I am a textile artist and a lover of blue and I teach Indigo dyeing in Scotland (my next Indigo event) on a regular basis, but I love learning myself and I believe I know so little compared with Master Indigo dyer Aboubakar Fofana so I went all the way to Bali last November to attend one of his workshops on Fermentation Indigo organised by Threads of Life Bali Its a very long way to go for a weeks workshop but The Threads of Life’s premises set in the Bebali dye garden are so well suited to Indigo dyeing that it was very well worth the effort.
I did think it would be interesting but I did not realise I would get this exceptional feeling of “coming home” … I though it would be about blue… but it was about a beautiful process, mainly about a communion with nature and how you can understanding it by looking at it, smelling it, mixing it, waiting, recording it and off course accepting the result a beautiful vat dye called Indigo, blessing it, maintaining it and finally getting blue from it.
We were a small group of about 12 meeting on the first day of the workshop, such an international group, Rachel, Margot… from somewhere in Australia, Prairie from Thailand, someone from Bengladesh, two ladies from the US … many different expectations, many different expertise, one aim… learning from Aboubakar.
Him, a master of his Art in complete communion with the huge fermentation vats he creates out of African Indigo, but also a tired traveller that morning, Bali customs had held him for many hours the night before to test the dried mud and the Indigo fermented balls he had brought in his travel bag as a true Alchemist style… may be they were looking for the secret potion they did not find… William Ingram who runs The Threads of Life would be our father and our scientist for the week. I though him as a “frustrated teacher” wanting to find the science behind each process… he makes my day every time he can explain the chemistry behind the magic. I did not get the chance to join a chemistry class in my young days and I am still trying to find out how things work in a recurring manner… Pung the chief dyer of the Bebali garden but also the director of the Bebali foundation which supports artisans through Indonesia in keeping their techniques and their traditions. Pung is a constant source of information, a smiling source of information, profoundly involved in the local community and so proud of his team.
And we start… Aboubakar is very straight with us… don’t you think this is about Blue… its about you understanding the process… you will grind, mix, smell, stir, understand… make it happen, and if you are lucky you will get to see the fermented vat active… we did not… one week was not enough for the little fermented balls to get their magic going… but I have recorded the smell of African fermented indigo in my head for any future tries… and we went back to the grinding mill… Lets work with paste now, lets reduce… two reduced vats using the Fructose method… one with fructose, one with sugar cane, lets learn from the eruption of our slake lime… lets measure Ph, and temperature, let it happen… by tomorrow surely there will be some blue… one can hope…
But if there is not… the Bebali garden’s vats will do nicely (3 huge vats of 300 liters… yes yes monstrous huge vats…) !!!
Can we dye please… I have crossed half of the world to come and make some blue cloth… please can I dye now???? No yet says the Master… now you have to learn to clean and prepare your cloth… May be tomorrow… OHHH ! Sheer frustration…. 7 small squares of cloth are getting boiled and stirred in Ash water… May be tomorrow.
And today… we open the lids, and we stir, and we smell, and we take the temperature and the Ph… not yet says the Master…. but you can start with the Bebali vats… Pung said yes you can… but wait though… you have to first fit some nets at the bottom… you don’t want to disturb the bottom of the vats…
Please can we dye sir? My hands are aching to be blue and my nails are still so clean… I want to make pretty patterns on a scarf and take it home to show off…
Not yet first you have to master your shades… its not about the pretty pattern its not about the blue… you still don’t understand you silly children its about the process… you must learn the process…
Look now this is what I want you to do… you must dip your squares of purest cotton (now ever so clean) in this vat once, twice, three times as many times as it takes but you must have 7 shades… starting with white and then the colour of nothingness (somewhere between white and blue… almost nothing but still something on this cloth… its beautiful ) … and finish at almost black… its still blue not quite black but so dark the uneducated eye would think it is black…
How many times please sir? As many times as you need to… you will have to stop talking now, you will have to concentrate, you will have to slow down and breathe gently and listen to the water floating in the vats while counting, you have to take turn and learn to wait, you have to learn to observe, your 7 shades will gradually be born, you have to follow a gentle pattern, they have to play blue like a melody, no discordance no big jumps, the right progression…
Will this not take forever sir? I have dipped this cloth at least 15 times, my mind is so tired… please Master am I there yet?
Well you tell me … it is your cloth after all and you have to learn to play your own music… Do you like this tune ? Are you happy with your own result… I cant tell you it is about you liking your own work !
Ohhhh! Master I don’t want to make a pretty pattern any more now I want to play the most delicate melody with my blue cloth… please can I have more time?
Well I am afraid a great melody is only as good as the paper it is written on … if your cloth is not “finished” properly it will not last… you need to rinse, rinse, and rinse again… until your hands are aching from it. And then only you will be able to say if you love your Melody…. And then you can make pretty patterns… Lets rinse more…
Now you can make pretty patterns… When we are all done we will listen to every one’s melody… Look is it not so beautiful????
Never have I achieved so much and so little at a workshop, this time no suitcase full of Artwork, one beautiful scarf stitched and dipped in an interesting Shibori pattern… a beautiful loose weave cotton woven in Bali and part of the From Farmer to Fabric program of the Threads of Life… I know now every time I will wear my scarf someone in Bali will benefit from my purchase. But more importantly 7 little squares of beautifully dyed Blue cloth… perfect record of my progression on a process taught to me by Aboubakar…. I feel so proud of them, they are the proof of my understanding of the process… I am so very happy…
On the last day we displayed all our melodies on a table and surprise… all melodies are perfect but still they are different ever so slightly they are all so stunning… see for yourself.
This was such a long way to go but I have learned so much, a new technique, playing music with blue, an infinite patience… I feel in complete communion with a group of dyers, with a community, with even a Master dyer.
My hands did get so blue at the end… it took several weeks for my nails to be fully clean… I will cherish my squares of blue for ever they are by far my most difficult piece of work and I am so proud of them.
Aboubakar Fofana teaches Indigo at The Thread of Life every year. I highly recommend it…. but not if you want to make many pretty things… only join in if you want to be in true communion with the Blue Stuff.
4 thoughts on “From nothingness to nearly black … 7 shades of blue, Fermenting Indigo with Aboubakar Fofana… I came home in Bali !”
I have registered my grandaughter and myself for your Feb class but have had no confirmation or other information directly from you. I realize you may be traveling but would like some kind of confirmation from you before we make any airline reservations etc ..
Is there a materials list etc??
Hello Pat thank you for your message and my apologies I think your booking was done directly with me and not via the Eventbrite platform ? Let me check how it was done … did you leave me an email adress if not can you leave me an email adress so I can send you all information … best wishes. Elisabeth
Hello Pat, I noticed a payment made by a Mrs Cameron on the 20th November. However I don’t think I have contact details for you and your granddaughter. Please let me have an email (or both) email addresses and full names of the participants I will send you a proper confirmation and all details necessary. All material necessary for the day is included together with lunch. If you bring any additional material you would like to use it has to be scoured (washed using a soft soap and washing soda) to prepare to take the Indigo. You could bring old clothing and some gloves…
Actually Hi again I have looked further I think both your bookings came through via Eventbrite so you should have received their confirmation on the 30th December as I received a copy of it… Is your email address firstname.lastname@example.org I only have one booking on that day so I am not sure who your grand daughter is please confirm her name.
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