Bengal Blues

Bangladesh’s Living Blue combines local hand-stitching and Japanese shibori techniques

Nilpharmari, a word coined by the British for the growing of indigofera tinctoria, means “the cultivation of blue.” Bangladeshi social enterprise Living Blue farms gorgeous indigo whose aesthetic worth is matched by the community assets it creates on the way from farm fields to an international marketplace thirsty for authenticity and high quality. 

The history of indigo cultivation on the subcontinent goes back many millennia to the Bronze Age Indus valley civilization of Mohenjo-Daro, where archeologists have found evidence of indigo dyes.  During the era of British colonization, prior to the invention of synthetic dyes, indigo crops were so valuable for export that they were grown plantation-style – at a cost of many lives and much human suffering. 

Today, with the return of natural dyes as a force in the global market, Living Blue’s indigo is grown in Bangladesh by smallholders who are compensated fairly for their efforts. More than a cash crop, indigofera tinctoria, as a legume, actually enriches the soil it is grown in and is used in rotation with grains and vegetables.

Living Blue turns farm-grown indigo into beautiful, high quality textiles using the finest methods of two cultures. Japanese shibori, a revered tie-dye tradition, produces undulating, wave-like patterns called mokume which are prized for their supple graphic movement. Bengali hand-stitched textiles, familiarly known as kantha, are taken back to their roots as prized home treasures with an old​ technique called dheu, a gently gathered running stitch whose rolling puckers also resemble the movement of water.

The combination of mokume and dheu on indigo is surreally beautiful – like deep blue streams running through your hands. This sensation is reinforced by the softness of textiles touched for weeks by the skilled hands of Bangladeshi artisans, mostly women. There is no machine-made stiffness here, but rather the warm presence of people and ancient methods.

The artisans involved in Living Blue are treated as shareholders of the company, and they share in the success of this socially motivated venture. Many of the shareholders turn their bonuses into community sanitation projects and other investment in their home villages which benefit not just indigo makers, but everyone around them.

Visit Living Blue at Artisan Resource at NY Now, at the Javits Center, February 1-4, 2015. Learning the company’s story will elicit admiration. One touch of their work will provoke the urge to purchase. 

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