Textiles in Mali

by Rachel Hoffman
Formerly University of California, Los Angeles

A woman with indigo dye materials, Mali. Photo by Rachel Hoffman.


Indigo is not so much a substance, as it is a chemical process for the resulting deep blue color. This is to say, many botanical species are capable of producing the familiar indigo blue. Known to date back thousands of years in China, Japan, India, Egypt, South America, and elsewhere, indigo dyeing requires a chemically reactive plant, astrong acid, and time for the combination of plant and acid to ferment. This woman is surrounded by cloth she has recently dyed. On her lap is a ball made from leaves known to produce indigo. The leaves have been collected by her, then dried, crushed, moistened and formed into cake, which may be stored for future use. The plastic bags contain synthetic indigo, the same aniline dye used by Levi-Strauss in its jeans. Village dyers often combine the natural with the synthetic for a denser, more permanent blue.