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A woman walks through a field a golden grass wearing an indigo-dyed dress.

Photo courtesy of Zhirong Ma

  • Family Memories Woven into the Blue Calico Cloth of Nantong, China


    When my mother pulled out her tape measure on the weekend, it meant she planned to sew me clothes. I felt happy because I could go with her to buy cloth instead of being stuck with my homework. My mom took me to the wholesale cloth market, which usually accepted only large orders. Each time, she would hold out a single forty-inch piece of cloth and say with pride, “I’m making something for my kid,” and they would relent.

    My mom stored her fabric in a cabinet along with her “unsuitable” clothes. She thought she was getting too old for bright colors, so she planned to cut these down to my size. Stacked inside were some vintage, dark blue shirts, which every year, she would air out so they wouldn’t get damp or moldy. One year, she tailored them into a special dress, a gift for me. Of course, children grow fast. I wore it only once. Back into the cabinet it went.

    As I grew older, I learned the dress was made from blue calico (蓝印花布, or lanyin huabu), a local, handmade fabric dyed through largely forgotten techniques—a specialty of our hometown of Nantong, Jiangsu Province, China.

    The other day, I watched a video that brought back memories. The Chinese vlogger Li Ziqi, who has won millions of fans by presenting portraits of idyllic country life, spent months with her grandmother in her hometown, Sichuan, and through traditional methods grew indigo plants, created the dye and patterns, and, finally, sewed a calico dress.

    Li Ziqi’s video conveys an affection for family and a magical purity that gave me a sense of belonging, of nature and harmony. It also reminded me of that dress that I wore only once. The little me saw that dress as a hand-me-down, but today when I think of the blue calico of my city, I get a feeling of slowly floating above the grass, the scent of the fresh air mingled with earth, and I miss the comfort of home, away from the modern realities that force me relentlessly forward. Now, I am in my second year of graduate study in the United States. I should be over the homesickness stage, but when I see a story related to my hometown, my heart always yearns.

    Rectangular calico wall-hanging, with a design of a person riding a mythical animal.
    A visit from Kirin pattern
    Photo courtesy of Yuanxin Wu

    Nantong is the seat of the blue calico tradition. Surrounded by mountains and water, it has an urban feel, but at its own small-city pace. The Yangtze River connects Nantong to the bustling metropolis of Shanghai—just sixty miles to the south—and flows through the city to the East China Sea. Nantong is a port city, and merchant ships are plentiful. In the past, many families depended on blue calico as their main source of income, and it was worn most often by fishermen and farmers.

    Weavers around the world have cultivated the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria), extracting the brilliant blue dye from its leaves. For nearly 900 years, craftspeople have used common tools, such as wax, straw rope, and stencils to print beautiful scenes of small-town life upon cloth. Nantong’s blue calico differs from other blue dye processes with its special resist-dyeing technique. This technique begins with soybean wax.

    Chinese people have made full use of the soybean plant. We drink down steaming cups of soybean milk at breakfast and form the curds into the tofu served in Sichuan’s signature dish, mapo tofu. The plant also offers a variety of other, non-food uses. When soybean flour is mixed with water and lime, the texture becomes like glue. Through a stencil made of tough paper, dyers paint this substance onto cloth, then soak the cloth in a vat of indigo dye. The painted sections resist the dye, leaving white designs.

    All the ingredients of blue calico come from nature, and the production is all by hand. It takes weeks for dyers to color a bolt of raw cloth into the desired rich shade of blue. The designs they create have developed over centuries. Often the blue on white referred to the sky and clouds, or the foam of breaking waves against the expansive ocean. The designs stem from an awe the people felt for nature and an earnest appreciation of community life.

    “Put leaves of the indigo plant in the vat, you can see the color change from yellow at the beginning, to green, and then oxidize to blue, and then the blue leans to black,” explains Yuanxin Wu, a descendent of blue calico dyers and curator of the Blue Calico Museum in Nantong. He teaches workshops there, presenting the dyeing process to visitors.

