The Nantongese Granny became angry. She thought her grandson had brought a bride to view her collection of indigo-dyed fabrics and not a group of researchers. Her children laid out bolts of handloom-woven fabric that was 100 years old, two 60-70 year-old Nantong indigo dyed aprons and a pair Chinese cloth shoe. The faded indigo color and worn-out look of the boots fascinated me. I asked her grandson to tell me about their history.
The story gradually emerged as the Granny’s dialect of Nantong was translated back and forth from English to Mandarin Chinese and . The Granny’s mother-in-law dyed and wore a piece of cloth that was used to make the shoes. The Granny fashioned the shoes from the pieces of cloth that were left over after the daily wear and tear. This was to preserve the memory of her mother-in-law, who taught her how to dye indigo.
The Living Blue Project team’s focus on indigo dyeing and its two-year research in India and China, sponsored by the Ifer-Gren Foundation, resonated with Granny’s theme. In India and China, the indigo-dyed items’ life histories capture social values, relationships, and structures.
The life history model was developed by the behavioural archaeologist Michael Shiper and introduced in 1976. The model suggests that objects go through various processes, including procurement, manufacturing, use, cultural disposal (disposal), degradation, reclamation, and reuse.
Elizabeth Tunstall’s Swinburne Swinburne class presented with Schiffer’s Life History Model. Elizabeth Tunstall
This model helps us to understand the changing nature of indigo dyeing in China and Chinese society, as portrayed in Nantongese Granny’s story.
It is a process that has been lost to the Nantong area. The Granny’s grandson, along with his friends, are unable to recapture this one thing because it was lost in the 1930s when the Chinese Nationalist Party(Guomingdang) confiscated land to produce rice, cotton, and other items needed by the army for its fight against the Japanese, Communists, and others. Indigo vats and plants were destroyed to rid China of its old, backward culture.
She is unable to help her grandson or his friends, as she has reached an advanced age and can no longer recall the exact herbs that produce the indigo-dark black color.
Indigo vat at Nantong home Elizabeth Tunstall
Although many old looms have fallen into disrepair, the manufacturing process of indigo-dyed cloth is still intact. In Nantong, indigo-dyed products are produced in factories rather than in people’s houses. In the industrial vats of the city, indigo cloth must be hand-dyed even if the owner does not make it.
Indigo-dyed fabric is now used differently. In the Nantong area, indigo material was traditionally used for wedding blankets, other bedding, curtains, room dividers, as well as aprons and clothes (pants and tops). Nantong was historically known for its salt production, farming, and fishing. The apron held a special place in the culture of Nantong.
In today’s market, indigo-dyed fabric from Nantong is primarily used for scarves instead of aprons and purses and bags instead of wedding blankets. Cloth shoes are still available on the domestic market. In Beijing, I bought a pair of contemporary Chinese cloth shoes with Nantong indigo patterns.
Elizabeth Tunstall’s indigo-dyed shoes. Elizabeth Tunstall
Indigo-dyed clothes can reveal a great deal about changing cultures and societies. Indigo dye is well known for increasing the durability of cotton cloth. People have said in interviews that the beauty of indigo-dyed fabric lies in its ability to lighten in color and soften in texture with time.