Aug 17, 2011
In the first of our new series of author interviews we spoke to Jenny Balfour-Paul, author, artist and intrepid traveller, about her new book Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans, the organic dye revolution and the differences between writing and film-making.
How did you first become involved in the study of Indigo?
I always loved textiles and colours, especially after travelling around India in my late teens. When living in the Arab world in my early twenties I became fascinated by local textile skills and learnt weaving and batik. Back in UK, and by this time a practicing batik artist and teacher, I worked with the late Susan Bosence, renowned block-printer and dyer. She was passionate about indigo dyeing and encouraged me to return to Yemen in 1983 when I told her its age-old indigo traditions were on the verge of collapse. (I had visited the country earlier that year with my husband when he was organizing a conference on Yemen for Exeter University’s Arabic dept). A first field trip to Yemen led to many more such studies all over the Arab world, resulting in a PhD (later published) at Exeter University called ‘Indigo in the Arab World’ and then to research worldwide for ‘Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans’.
How have developments in the last ten years changed the way we should look at natural dyes? Is the study of indigo more or less relevant to the world today?
It is far more relevant today. The importance of sustainability is obvious because over-consumption is affecting us all – humans, animals and the whole planet. The textile and fashion industries are enormous and cause huge amounts of pollution and waste. Dyes form a large part of this. Synthetic indigo is made from toxic ingredients whereas natural indigo from plants is non- toxic, enriches the soil, and in hotter climates indigo can be farmed in rotation with other crops, or on waste land. It also provides employment in rural regions.
As you say in the book, the story of indigo is interwoven with many strands of both science and the arts – from agriculture, economics, botany and chemistry, to fashion, furnishings, the applied arts and even cosmetics. Would you consider yourself more of an artist or a scientist?
I suppose more of an artist, though I am above all a writer and interested in subjects that cross the disciplines to span the arts and sciences – hence my love of geography. Indigo is a perfect connecting subject for lectures, exhibitions and education. Cellist Yo Yo Ma, for example, chose indigo as an ideal model for what he calls ‘passion driven education’; by examining what makes their blue jeans blue, students are naturally drawn into arts and sciences.
Your book covers indigo production and dyeing techniques worldwide; is there one place that you have travelled to which really stood out as exceptional?
There are perhaps two, for different reasons. My trips to Yemen were extraordinary, taking place when the country was little known and visited. A high point was sharing meals with the friendly dyers of Zabid, sitting on the ground beside big clay dye pots in a courtyard made from patterned mud bricks. A research trip to remote villages of Guizhou province in south-west China was also magical. This was at a time when the country was just opening up to the West and was little known. One revelation was the gaiety of the people, which included their antiphonal courtship singing in the marketplaces!
You have recently worked as a consultant on the upcoming documentary film Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo, how did you find this experience compared with the creative process of writing?
Because of the artistic/design part of my background, and the fact that I am also a professional photographer (albeit self-taught) I found it fascinating, not least because I had toyed with the idea of taking video film on my own past field trips. In many ways the challenging process of film editing was not that different from the equally challenging process of editing text; there are hard choices to make in both cases but it is also fun and satisfying. Writing is a lonely occupation, however, whereas film consulting and editing is a collaboration; I much enjoyed spending time with film-maker, Mary Lance, and her husband and script writer Ben Daitz.
Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans is available from the British Museum shop from 24 August.