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African Blues
with Magie Relph
on 04 April 2017

Magie Relph’s talk, “African Blues”, was all about indigo dyeing in West African countries. Indigo dyeing is an ancient tradition in Africa, with the same recipes used in Ancient Egypt, around 2000 B.C. A strip of African indigo dyed cloth from the 11th century is kept in the Wilfrid Museum. The nomadic Tuareg people of Africa are known as the “blue men of the desert” because the indigo dye in the men’s turbans and face veils rubs off and colours their skin blue. Magie has travelled widely in West Africa to the countries of Mali, the Gambia, Nigeria and Guinea, discovering the techniques of indigo dyeing in each. Indigo is a dye obtained from the leaves of various plants. In some countries, the leaves are pounded and formed into balls or packets; in others, the leaves are semi-dried and left in a basket. This natural dye doesn’t require a fixing agent as it is oxygen that fixes the colour into the cloth, turning the yellowy green colour in the water to the blues of indigo. The skill of the dyer is in their ability to know the strength of the dye in the vat, which is often done by tasting the vat. The number of times the cloth is dipped in the dye increases the depth of the colour. In the Gambia, indigo dyeing is combined with yellowy orange dye from the kola nut to create beautiful patterns. In the different countries, different types of vessels are used for dye vats. In one, large beautiful clay vessels are used, in another a pit is dug in the ground and lined with cement and old oil drums are used elsewhere. Different methods of creating patterns are used by tying the cloth with string or using starch from the cassava plant painted or stencilled on to the cloth. Magie brought with her many beautiful examples of cloth dyed using the various techniques she has investigated on her travels.

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