Archive for October 2012

In Search of Illusive Indigo   1 comment


“You have to go to Sapa! Everything in the town is blue from the clothing to the houses to the hands of the weavers.” My friend told me a few years ago, about that beautiful town in Northern Vietnam, home to Vietnam’s highest peaks and several ethnic minorities. The jewelry, indigo-dyed hemp textiles, and meticulously embroidered garments of the H’mong people have inspired fashion lines from Jean Paul Gaultier to Free people (whether or not the designers give the nod back is another story.) I’ve been trying to find someone to supply KeoK’jay natural indigo dye for several years, as most of what is purported as natural indigo these days is well, not. So it was the mountains, cool air, beautiful textiles, and my lust for indigo that lured me to Sapa; a place that had grown to mythical proportions in my mind.


A H’mong woman putting traditional clothing on me during a hike


H’mong inspired garment by Gaultier

When my friend and I arrived in Sapa the reality hit hard and I chided myself for not expecting it. Sourcing fabric and raw materials in an ethical and transparent way is always a challenge.  Its taken years of developing relationships with suppliers in Cambodia to know what we are really getting when we purchase our supplies, who makes them, how they make them, and how much money the producers get. On our first day in Sapa, we visited several weaving villages with a guide, and 5 or 6 houses with women dressed in H’mong costume, each with a similar display of wares to sell and a loom set up, but no one actually making anything. My instincts told me something was amiss. There were a few women with blue dye stains on their hands, but it seemed to be a turquoise tinted chemical indigo, and not grey/navy shade of natural indigo.


Finally on the third day of our visit, we stumbled across a small shop called Indigo Cat, run by a young woman named Pang who spelled it out for me.

She told us that her shop was the only H’mong owned boutique in Sapa, and that the rest were owned by Vietnamese people who bought the items from the H’mong and other groups and sold them with high profit. She said that some of the sellers even dressed as H’mong people, but were not. Though I had no particular reason to believe her over others I had met, her claims fell neatly inline with my suspicions and what I have seen in typical markets in Cambodia and other countries. When I asked her why she claimed to be fair trade, she said that all of the products in her shop were made by herself and her family members. She said that if I wanted to see I could go to her village and meet her family, and see their production for myself. We accepted the generous invitation and went up to visit them the next day.

On the drive up to her family’s farm by moto we passed through stunning scenery, terraced rice fields and waterfalls. We were greeted by Pang’s mother and hiked up the hill to see her dye vats and indigo plants. When I explained to her that I was trying to get indigo dye and fabric to Cambodia for our business, she promptly dug up an indigo plant, packed up the roots and shaded it with ferns to protect it on the moto ride back, and gave it to me, along with some indigo mud from the bottom of her dye bath, which we will need to start our new vat of Indigo provided we can get our new Indigo plant to grow. (Let’s just say getting the plant back to Cambodia was a bit of a challenge, as it had to travel on a bumpy bus journey down the mountains, an overnight train, a two-hour flight, and another 6-hour bus journey. It was finally planted two days later and is how happy in it’s new home on my balcony in Phnom Penh. I’ll have to update you again if/when it survives and we harvest it. )

Needless to say although it was very difficult to find transparent groups to work with (and the government is a little less welcoming to foreign NGO’s than it’s Cambodian counterpart) I went back and bought a bunch of items from Pang’s shop, and hope to be able to work with them if we ever do want to source things from Sapa. But the moral of the story from this trip is, once again, sourcing things in a responsible manner is hard. It takes time and relationships. I’d have to spend some more time in Sapa before I’d feel comfortable purchasing there, but I was very grateful for the chance to meet Pang and her family and for the little indigo tree they gave me which will hopefully, with a little love and care produce a fruitful crop of indigo leaves next season. And I highly recommend that if you visit Sapa, take a visit to Indigo Cat, located in the middle of town. She even offers embroidery classes so that you can try your hand at learning the local craft. You might gain a deeper appreciation for the amount of work that goes into the garments the women are wearing, and next time you buy something from free people, know the difference.

Special thanks to Grant Salisbury for all the amazing photos. (except the one of the Gaultier hat. I grabbed that from google.)


Posted October 30, 2012 by keokjay in Uncategorized