Things didn’t go to plan on my last visit to Burkina Faso, where I’d intended to document the ancient technique of indigo dyeing. I found out that to follow the whole process I would need to spend several days, if not weeks, in a remote village where the dyeing takes place in pits dug in the ground, using dried leaves. I’d only got 2 days.
What I discovered is that most of the indigo being produced, even by small scale artisans around the world is in fact just a blue chemical dye. The artisanal look of indigo dip dyed or patterned cloth is easy to replicate, and is about 40 times faster to make than traditional indigo textiles.
I asked Yuunusa, a man who dyes indigo cloth in his village just outside of Ouagadougou, about the modern process of indigo dyeing. He helped us make this video, but it took some persuasion. He explained that he was previously visited by a group of Chinese visitors, who asked for a demonstration. These people then took their knowledge home where they started mass producing the cloth. They even took cowrie shells and replicated them in plastic, he said.
It’s the capitalist crusade for mass production that skews the local economy and destroys the livelihoods for people like Yuunusa’s family who were once thriving indigo dyers. When you can buy synthetic dyes cheaply, the value of naturally dyed fabric has to drop to an unsustainable level. Authentic indigo is now a rare commodity in West Africa, and it is difficult to spot the difference in freshly dyed fabric.
As textile merchant Adelaide Adelaine explains in our video, the surest way to buy ecologically sound indigo is to visit the indigo dyers themselves. For those of you who can’t do that, we are pleased to offer a unique selection of authentic indigo products available from SAHEL.