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Indigo blues

Jenny and Stella
28 August 2012
Blog team: 
Jennifer Beasley and Stella Gardner, two textile conservation students at Glasgow University, report on a week's placement at Kew.

As postgraduates studying at the Centre for Textile Conservation (CTC), at the University of Glasgow, we have learned to document and preserve a range of historical and cultural textiles from all over the world. Some might question why textile conservation students would be interested in a voluntary placement at Kew Gardens. In fact, there was a long-running relationship between Kew's Economic Botany Collection and the CTC's predecessor, the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC). From 1994 to 2009 TCC students, based at Hampton Court and Winchester, worked on over 100 textiles held in Kew's collections. After the 2009 closure of the TCC, it reopened as the CTC in Glasgow in 2011.

Earlier this year Mark Nesbitt of Kew visited the CTC to renew the relationship. At his inspiring talk, we were delighted to hear of the variety of textiles and organic-based costumes housed in the Economic Botany Collection (EBC) at Kew. We decided to visit Kew for a short placement, during which we were able to volunteer our time and conservation-training, while also being able to explore the gardens and the EBC.

An inspiring collection

On arrival it was exciting to see a recently acquired collection of indigo-dyed textiles donated to Kew by Jenny Balfour-Paul, gathered from her worldwide travels over the last 20 years. Jenny is the leading expert on indigo, well-known both for her books (Indigo in the Arab World 1997; and Indigo 1998, new edition 2011) and for her public outreach through talks, films (she is a consulting scholar for Blue Alchemy) and exhibitions. The collection consists of over 200 items, including raw dyes, tools and indigo-dyed textiles, and is now available on the EBC catalogue (search on <Balfour-Paul>). Jenny has also given 50 books on dyes to Kew's Library, making what was already a good collection on plant dyes into an outstanding one, with many rarities.


Indigo-dyed cotton from Indonesia
Indigo-dyed textile from Pau, Indonesia, woven by Hanna Dewa and collected by Jenny Balfour-Paul. Ref: EBC 91931

Indigo is not just made from indigo...

The dye known as 'indigo' can be obtained from a wide range of plants, including indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) in India, woad (Isatis tinctoria) in Europe, Persicaria tinctoria and Strobilanthes cusia in China and Japan, and Philenoptera cyanescens in west Africa. All these and more are represented in Jenny's collection.

Indigo-dyed padded jacket
Indigo-dyed padded jacket, collected in Guizhou, China, by Jenny Balfour-Paul, 1993. Dyed with Strobilanthes cusia. Ref: EBC 91934

Caring for the collection

Our job was to work through the 70 or so textiles in the Balfour-Paul collection, deciding how they could best be stored, and then to pack them in acid-free tissue paper and boxes. This exercise proved to be more thought-provoking than expected, due to the range of object sizes and materials, and the limitations on storage space. It was a rewarding project to work on, as we were able to examine some beautiful textile pieces close-up.

Folding an indigo cloth
Jenny and Stella pack up an Indigo-dyed ikat from Savu, Indonesia. Ref: EBC 91932

For us as textile conservators this collection offers information on dyes, printing techniques, and construction and decoration from a vast range of cultures. It is also of great interest to a variety of other people – from those exploring their heritage to experts in this subject. This generous donation by Jenny Balfour-Paul will surely have a long legacy, inspiring further craft, and research on this beautiful and historic dye.

Mark asked us to choose a favourite piece – difficult from so many, but we settled on this one from Nigeria:

Indigo-dyed cotton from Nigeria
Resist-stitched textile from Nigeria, dyed with indigo. Collected by Jenny Balfour-Paul. Ref: EBC 91908

We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Kew, and look forward to being part of the on-going relationship between Kew and the CTC. 

- Jenny and Stella -

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