Discovering the ancestral tradition of indigo dyeing and batik with the H’mong in Sapa, Vietnam

Curated by BuffaloTripOctober 16, 2017 Viewed: 1089

Have been living in Sapa, Vietnam for over 300 years, the H'mong are the largest ethnic group in Sapa and make up just over half of the population. Photographer Rehahn visited a H’mong group in Pa Co, a village located in Hoa Binh province, where he discovered the ancestral tradition of indigo dyeing and batik.

In Pa Co, he met Sung Y Xia, a 39 year old woman who practices the art of indigo dyeing and batik drawing. She has been practicing the batik style since the young age of fifteen and has become an expert in her trade, despite being younger than most batik masters.

H’mong women, like Sung Y Xia, can make dye from the indigo plant to produce the distinctive dark blue colored fabric that is typical of the ethnic minorities of Sapa. Historically, this blue dye was used by the H’mong to dye their clothes and to make coats for their children to wear, which they would be pass down for generations.

Today many locals in Pa Co make the beautiful blue tinted fabric to sell to be used in products in Hanoi and other areas of Vietnam and the practice represents greater financial opportunities for these ethnic groups.

Indigo dye can be extracted from several plants, but because the indigo plant is more widely available, it is therefore more commonly used. Over three hundred different species have been identified but the Indigo tinctoria and I. suifruticosa are the most common and belong to the legume family.

The indigo plants of the H’mong are grown and harvested on the hillsides next to their homes and when fermented and oxidized, a blue dye can be made from its leaves. Making good quality indigo dye requires a lot of experience, quality ingredients and time and the whole process can take as long as ten days to one month to complete.

To make the dye, leaves from the indigo tree are harvested and soaked for three days in a container with water from a clean stream. The leaves are then removed and the colored water is kept and lime is added. This liquid is stirred gently until a green/ yellow layer appears on its surface, which usually takes a few hours. Once the liquids sediment has settled at the bottom of the barrel, ash from good quality wood, rice soup, water and alcohol are added to the mixture. The liquid must be mixed for four to five days until bubbles appear. These bubbles are a sign of a successful Batik dye making process.

Once the dye has been prepared the Batik master can use beeswax and special tools to draw patterns and designs into hemp fabric, a process that can take one to two months. The hemp material is covered in beeswax and tools are used to remove the beeswax from the cloth in patterns or designs. The fabric is then soaked in the Batik dye and left to dry in the sun. The beeswax acts as a protective layer when the fabric is dyed and only the areas on which it has been scraped away take the color of the Batik dye. This process can be repeated many times to create beautiful and complex multicolored designs. The more a fabric is mixed with the dye and the more it is worked on, the darker it becomes.

Black H’mong fabrics are achieved by repeating the dying process repeatedly, usually twice a day for a month. This process is the reason why many H’mong women have blue hands, because they have been stained permanently by the indigo dye.

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