From India via the Silk Road to Germany: The craft of indigo dyeing

Blue-base fabrics with white decorations have enjoyed great popularity in Germany for 400 years. Traditionally, linen, cotton and silk are printed by hand with printing blocks and dyed blue with indigo.

The process is called "reserve printing" and has been carried out in small craft workshops for centuries.

These "blue print workshops" were to be found 200 and 300 years ago in every town in Europe, be it in Russia on the Arctic Sea or in southern France - in Germany these businesses were to be found everywhere, right down to the village level.

Even today, the rich museum archives and the proverbs that originate from this craft bear witness to the popularity and fame of indigo print fabrics:

"Wait you will experience your blue miracle" (colour change when oxidizing indigo).

"Beat green and blue" (beating the fabrics during oxidation)

"Beware he can do witchcraft and blue dyeing" (amazement at "Indian" dyeing art)

The UNESCO declared the indigo printing craft not only a national cultural heritage but also a "cultural heritage of the world" because of its origin in India. During the East India trade, the "East India Company" in Amsterdam and England brought at first finished fabrics and then indigo and the technology of dyeing to Europe - everything was enthusiastically received by the Europeans and the craft called the "Indiennes" also established itself in Germany.

The "indigo" dye and the traditional designs point to the country of origin of the craft: India.

The tropical indigo dye has been extracted from the plant "Indigofera tinctoria" for about 4000 years, mainly in the subtropical region of the Indian subcontinent. Indigo is the only plant dye in the world for a deep and long-lasting blue.

The pattern print on fabrics was developed by hand in India using wooden printing blocks.

The design was cut out of a solid wooden block with fine knives and completed with inserted metal pins. The Indian "block makers" distinguished themselves by a high level of expertise in woodcutting which could hardly be achieved in Europe.

The white designs on a blue base, which are still popular today, show classical Indian and Asian motifs: pomegranates, peacock feathers, bhutta motifs, peonies and carnations, complemented by fine scattered flowers and tendrils.

Excavations at the Red Sea in Egypt unearthed fabric remnants from the 11th-13th centuries that were made in India and traded via Egypt to Europe: the surviving printed patterns showed designs that are still known and popular in Germany today and live on in the remaining workshops.


Georg Stark, Jever