Back home from Hungary, and: what is blue-dye cloth?

We just got back from Hungary last night - it was mostly a family trip but we also saw some amazing folklore-y things. This trip turned out to be instructive about blue-dye cloth in all sorts of ways. We visited the Tolna Blue-Dye Workshop and Museum (or Tolnai Kékfestő Műhely és Múzeum - note: all images fabric and printing blocks below are from their collection). We also ran into the owners of another blue-dye cloth manufacturing workshop (Kovács Blue-Dye Cloth Manufacturing Workshop in Tiszakécske, Eastern Hungary) at the spring craft fair in Budapest, on Vörösmarty Tér (where there's often a fair like this, whatever time of year you happen to be in Budapest).


floral-geometric blue-dye cloth, Hungary


Okay - that was a lot of long words with tons of accents, just the way we Hungarians like them! On a serious note, I'm planning to write up a brief guide for where to go if you're interested in various kinds of folklore, embroidery, weaving or fabric dying techniques, and so on. Inevitably, it will include suggestions for where to go wine-tasting as well... How could it not: wines are excellent and plentiful in most of Hungary. But back to blue-dying!


geometric blue-dye cloth


We always had tablecloths, aprons, dresses, skirts made of this fabric when I was little. My mother would find these fabrics at markets, but there were a lot more of the old workshops still manufacturing because in the 1970s this was still a popular fabric in villages. Now there are only six blue-dye manufacturers - with 4 active workshops - remaining in Hungary, and only about 20 in all of Europe. It's a labor-intensive technique, to be sure, but the results are truly lovely. Blue-dying was so important in Hungary that the old textile industry traces its roots to it - even the once-famous former Goldberger textile factory (now museum) in Budapest began as a blue-dye cloth manufacturing workshop. A truly tragic part here: Leo Goldberger, who led the way in modernizing Hungarian textile manufacturing, did not survive the Holocaust. Blue-dye cloth has been created in Hungary for hundreds of years, not long after the dye derived from the indigo plant arrived in Europe by way of French, Dutch, and Turkish traders in the 16th century. The first blue-dye manufacturers in Hungary appeared in the 17th century.


floral Hungarian blue-dye cloth


Indigo dye produced a beautiful dark blue color and was more colorfast than most methods used to dye cloth dark colors at the time. The patterns are achieved by block-printing a resist material onto the fabric before dyeing, usually a recipe containing beeswax, which worked well with the cold indigo dye bath used to stain the rest of the fabric.


floral border blue-dye cloth, Hungary


I'm going to give a quick rundown of the indigo-dying process, there are probably more detailed explanations out there but this is the gist. First, the fabric is pre-treated with soda water to remove any impurities and prepare it for the dye. Then the pattern is applied with printing blocks, the older ones were entirely wood-carved, the newer ones were made using copper for the pattern.


wood blue-dye printing blocks

(Hand-carved wooden printing blocks used to apply resist material to cotton fabric before blue-dyeing)


Aren't these blocks lovely? You can see more from the Tolna Blue-Dye workshop here. This is what a piece of fabric looks like after applying the resist but before dyeing:


cotton fabric with resist for blue-dying
(The work of Maria Nagy, Mrs. Tibor Horvath of Tolna)

You then let the resist set completely. Once it's set, you dip and soak the fabric in a tub filled with indigo dye for a few minutes, then take it out and let the air oxidize the dye so that it begins to develop on the fabric, then you dip and soak the fabric again, then lift it out of the dye to oxidize further, and repeat this process many times to achieve the desired deep shade of blue.


küpa or blue-dying well
('Küpa' or blue-dying well at the Tolna blue-dye manufacturing workshop.)

You then let the cloth air-dry, then before it's completely dry you press it with a heavy industrial press (no heat!) to achieve the satiny smoothness characteristic of this fabric. See how deep the blue is:


indigo-dyed fabric 
(Fabric dyed with actual indigo dye.)


Nowadays a slightly different process is used because though indigo dying was relatively colorfast (especially if the manufacturing process did not skimp on many short baths in the indigo-tub - a time-consuming process), it was never completely colorfast. Newer dyes are a bit less blue but easier to work with. Because these dyes are heat-based, the resist material applied to create the patterns isn't beeswax nowadays but something that can withstand greater heat without melting - each manufacturer has their proprietary recipe that's been passed down for generations. That's a very brief description- and now I really want to read up on blue-dying for real... If you'd like to see more patterns from the Tolna Blue-dye Workshop's collection, there are quite a few in this gallery. Also additional photos of the old dye-tub or well, and the pressing machine that used to be operated with horses. I bought a tablecloth, aprons for the girls and myself, and lots of fabric. Some I have definite plans for, and some I want to embroider on because the designs look just perfect for it.

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