In celebration of Chinese New Year this week we chatted to John Abbate, the founder of heritage, indigo, textile brand Blue Handed, whose long-held passion for the artisanal and the hand-made led to a fruitful and fascinating collaboration with a Chinese master dyer.
Having spent 25 years working internationally in visual merchandising, store design and brand building for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Levis and Alfred Dunhill, John Abbate changed direction in 2011, first by designing his own range of up-cycled furniture and later relocating to Shanghai where he set up his own retail consultancy, became a visual merchandising professor at Mod’Art university and creative director at Design Overlay. Living in Shanghai, he became aware of the numerous houses across old parts of the city that were being demolished to make way for new high-rise blocks. Somewhat serendipitously, it was a patterned indigo textile remnant, picked up on one of these demolition sites that captured John’s imagination, crystallized his growing beliefs in the slow fashion movement and set him on the path towards creating his Blue Handed textile label.
After a little research in the city’s museums, John discovered that the patterned fabric remnant – traditionally used to make food bags and offered as wedding gifts – was representative of a rich, Chinese, textile heritage centred around the 800-year-old art of Chinese resist printing with ‘blue grass’ or indigo dye. The Mandarin name for indigo dyed toile or calico is Lan Yin Hua Bu or ‘blue-printed flower cloth’ – a poetic name that ties it firmly to a vast and historic archive of floral designs, which also comprises centuries-old geometrics with a surprisingly modern feel.
Coming from a family of craftsmen, John had always championed the artisanal and the hand-made, recognizing the potential connection with high-end, luxury merchandise while at the same time rejecting mass production and fast fashion. A keen proponent of indigo and it’s applications both for fashion and home, and having rediscovered this ancient method of production, John is articulate in his defence of the slow fashion movement. ‘Not only do hand-made textiles preserve cultural heritage and sustain local communities who supply the natural materials and ingredients’ he explains, ‘traditional techniques often result in minimal wastage or pollution, ensuring the material produced is both ethical and sustainable’.
John tracked down a small, family run firm in Eastern Jiangsu province, whose dyeing techniques, unchanged for centuries and handed down through four previous generations, are overseen by a highly-skilled Master dyer with over 50 years experience – an expert recognised as a national treasure by the Chinese authorities. The dyeing process itself involves decorative, traditionally hand-cut patterns being applied to cotton which is then coated in a resist paste of soybean and lime, before being soaked in a specially formulated vat of natural, indigo plant dyes. ‘The vat at the workshop has been in continuous operation for over two decades,’ John explains ‘and the particular species of indigo plants used to create the dye ensure an incredible richness of colour’.
John developed the concept of Blue Handed in 2015 with a mission to keep alive this ancient art and bring these Chinese heritage textiles to the West for other ‘Indigoists’ to appreciate. Keen to re-invigorate and make accessible some of the more traditional patterns whilst at the same time preserving vanishing skills and culture, John’s range encompasses vintage indigo textiles, re-imagined heritage designs and new and exclusive fabrics that are the result of collaborations with Western designers. Something John is keen to explore further with his bespoke service for trade professionals. ‘The enduring and timeless appeal of the fresh, blue and white colour palette as a link between East and West still resonates today’ says John, ‘much as it has done for centuries across other design disciplines. Asian ceramics, for example’ he continues. ‘Hand-made from beginning to end, Chinese, artisan-dyed indigo cloth is a true treasure of the Silk Road’
Click here to see our edit from the Blue Handed range of fashion accessories and homewares, selected for their versatility and rhythmical simplicity. Stylish, unisex scarves perfect for banishing the cold on chillier Spring days and elegant, lattice-print cushions redolent of Eastern decorative arts and furnishings. Slow fashion and hand-made homewares rich in colour and craft certainly work for us. Your thoughts?