Indigo or no indigo?

Marieke Hendriksen

Fermenting indigo at Ock Pop Tock, Laos. January 2018.

When you say indigo, the first thing many people will think of is blue – jeans blue. (Or if you’re me, you’ll think first of a seventeenth-century recipe to make decorative blue prunes from wax with indigo. Occupational deformation.) But historically, indigo has been used in many more ways, and to make more dye colours than just blue, as I recently discovered. Today, most jeans are died using a synthetic blue dye, but indigo dyes, made from some of the over 750 species of the genus Indigofera as well as from some other plants, have been used to dye textiles for at least 6,000 years, while other subspecies of Indigofera were traditionally used as analgesics with anti-inflammatory properties.

The term ‘indigo’ according to the OED started to occur from the sixteenth century onwards in various European languages to denote blue dyes from India (or east Asia more generally), but can now also refer more generally to dyes, violet-blue light, or blue hues. It might be argued that the term only really applies to dyes created from Indigofera subspecies, while it could also be said that indigo is any dye created from plants through the decomposition of the glucoside indican, which exists not merely in the indigo-plant, but in woad and various other plants too.

Wash the freshly picked leaves…

While on holiday in Luang Prabang, Laos, I took a weaving and dying workshop with Ock Pop Tock, an organization that was established to preserve the traditional Laotian craft of making hand-loomed textiles. There, I discovered that there is more indigo besides Indigofera, and that one indigo plant can give many more dyes than just blue. They also have a wonderful informative website on natural dyes. At Ock Pop Tock, the plant species used to create indigo dyes is Persicaria tinctoria, or long leaf Japanese indigo, a plant indigenous not to Japan but to China, Vietnam, and Laos. Depending on how the leaves are treated, it can be used to create blue, green, black, and mauve.

…give them a good pounding to create a dye.

Using the fresh leaves creates a green dye, fermenting them for at least five days and adding limestone as a mordant gives a blue dye. Traditionally, the Lao believed that the dye was female, and that it fermented because it attracted a male spirit. To coax the spirit, the pots containing the dye would be dressed in a skirt, and a knife placed on top of the lid to ward off evil spirits that could ruin the dye. The fermentation is actually a naturally occurring oxidation process, with atmospheric oxygen as the oxidant. Regular stirring ensures the process continues. The longer the indigo mixture is left to ferment, the darker it turns. If this mixture is boiled, it turns black. Alternatively, a rare indigenous plant, mak bow or bow vine, can be added to the blue dye to create mauve.

The end result: a beautiful scarf

As part of the half-day workshop, I got to dye a silk scarf with a dye of my choice. I love green hues and wanted to make a dye from start to finish, so I chose to dye my scarf ‘indigo’ green. This was, apart from some pretty intense pounding of leaves, surprisingly easy. I got to pick fresh Persicaria tinctoria leaves in the beautiful garden, washed them, and mashed them vigorously in a mortar for about five minutes. Then I transferred the mashed leaves into a tub, added some cold water and then the raw silk scarf. After kneading the dye into the fabric for a couple of minutes, I could rinse my scarf and hang it to dry. The end result is a beautiful soft green scarf, that is not just a souvenir, but a tangible reminder of the traditional Laotian knowledge about natural dyes preserved and shared at Ock Pop Tock.

Strike notice 4: feeding a strike

Yesterday, British universities entered their fourth – and hopefully final – week of strike. Like Lisa Smith, I am member of the striking University and College Union, and I have decided not to cross picket lines, be they actual or virtual.

We hope to return very soon with our usual offering of twice-weekly posts. In the meantime, we wish to thank our contributors whose posts have been delayed. We are very grateful for your support!


Strike Notice 3: international women’s day

Strikes in British universities are still ongoing. As explained in our previous posts, two of our editors (Lisa Smith and myself) are members of the striking University and College Union, and have decided not to cross picket lines, which also include virtual ones.

Today is International Women’s Day. I’m certain that Twitter and other social media will be full of information on inspirational women, historical or alive. While I welcome this, I think it is important to stress that women do not need to be inspirational to matter. It is fine not to be exceptional.

It is also important to stress collective women’s movements, and I guess many of you will know where I am heading here: women’s strikes. In fact, the 8th of March is also the day of the annual International Women’s Strike. Today I shall be doubly on strike then: I will be on strike from my university job, but I will also avoid doing household chores.

I shall also be re-reading Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata (first performed in 411 BCE). Lysistrata is an Athenian woman who encourages a group of women from various Greek city states to go on a sex strike, with the aim to persuade their husbands to end the everlasting Peloponnesian War. Here is how she introduces her plan:

If we sit around at home
with all our makeup on and in those gowns
made of Amorgos silk, naked underneath,
with our crotches neatly plucked, our husbands
will get hard and want to screw. But then,
if we stay away and won’t come near them,
they’ll make peace soon enough. I’m sure of it.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata 149-154 ; translation A. Sommerstein

The other women are reluctant at first, but soon follow Lysistrata’s advice and swear an oath to withhold sexual favours. This eventually leads to the desired outcome: peace.

It is tempting to read Lysistrata as a proto-feminist play, but Aristophanes clearly was more interested in lewd jokes than in the fate of real women. It’s also worth remembering that the play would have originally been performed by male actors only, adding another layer of slap-stick humour.

Perhaps Aristophanes is the arch mansplainer then?  For how badly does he fail to imagine the daily, mostly invisible, labour of women. While there are historical examples of sex strikes, withholding from domestic chores and child-rearing duties is much more likely to yield results (see the examples of the 1975 Icelandic Women’s strike and of the 2016 Polish Black Monday). And frankly, Lysistrata’s strike sounds like a lot of emotional labour to me: all that preening to then have to push away one’s lover! And anyway, how feasible would that have been in classical Athens, where there was absolutely no concept of marital rape?

Much of what we do at The Recipes Project is to bring to light invisible labour, of women, of enslaved people, of marginalised people.  We never forget that mission, and we thank you for bearing with us while we are on strike!

If you wish to read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, you can do so on the website Perseus (translation by Jack Lindsay).

Strike Notice 2

Today, British universities entered their third week of strike. Like Lisa Smith, I am member of the striking University and College Union, and I have decided not to cross picket lines, be they actual or virtual.

Lisa explained the reasons behind the strike in her post last week. I would have little to add to her clear exposition. She rightly stressed how activities such as blogging about our research and editing The Recipes Project are not counted in our workload:

This isn’t a complaint. You see, we love what we do: we really do. And the system depends on our love. But the pension cuts undermine our goodwill. And it is this that is integral to our willingness to work above and beyond for the sake of education.

The strike in itself, however, is a form of education for many. In most striking universities, there is a lively programme of ‘teach out’ or ‘teach in’ sessions (the choice of preposition varies). Staff and students reflect on important issues such as: how to deal with the marketization of education; how to build a sense of community withing universities; and how to improve mental health in the sector.

Many academics have also turned to blogging as a form of ‘teach out/in’. I have chosen to do so myself in my blog Concocting History, even though I realise that I sometimes come very close to crossing the virtual picket line by writing on topics quite close to my research.

Here is a selection of other blogs that are dealing with this unprecedented strike in British universities. The selection is of course highly personal, and I would love to hear about other wonderful blogs out there.

Peter Kruschwitz explores examples of strikes in ancient Greece and Rome in The Petrified Muse.

Sara L. Uckelman writes openly about the toll the strike can take in Diary of Dr. Logic.

Michael Munnik entertains us with stories of chicken sandwiches left in his office – and much more beside – in An Earth without Grammar.

Peter Matthews reminds us what it means to be on strike in Urban Policy and Practice.

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