A 2011 Christmas present that got me through the second worst flight of my life.
Indigo: in Search of the Color that Seduced the World by Catherine E. McKinley, 2011.
Funded by a Fulbright grant, author Catherine McKinley heads to Africa in search of cloth dyed with Indigo. This wonderful book is not a history of the color, although small snippets of historical nature are included, but a memoir of Ms. McKinley's search of the Gold Coast of Africa. Or, perhaps more accurately a memoir of her obsession with Indigo and the good, traditional cloth it dyes. Despite academic strikes, attempted coups, and a passion for cloth that might be considered unhealthy by readers who have never been obsessed with, oh say, yarn, the author tracks down different sources for the hypnotic cloth. Nomadic traders, commercial dyers, small village craftswomen are all equally fascinating, especially because traditional cloth dyeing is rapidly disappearing due to the preference for European and American styles and fabrics.
Often caught up in the very real lives of her friends and guides, Ms McKinley's quest for dyed cloth is juxtaposed with the brutal realities of life in Africa. And it is through these events that the reader begins to understand the importance of cloth, and cloth that once would have been dyed with Indigo, to the culture of the Gold Coast. We also begin to understand the language of cloth - that cloth has a voice in West African society, and that voice may be fading as traditions die.
Most knitters will sympathize and identify with Ms. McKinley's obsession for blue. It is the same obsession that drives us to fiber festivals, in search of fleece from rare sheep breeds, and late night trolling of the internet for the mythic skeins of indie-dyed yarn. She is a kindred spirit, a woman not quite in control of her enthusiasms. And that is what makes this book so enjoyable.
There may be books that detail the history of Indigo in more precise terms, but this book illustrates that the love of Indigo is still alive and well in the twenty-first century. And as we know, it is love that preserves traditional practices.