Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Magic of Indigo

For those of you who love old American Indian textiles, both Navajo and Pueblo, there are two words that are absolute magic. The first is bayeta, which is a word for another day. The second is indigo, that most beautiful of all blues. (Not purple, mind you--that is another dye entirely.) But besides giving a pure and gorgeous blue, why are blankets with indigo so highly prized? Why do two nearly identical blankets sell for such different prices, with the one with indigo worth up to ten times that of its non-indigo cousin? The first reason is pure beauty--there is no synthetic blue dye that can match the richness and depth of a good indigo blue. Also, unlike synthetic dyes that can fade quite easily, indigo dyes are not "fugitive" and will only fade under the most extreme conditions. It is not unusual to find a blanket where every color shows serious fade except the indigo blue, which remains vibrant and deep. The second reason is both historic and economic--for many years, indigo was the only blue dye available to the Indians of the Southwest. Since it had to be brought to the reservation, often from overseas, it was extremely expensive, and normally only used by the best weavers. It was also very difficult to work with, especially considering urine was used as a mordant to fix the dye--disgusting, but necessary. Put it all together, and it was a serious enterprise to use indigo in a blanket, and it normally only appears as a highlight. I have never seen a blanket woven with an indigo blue field, for example. When synthetic dyes were introduced in quantity in the early 1880s, indigo fell completely out of favor. After all, very few people liked the idea of keeping a bucket of urine around to use with their dye. Notice that I have never said anything about rugs with indigo dye--in twenty-five years, I have only seen one, which must have been a special order. The rug era of Navajo weaving came after the decline of indigo use, when synthetic blues were readily available. As for Pueblo weaving, it had declined to a great degree long before that time. Collectors love indigo pieces because they represent an older and "more pure" era of weaving, when blankets were woven for native use and trade rather than purely for sale. That is the magic of indigo, in history as well as in beauty.

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