Venture Fellow LuRu Home brings a contemporary edge to a traditional craft by working with several of the remaining Chinese families using the Nankeen textile dyeing technique to create beautiful home decor pieces.
What exactly is Nankeen and how can this craft be kept alive?
Well, read on!
Nankeen is a technique used to dye cotton and linen with indigo. Can you tell us a little more about its history?
Chinese textile historians can trace the Nankeen dyeing tradition back 3,000 years to the Shang Dynasty. Indigo’s roots run deep across Asia; in China, rice farmers believed that indigo’s special properties provided protection from snakes and insects in the fields.
Has the dyeing process remain intact after so many years?
Nankeen dyeing continues today as it did in antiquity, using natural vegetable indigo dye, soy-bean paste, and water, sustainable then as it is now.
However, this day and age, Nankeen indigo dyeing is perched rather precariously amidst China’s industrialized textile industry. Handmade fabrics take much longer to produce than machine-prints, and their hallmark is their variation. We love these dye-bleeds, but often they’re overlooked in favor of machine-printed fabrics.
How do you make Nankeen cloth?
With unflagging attention to detail, artisans apply a thick soy-bean paste to cottons through hand-cut screens. When the soy paste has dried, the fabric is submerged in natural indigo baths. The dried paste creates a hard, protective barrier through which the indigo dye cannot pass; it creates a resist, much like wax batik. Upon oxidation, the indigo-saturated fabric gains a vibrant blue, and is set to dry in the sun. The paste is carefully scraped away to reveal crisp prints, and the cottons are laundered to remove excess dye.
How many artisans do you work with?
Our authentic Nankeen cottons are hand-printed outside of Shanghai by families who have practiced the technique for generations.There are a handful of workshops in north-eastern China still producing Nankeen fabrics, and we work closely with three of them. Each workshop employs four or five family members, and extra relatives or community members will work part-time during the busy dyeing seasons.
The busy dyeing seasons? How does the weather affect the dyeing process and production?
It is best to dye Nankeen fabric during Shanghai’s dry months, and thus we can only print fabric at certain times in the year. It takes great care to develop a rhythm of orders, sampling and printing, as the process can take up to 6 months to complete, far longer than a normal textile lead-time. We work closely with the artisans, visiting their workshops and enjoying lunch together regularly, as we check on samples, indigo color quality, and prints.
How do you bring a new lease to this old technique while still preserving its tradition?
As for design, we balance Chinese Nankeen patterns with contemporary designs of our own. The resulting home products are storied, timeless, and embody the lively idea of East-Meets-West. LuRu Home focuses on preserving a cherished art form while reimagining its durable cottons for contemporary use in homes worldwide.
We delight in presenting our products to international customers, many of whom are surprised to learn that indigo is still printed by hand in China.
On a basic business level, in bringing fabric orders to our workshops, we partake in the cycle of commerce and education that allows the artisans to teach their children a craft and a profession, and to prevent Nankeen dyeing from disappearing.
Through designing for the international community, we bring patronage to cherished craft of Nankeen dyeing and those who practice it, and deliver timeless home linens to our customers.