural disposition (disposal), decay, reclamation, reuse and recycling.

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Schiffer’s Life History model as presented to author’s Swinburne class. Photo credit: Elizabeth Tunstall

The model helps to understand what is happening to indigo dyeing and Chinese society as represented in the Nantongese Granny’s story.


The procurement process to produce herbal indigo dyed cloth has been lost in the Nantong region. It is the one thing that the Granny’s grandson and friends are unable to recapture because it was loss in the 1930s when the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomingdang) confiscated land for the production of rice, cotton, and other things needed for the army’s fight against the Japanese and the Communists. Indigo vats, plants, and finished cloth were destroyed as relics of an old backward culture in the way of China’s modernist progress.

She herself is not able to help her grandson and his friends because in her advanced age she can no longer remember the exact recipe of herbs to produce the dark black-blue indigo colour for which the region used to be famous.

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Indigo vat in Nantong household. Photo credit: Elizabeth Tunstall


The manufacturing process for indigo dyed cloth is still intact although many of the old looms are in disrepair. Of course, the majority of indigo dyed products in Nantong are produced in the factories instead of people’s homes. The industrial vats in the city require the hand dyeing of indigo cloth, even if the cloth itself is not handmade.


The use of indigo-dyed cloth has changed. Traditionally in the Nantong region, indigo cloth was used to make wedding blankets and other bedding, curtains and room dividers, aprons, clothes (pants, tops, and jackets), and shoes. The apron was of particular cultural importance due to Nantong’s history as a site for fishing, agriculture, and salt production.

Today, the primary use of indigo-dyed cloth from Nantong is for scarves instead of aprons, purses and bags instead of wedding blankets. There is still a domestic market for cloth shoes. In Beijing, I was able to purchase a pair of contemporary Chinese cloth shoes with the Nantong indigo cloth patterns.

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Contemporary Chinese indigo-dyed cloth shoes. Photo credit: Elizabeth Tunstall



The point in which people decide to dispose of an indigo-dyed cloth can tell us a lot about the changing values of cultures and societies. Indigo is known for its ability to increase the durability of cloth, especially cotton cloth. In interviews, people have told us how the beauty of indigo-dyed cloth is in how it lightens in colour and softens in texture over time and through daily use.

When a cloth can no longer be used, even as a house rag or a baby’s diaper, it is disposed of, often in burned trash heaps. Here the cloth dies as cloth, but might live as compost to grown plants. According to Professor He Yang, director of the Chinese National Folk Costume Museum, and one of the project’s research partners, the use of cloth until it becomes rags is one of the reasons why it is difficult to find textiles older than 80-100 years in China.

Sold to collectors are cloths of high artistry, but low sentimental value. High artistry is required to fetch the interest and the high price of the collector. Low sentimental value is required for the family to be willing to let the cloth go.

Often, low sentimental value relates to the newer generation seeing the cloth as old fashioned or not fitting in with their contemporary lives. They are not directly attached to the cloth, the person who wore or made it, or to the cultural and social values represented in it. In some cases, poverty will force people to sell cloth of high sentimental value to meet their living necessities.

The point in which an indigo cloth dies is at disposal, which is when people say that it no longer has cultural or social value to them, and thus may or may not be able to seek economic value for the thing.


One family’s disposal is another individual or institution’s reclamation. The disposal of high artistry but low sentimental value cloths is what we often see in museums or sold to tourists in markets. The question is whether the indigo cloth “dies” when it is stored or displayed in a museum.

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Display at the entrance of the Nantong Blue Calico Museum

For example, indigo dyeing has many supernatural elements ascribed to it. It is considered a living dye whose essence continually changes in colour, sheen, and smell over time. The museum often takes the cloth out of use circulation and seeks to stop the decaying processes, which are the living changes to it.

But in the case of the Granny’s family, her grandson is the one undertaking the process of reclamation. Sometimes with and without her support, he attempts to recreate the indigo dyeing process that is part of his family heritage.

Reuse and Recycling

The difference between reuse and recycling relates to the degree by which the elements of the indigo cloth are broken down and reconstituted. If it is mostly the set of activities that have changed from its original intentions, then a cloth may be considered reused. For example, a faded old wedding blanket might be reused as a dust cover for a storage box.

If the cloth has been re-manufactured in some fashion (ex. cut and resewn into another form), then it may be considered recycled. The Granny’s taking of her mother in law’s old indigo apron and transforming it into a pair of cloth shoes is an example of recycling.

Feeling is first

My deep interest lies in the stories of disposal and reclamation of herbal indigo-dyed products and services. What are the social values that make an object lose its sentimental value for the next generation? Can we increase it so that practices and objects don’t have to die?

Next Un-Design post’s discussion of indigo dyeing in India and China will look at some of the efforts of people to increase sentimental value attached to indigo dyeing process and its objects.

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Elizabeth Dori Tunstall, Associate Professor, Design Anthropology, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tags: cultural stories, fibersheds, rebuilding resilient fiber systems