Lessons in indigo: Vietnam’s rich craft heritage

When India’s famous linen designer visited Sa Pa in Vietnam and returned with renewed love and big plans for the dark blue dye

If it wasn't for my husband's move to Saigon on work three years ago, this city or even Hanoi wouldn't have formed a part of our holiday routine. The first time around, Vietnam felt like an alien land. Now I have so many Vietnamese household items back in Mumbai that the family joke is that ours is a half-Indian, half-Vietnamese home. In Saigon or Hanoi, I’m no longer in a rush to see everything and we go on long walks instead; especially in the old quarter of Hanoi which, if historians are accurate, came into existence in 1010 AD. The streets here are dedicated to one particular craft or ware - including thread, silk and silver. We often stop for seasoned lotus stem crackers at Hum, a vegetarian cafe and restaurant, or the four-flower pizza with sesbania grandiflora and daylily blossoms at Pizza 4P’s, run by Japanese expat, Yosuke Masuko.

Lessons in indigo: Vietnam’s rich craft heritage

One of the little gems in Hanoi is this incredible Museum of Ethnology, with life-size renditions of how different ethnic groups in Vietnam lived. The Museum of War is another must-visit, even if it speaks of a sad time – the history of the war and the disruption of lives. As you walk out of the museum into the street, you notice again how the locals have restructured their lives, the women on scooters and mopeds, taking their children to school and going about their daily life. The women are so enterprising, that I once said to my husband, when we were travelling, “it looks like the women are the ones working hard. There are no men here”. And then I realised it is because an entire generation of men was killed in the war. It's the women who ran the country. And when you see their faces – graceful and happy – you see their great spirit.

Hope on the range

Craft is not very apparent when you are in the cities, though you do get glimpses of it targeted towards tourists. It is only in the craft clusters that you realise how people in villages live in great harmony with their environment. In Catherine Legrand’s book, Indigo: The Color that Changed the World, with its stunning pictures of Vietnamese indigo, the ethnic minorities are seen wearing it in their different styles. The photos are so dramatic and otherworldly. It was when a friend recommended Sa Pa, a frontier township and capital of Sa Pa District in Lào Cai, that I made the trip from Hanoi, up north to the charming mountains and crafts of Sa Pa. Nestled amongst the Hoang Lien Son mountain ranges in the north western province, its incredible beauty hits you with the first ray of sunshine.

  • Life of a garment
  • The traditional costume of the women in these mountains usually comprises of a top, a pair of pants, and accessories. Every garment is labour-intensive and only a few pieces are made each year. They last the women for a few years, and each piece is valued. After several years, their vintage clothes are made into souvenirs or decorative ornaments, and sold to crafters, tourists and designers who appreciate the tradition. They truly live a sustainable and sensible life.
  • After hours
  • I like Gingko Vietnam, a French, Vietnamese partnership that showcases local culture, but with contemporary European influences. Don’t miss their T-shirts based on local market scenes. L'usine in the Sadec district (Ho Chi Minh) also has a beautiful courtyard, store and flower shop. I visit every time I am in Vietnam.

Sa Pa is home to ethnic minority groups such as H’mong, Dao (Yao), Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tày, who seem to have kept most of their traditions alive. With Indigo being available naturally and in abundance, it is extracted, stored and extensively used. The traditional clothing is locally grown, hemp and cotton mostly hand spun, hand-dyed and handwoven. You see them in their traditional costumes, with hanks of hemp and the looms, effortlessly working in households, or groups of women sitting together in the village common area and hand weaving. When I spoke to a few of the women, I learnt that with only one crop a year, the households, especially women, have lots of time at hand. Since not all of them are skilled to run a handloom, they spend their time sewing, embroidering and hand-dyeing. It seems so grounded, earthy and rustic, and is reflected in the artistic expressions of the fabrics that are woven there. In fact, after my tour of the craft regions, I have started sourcing a lot of hemp from Vietnam, and plan to get some of my fabrics dyed with indigo. That Vietnamese crafts still thrive could be attributed to how they have preserved their social fabric irrespective of the turmoil that they went through.

Lessons in indigo: Vietnam’s rich craft heritage

Whose batik came first?

In the local craft market, I find vintage stores selling anything from a fully hand embroidered indigo coat to an enamel pin. And there is Batik, of course. Proponents of the Indonesian batik claim it originated in their country, but in my view, Vietnamese Batik is unparalleled in its finesse. A pen with a metallic head is used to create motifs with wax. The Hmong ethnic group has been using this art form to decorate their clothes. Their use of Indigo from the leaves of the plant on their traditional handwoven garments creates a unique fusion of handwoven fabric with decorative motifs.

Lessons in indigo: Vietnam’s rich craft heritage

When in Sa Pa, visit the Cat cat village, where the meandering path is peppered with small shops and craft workshops that are basically the front of a house. A large part of this journey is overtaken by Indigo, and what a sight it is - handwoven hemp in Indigo draped on bamboo or just hanging from a wooden hanger, all so natural and earthy. The indigo plants of the Hmong are grown and harvested on the hillsides next to their homes and when fermented and oxidised, a blue dye can be made from its leaves. Making good quality indigo dye requires a lot of experience, superior ingredients and time. The whole process can take as long as ten days to a month. But trust me, the time taken is evident from the look and feel of each garment.

The writer is a textile designer and founder and of the eponymous brand, Anavila

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 5:48:21 AM |

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