Last night I gave an invited lecture on indigo dyeing practices throughout the world at the Etobicoke Handweavers and Spinners Guild. I drew from a couple of articles I had written on the subject for Interweave Press (including this one) and was very well received; as an added bonus, there was a colour chemist in the audience who came up afterwards and struck up a conversation. We had marvelled at how the incredibly complex and non-intuitive process of indigo dyeing (which involves several steps, rather specific chemical reactions, and starting off with plants that show no sign whatsoever of blue-bearing potential) had been discovered independently multiple times throughout the world. I mentioned in my talk that several indigo dye plants (and there are several, if not hundreds!) are used medicinally as well; I wondered if their treasured status as a producer of the rarest of colours–blue–helped foster belief that they held healing and other beneficial properties too. The chemist offered, well, what if it happened the other way? What if the plants were first used medicinally and through the grotesque processes of the human body (her words, not mine, though sometimes apt) people noticed the occasional tinge of blue? (I had ended my talk with a clinical anecdote about the occasional appearance of indigotin, the indigo pigment itself, in certain pathologies in the human body.) And that got me thinking… that makes a lot of sense. And how great is it to have this kind of conversation, about art and biology and organic chemistry and dyeing cellulose?
I’ve missed being in a guild for a long time. I was in a great one in Colorado, where I learned a great deal, but was a bit soured on the endeavour when I found myself among a rather unfriendly group when I first came to Canada. I really enjoyed the people I met last night, though, and was impressed by the knowledge amassed in the room. And did I mention the guild sits out in a small natural preserve with its own dye garden, including a butternut tree?! I do believe it might be time to start connecting with my local artisan community again.