From remote Laos to haute couture: A journey of indigo dye

by Pichayada Promchertchoo

SAVANNAKHET, Laos: The fashion world loves indigo, but its popularity stretches back for centuries. 

In Japan, this deep blue colour was worn by aristocrats and samurais. In India, its paste was dried into cakes and traded along the Silk Route, by which it entered Europe. Indigo was known in ancient Greece as indikon, which literally means ‘Indian’. 

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Today, indigo is the most popular colour for denim worn by millions of people worldwide. Every year, tens of thousands of tonnes of indigo dye is produced but most of it is synthetic. Its natural version is harder to find as the extraction of colour is done by hand in a complicated and time-consuming process.

As a result, natural indigo-dyed garments often come with a high price tag. A 140 x 140 cm Hermes silk scarf for instance – hand-rolled and dyed with natural indigo pigments – can cost US$1,950. Yet, little is known about the origin of this dark blue dye, and even less so about the people who create it.

In Laos, many of them live a simple life in a remote village of Lahanam, 500 kilometres southeast of the capital Vientiane. Here, more than 300 families spin countless cotton threads into beautiful dark blue fabric on a daily basis. All of them are hand-dyed with natural indigo substances harvested from the locals’ own gardens. 

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A piece of 100 x 100 cm indigo-dyed cotton here costs less than US$2 – a world apart from its market value. The price may seem unreal for many fashion lovers. It does not for the villagers, who have spent months growing the plant, dying and weaving the cotton.

In fact, income from natural indigo dye has transformed their lives over the past decade, ridding families of poverty and sending many children to school.

“The business is doing so well we can’t produce fast enough,” said 60-year-old Sisavath Meevorachak. When they are not farming, both she and her husband make natural indigo dye for sale. Each month, the couple earns about US$1,000 from harvesting leaves of the local indigo plant and extracting the natural dark blue colour out of them.

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Although Sisavath enjoys the extra income, the process of turning fresh indigo leaves into dark blue dye takes a lot of hard work. Once the seeds are sown, she has to wait for three months for the plants to grow. Old leaves are then handpicked in the morning when the sun is not so harsh.

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Source: Channel News Asia