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Author Q and A: Jenny Balfour-Paul

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.

Jenny Balfour-Paul

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.

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Stories of Indigo

BLUE ALCHEMY: Stories of Indigo Trailer from Mary Lance on Vimeo.

Earlier this month award-winning film producer Mary Lance launched her latest project in Santa Fe. Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo is a feature documentary that weaves together visually stunning stories about the history, production and importance of indigo: the world’s only natural source of blue.

Jenny Balfour-Paul, indigo expert, artist, lecturer and British Museum Press author acted as consultant on the film and to tie in we’ll be releasing a new edition of Jenny’s classic study of indigo this summer.

Updated with a brand new final chapter, as well as a stunning new cover design, Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans is the definitive book on this magical dye; exploring everything from the historical, agricultural and botanical origins of indigo to different production and dyeing methods; commerce and economics; indigo’s continued presence in folklore, art and alternative medicine; and its iconic status as the dye that makes blue jeans blue.

Indigo_Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans will be available from the British Museum shop from 19 August.

Jenny Balfour-Paul and Mary Lance will be screening Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo at a number of UK events in Spring 2012. Subscribe to the books blog now to make sure you don’t miss any of the details.