The first cloth that people tend to associate with Asia is silk. Although silk is beautiful cloth, and highly valued throughout history, it was, and still is, for the wealthy. For the common Asian people, the various types of blue and white indigo-dyed fabrics are what they used for possibly thousands of years.
Indigo-dyed cloth has been found in many parts of the world. When natural dyes were all that was available, the deep blue color of indigo was loved and valued. The natural indigo dye was, and still is, typically made from a group of plants called blue grasses, but plants used for blue dying vary in different parts of the world. They are used to color pure cotton and other cloth woven from natural fibers. In the late 1800’s, as synthetic dyes became available, the use of natural indigo faded. Luckily, a few ethnic groups in China continued the production, and today the natural handmade blue and white dyed cloth has made a comeback as a beautiful folk art.
In modern China, the blue and white cloth is called “blue nankeen” or “blue calico.” In Chinese, it is 蓝印花布 “lan yin hua bu,” literally meaning “blue printed patterned or flower cloth.” The cloth, with its pleasant, simple designs, has a charming, unique look. The designs mirror the culture and values of the Chinese people; there are many flowers, birds, fish, animals, auspicious signs, and characters from folktales. The colors and designs are reminiscent of the elegant blue and white Asian pottery.
Historically, the cloth was made and used by the common people. It covered their furniture and windows, as well as being used for clothing and many useful accessories, such as aprons and scarves. Within certain ethnic groups, it was also given as wedding or baby gifts. Today, many Chinese people won’t wear the cloth because it is often considered a ‘peasants’ cloth. At the same time, many now recognize the true artistic value of the cloth. In 2011, Chinese first lady, Peng Liyuan, wore a shirt made of blue calico, which helped regenerate interest in the blue and white cloth.
The cloth can appear to have either a blue design on white, or white on blue. The depth of the color can be changed by the number of times the cloth is dipped in the dye vat. Sometimes, there are two shades of blue in the cloth, and today you can find some with a pinkish purple color added in.
There are four methods of making blue and white cloth; all are forms of resist dying. The use of the terms to describe these different methods seems to vary quite a bit, and when reading online, they were often confused with one another.
The first method, called carved board clamp resist or jiaxie 夹缬, was used more in older times, but is rarely seen today. This was done by carving designs on woodblocks, pressing the cloth between them as the blocks were stacked one upon another, and dipping the stack of blocks into a vat so that the dye could run through the carved “valleys”. This method produces smaller block designs on the cloth rather than large items or allover patterned yardage.
Second is the printing method. This seems to be the true lan yin hua bu 蓝印花布, as the other methods have their own individual names as well. The first step is to make a stencil from oiled paper, then a paste of soybean and lime is applied over the stencil on the fabric and allowed to dry. This drying step cannot be done in the sunlight. When the paste is dry, the fabric is dyed in the indigo solution. The dye cannot penetrate the areas where the paste has been applied. The cloth is then hung outside on large poles to dry. After drying, the paste is scraped off and the white areas of the design appear. This method can produce the most precise designs. It is still done by hand, mainly in Jiangsu (Nantong), Zhejiang (Wuzhen), Guizhou and Anhui provinces.
The third method is batik or la ran 蜡染. Wax printing is a very old technique, and was possibly used to make cloth sold along the silk road. Wax is melted and applied to the fabric in patterns, which is difficult and therefore not as precise as the printing method. The wax is dried and then the cloth is dyed in cold water. After the dyed fabric has dried, it is then washed in hot water to melt the wax and reveal the design. On batik fabrics, you can often see fine lines or tiny spots from where the wax was cracked, but sometimes it is difficult to distinguish from printed cloth. Batik is more commonly used on cloth for specific items rather than fabric yardage. The Miao and Zhuang ethnic groups are known for their high achievement levels in making batik.
The last method is tie-dyeing 扎染, which is much more precisely done than the modern Western style! In China, this technique of resist dying is called bandhnu. The pattern is marked ahead on the fabric with dots and then the cloth is bound in various ways: tying, knotting, tucking, twisting, folding, stitching, and even sometimes adding sticks or other small items inside of the bound cloth, to form designs. The resulting pattern will depend on the tightness of how these techniques are done, and how much, if any, dye is able to reach the cloth. After the cloth has dried, the binding threads or bands need to carefully be taken out. Depending on the piece and its purpose, lines of stitching are often added to enhance the designs. Nowadays, this is often done by machine. The Bai ethnic group in Yunnan province is best known for their skill in this technique. In Japan, this is the well-known art of shibori.
Today, blue calico cloth is mass produced using chemical methods, and if you simply want the look, you can purchase it very inexpensively. If you want handmade cloth, it will cost considerably more. If you closely examine the cloth, the handmade ones will most likely have minor imperfections. When purchasing the real, handmade cloth, you have the benefit of a truly natural fabric. The 100% cotton cloth dyed with natural indigo supposedly has increased durability, holds the color extremely well, and is supposed to naturally repel moths. In souvenir shops, in the areas where indigo-dyed cloth is made, you can buy a large variety of items: tablecloths, clothing, scarves, purses, toys, as well as the fabric yardage, and much more! Many items are also embellished with embroidery to enhance the design.
I recently visited a few interesting places where I was able to learn more about the process of making these fabrics and see examples.
In Shanghai, there is a small museum and shop called the Chinese Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall, hidden off of Chang Le Lu in the old French Concession. It was opened in 1990, by a Japanese woman named Masa Kubo. She had a love for the Chinese blue calico and wanted to see the art preserved. It has a small museum upstairs, displaying a variety of fabric, some antique pieces, and various equipment used for making and dyeing the cloth. Downstairs is a shop where you can purchase all kinds of items made from lan yin hua bu, including a good variety of hand printed cloth. The fabric is not actually made here, but they do hang some in the courtyard area as if it were drying after the dye process. It looks pretty and lets you know you have arrived after walking through the alleys off of Chang Le Lu.
Another place I visited was the Indigo Fabric Workshop in the Ancient Water Town of Wuzhen, in Zhejiang Province. Here, the displays showed a more detailed process of printing the fabric, and it looked like at times they have actual workshops, but, the cloth is no longer actually made right there. Outside of the workshop was a large area with fabric hanging; beautiful to see the lengths of fabric billowing in the wind like sails! There is supposed to also be a weaving workshop nearby, but we were short on time and unable to go.
There is a museum in Nantong, north of Shanghai, called the Nantong Printed Blue Nankeen Museum. I have not been there, but, it sounds like it may be the largest museum in China dedicated to the blue and white dyed cloth. The man who opened it, Wu Yuanxin, also teaches the methods of making the indigo-dyed fabrics.
Japan also practices these same methods of making blue and white indigo-dyed cloth, although their designs are different to reflect their culture. I was able to see the tie-dying method, called “shibori” in the Japanese town of Arimatsu. This is the same method as the Chinese bandhnu. It was amazing watching the women tying the cloth, and the resulting designs were remarkable!
So next time you are traveling and see a piece of blue and white cloth, stop and take a closer look! If it was handmade, think of all the work that went into it! Maybe purchase a special “lan yin hua bu” souvenir to help you remember your time in China.