    Close-up on two hands carving a pattern into a thick paper stencil.
    Carving the stencil pattern
    Photo courtesy of Yuanxin Wu
    Two finished stencils hanging outside on a clothesline. The carved patterns show birds and flowers.
    Finished stencils
    Photo courtesy of Zhirong Ma
    Two people apply soybean paste to cloth through the carved stencil.
    Applying the soybean paste through the stencil
    Photo courtesy of Yuanxin Wu
    A person leans over a huge vat of indigo dye, submerged a piece of white cloth. The dye has green bubbles on top.
    Submerging in the dye
    Photo courtesy of Yuanxin Wu

    The dye process is dependent on air and time. To create the dyeing solution, craftspeople fill a vat with water to soak the indigo branches and leaves for two to three days. Stirring produces a better fermentation. When the liquid turns dark green, the craftspeople remove the leaves from the finished dye. The raw cloth with soybean paste is stretched out in the liquid, and then brought to the air so the dye can oxidize and the color deepen. Craftspeople repeat the soaking and oxidizing process three to four times a day for several weeks until they achieve the dark indigo color. An old proverb reflects upon this lengthy undertaking: “Blue from the indigo plant is deeper than its origin; the pupil learns from and outdoes his teacher.” Only through hard work may an apprentice’s skill exceed that of their master.

    In China, craftspeople first produced blue calico in the canal towns south of the Yangtze River. Here, the weather, soil, and water were suitable for growing cotton and the indigo plant. In the past, every riverside family owned a loom and a dye vat. Grandmothers and mothers wove cloth by hand from self-planted cotton harvested each June. Children were very happy with a gift of clothing at the new year, dyed by their father, sewn on their mother’s needle. My mother says that sewing clothes for your children is the best expression of care and love.

    Though the cloth is durable, the natural dyes fade through the years. In sustainable fashion, families might re-dye a shirt to produce “new” cloth or re-tailor it into a tablecloth or cushion.

    To make a stencil, artisans carve designs into heavy craft paper with a knife. As engraving requires artistic talent and years of practice, professional stencil cutters would travel the streets, going door to door to hawk their art to potential customers. In one hand, they carried their stencils, in the other, a pot of soybean paste.

    Instead of giving verbal blessings, Chinese people typically prefer to pass on their love through objects, often carving patterns representative of good wishes in a graceful and restrained style. During important festivals or family events, families went to the most skilled dyeing workshops and chose a pattern with profound meaning. The Five Poisons pattern on a baby’s swaddling cloth contains a wish for the child to grow up healthy, free from disease. A quilt in the Kirin pattern wishes a married couple to bring in the next generation. Plump Peaches represents a blessing for an elder’s health and longevity.

    Square calico textile, with designs of a scorpion, snake, toad, centipede, and spider.
    Five Poisons pattern on a swaddling cloth
    Photo courtesy of Yuanxin Wu

    If tie-dye is a random burst of color, then blue calico carries the engravings of life.

    “Every blue calico is patterned, and every pattern has meaning,” Yuanxin Wu says. He has collected more than 40,000 pieces of cloth from the region’s towns and villages for the museum. Each day, he works to interpret the artform for visitors. In his work, he reproduces and recreates patterns from old examples.

    “I grew up with my parents’ looms and dye vats. My grandmother spun, my mom was a weaver, and my father dyed cloth.” In the 1970s, many families in the Nantong region made money through weaving.

    Yuanxin believes he has a responsibility to carry on the cloth-dyeing techniques his family passed down to him. He has worked with blue calico for over forty years. “In the beginning, I was collecting and copying folk patterns to create patterns for Japanese orders. I didn’t think I would stick with it for so many years and make it my whole life.” He visited many towns, and when he asked residents for old patterns, he found that a lot of old cloth had been burned during funerals. In China, when an elder passes away, their children traditionally burn important objects as a memorial, hoping the deceased will continue to use these things in the next world. Yuanxin saw this as a great pity. To him, the loss of a blue calico meant the loss of history and family memories.

