Travel with us to the northwest border region of Vietnam to make traditional indigo dye, a process centuries in the making…
For the past ten years Kilomet109 has been collaborating with a community of textile artisans from Vietnam’s Nùng An ethnic group to grow and produce indigo dye for use in our fashion collections. Located amidst scenic valleys surrounded by jagged karst mountains along the border with China, Cao Bằng province is the home to eleven of Vietnam’s fifty-four ethnic groups. The Nùng An are one such group. They’ve farmed the soil of these valleys for centuries and to this day retain much of their traditional lifestyle, including unique language, costume, and diverse craft practices.
Among rotating crops of vegetables, beans, and corn the Nùng An set aside a sizable track of land every year to grow Indigofera Tinctoria, the plant which produces the magical indigo dye pigment. The growing season for indigo in this region begins in April and extends until early November, with each season consisting of two to three separate harvests.
During the growing season Kilomet109 Head Designer Thao Vu frequently makes the 8 hour bus trip from Hà Nội to Cao Bằng to work side by side with a group of Nùng An artisan women. Together they plant, harvest, and create traditional indigo dye pigment. This collaborative approach, as opposed to just buying ready-made indigo dyed fabric in the market, allows us to constantly experiment and tweak the indigo dyeing process – ultimately this is what sets Kilomet109’s textiles apart — in terms of their depth of color, inventiveness, and consistency of quality.
Harvesting indigo plants in the valley. Depending on the weather we can expect 2-3 harvests per year.
Ms. Phúng carrying indigo bushels from the fields to the indigo tank to be fermented .
Indigo harvest being transported from the planting fields to the backyard indigo tank of one of our collaborating artisans.
Natural Indigo Dyeing
Besides their impeccable craftsmanship, another reason we collaborate with the Nùng An is because they use only locally sourced ingredients and materials to process the dye. In this way, it’s as close to a fully sustainable and environmentally friendly method as we’ve found in Vietnam. The indigo plants are grown from seed and seasonally rotated with other crops to prevent pests — no pesticides are used — and to ensure a healthy soil. Owing to optimal climate conditions in Cao Bằng no extra watering is necessary either. Moreover, only traditional natural mordants are used to fasten the color during the dyeing process. These remarkable natural mordants allow us to minimize any of the color bleeding that typically occurs with indigo dyed fabric.
The indigo plants are placed at the bottom of a tank with large rocks to hold them in place while water is added for soaking and fermentation process.
After fermenting in the indigo tank for 3-4 days the water transforms and takes on an iridescent purple blue hue.
The exterior of our Sùng Jacket is made from fine linen hand dyed by Nùng An artisans in Cao Bằng,while the jacket lining is made from hand drawn batik by Blue H’mong artisans.
Nùng An artisans remove the bushels of indigo from the indigo tank after the fermentation process is complete.
A view of our indigo tank from above as the indigo is mixed.
We were initially drawn to the fact that only locally sourced ingredients and materials are used to process the indigo dye. In this way, it’s as close to a fully sustainable and environmentally friendly process as we’ve found in Vietnam.
Traditional craftsmanship + Contemporary Design = Kilomet109
Nùng An artisans are known for their refined hand-spun cotton fabrics, using a traditional foot loom. Kilomet109 features this handwoven indigo dyed fabric in several of our collections. You can see examples here and here. With each workshop in Cao Bằng Thao and the Nùng An artisans advance further into their dyeing practice, experimenting with new and different fabrics — such as silk, linen, and hemp. They push the boundaries of indigo by tweaking certain elements of the dyeing process, and even combine in other dye pigments, all to create a beautiful range of blue colors, many of which are considered unconventional.
Phùng Overcoat from the Miên collection. This overcoat is made from linen fabric naturally dyed with indigo in Cao Bằng.
Sông Dress from the Miên collection. It is made from naturally dyed indigo and digital printing on silk.