    “I can’t bear to throw it away,” my mother tells me. She had put coasters recycled from old blue calico clothes in the tearoom, and her friends were always surprised. They would pick up a coaster and ask where the blue calico was bought. My mother would show them the old handmade piece. “This is the blue calico we grew up with, but it’s not so common anymore.” She tells me she remade them into coasters to surround herself in memories.

    Teacups on top of a calico placemat.
    Recycled calico placemat made by my mom
    Photo courtesy of BiYing Ma

    “I still remember when I was in primary school, it took me twenty minutes to walk to school, and I walked alone,” says Xin Huang, an art instructor. “My mother, wearing her blue calico apron, made breakfast every morning. After soybean milk and fried dough sticks, she always watched me leave. When I looked back, the figure of my mother might be blurry, but I could still see her blue shape at the door.” When asked why he hung onto an old piece, he recalled this childhood memory. “The blue conveyed my mother’s concerned eyes and the love she felt for me. She wanted me to develop the courage to face life alone.”

    As with many traditional crafts, this time-consuming and handmade technique can seem out of step to many who live in the fast-paced world. To them, the influence of this once-flourishing art may seem as quiet as a stream flowing into the ocean. Many people do not choose to continue this work.

    The self-sufficient lifestyle is no more. We enjoy the convenience of buying our clothes off the rack. What was once a daily necessity is now an artistic craft, labeled appropriately as cultural heritage.

    “Traditional craftspeople are not to blame, because for them, this is part of their life routine, a basic source of income,” says Dr. Lijun Zhang, an assistant professor of folklore at George Mason University. She says that the absence of tradition rests with the decline of appreciators, not practitioners.

    “No one will do it until you show them it can be done,” says Angel Chang, a fashion designer with her own womenswear label in New York. Chang blends old and new, integrating handmade indigo fabrics with thoroughly new designs. She works closely with masters of traditional design in the rural mountain villages of Guizhou Province, where they still practice handmade clothing.

    Square calico textile, with the Chinese longevity knot design on all four sides.
    Wealth and longevity pattern
    Photo courtesy of Yuanxin Wu

    “I worked with those grandmothers to learn how to make fabric in the village, and some teenage girls watched me stitch my designs. They never think to use their grandmothers’ fabric in a modern dress. It shifts their perception.” Chang says that rebranding traditional designs can make more people accept and appreciate them. It’s a way to keep indigo fabric traditions alive, and it’s a way to address environmental concerns in fashion.

    “Following traditional, high-quality processes means using organic and all-natural raw materials. The wastewater is chemical-free and non-polluting,” Chang writes of her brand’s philosophy.

    “The best way for handicrafts to survive is to be needed,” Zhang says. “Traditions change all the time.” These changes include the personal aesthetics and techniques that craftspeople hand down from generation to generation, imbuing them with regional characteristics. Handicrafts might also change form, like from clothes into coasters. They became living exhibits, documenting a period of our family and community history.

    Blue calico is an artform harvested from nature and given meaning through the sentiments of traditional artists. The patterns reveal blessings of sustenance and dreams for a happy life. I hope this technique never fades from view.

    Blue calico lives within me as a dress handed down stitched in love and good wishes. I will keep it safe, a vehicle to carry me back to my childhood:

    A day in the watermelon season of late summer back in Nantong. The setting sun. My mom sits on a little bench. She opens her sewing bag. I lay on a mat, working hard on my addition and subtraction. She places the blue cloth in her lap, arranges the needle, cuts free the sleeves. Careful not to break the white pattern, she stitches each to the rest of my dress. A gust of wind. The scent of potted mint. The sweet red cubes of watermelon on my tongue. Home.

    Old family photo of a mother posing with her young daughter in China.
    My mother and I. She sewed most of my clothes by hand.
    Photo courtesy of BiYing Ma

    BiYing Ma was an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and is an international student in arts management at George Mason University.

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