The Last Indigo Dyer in Scandinavia

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

The Last Indigo Dyer in Scandinavia


First Published, October – November 2010, Craft Revival Trust
Schjoelberg was the last indigo dyer to have a workshop in the centre of Trondheim, Norway working until the 1960s. Axel Becker came across a blanket dyed perhaps in 1962-63 by him. Schjoelberg’s house with all its contents intact including his recipes written in secret code has now been moved to Troendelag Folkemuseum in Sverresborg , where other period buildings have been set up. Sadly, says Axel, the house is not open like other houses in the museum, but is used as a store.

Till 1993 Axel Becker printed textiles with chemical dyes, printing hundreds of metres at a time for hotels. He and his family – three daughters and his wife Ingrid -lived in the countryside (as they still do) and rinsing the dyed fabrics in the pools outside, Axel was disturbed by the chemical pollution. Axel’s brother’s wife is Japanese, and she sent him indigo-dyed textiles from Japan. Axel was intrigued and began to study indigo, its history and political connections, including the indigo agitation led by Gandhi. He decided to stop chemical dyeing and “made a big fire and burnt all his printing screens made of local wood”.

Axel went to Central Europe (actually where he originally comes from), in search of indigo dyers who would teach him how to do it. He finally found two near the East German-Polish border. Neither would share his secrets with him and it took Axel patience, several visits over four years and a letter from the Director of the Folkemuseum in 1993 pointing out the cultural importance of the indigo process to finally convince one of them to tell him all his secrets. After that he again went back and forth between the master and his own workshop perfecting the technique that now works well. “If I can’t make a living at it I’ll have to find a job” he said to himself. At a break during a meeting at the Coastal Museum in Rissa where he is a Director Axel discovered “right at the back of the Museum storeroom” a treasure trove of 2000 old printing blocks made of peach and cherry woods and patterned with tiny nails of copper or brass.

Axel has always chosen the risky road in pursuit of the happiness and the peace he found in traditional crafts and art, rather than financial security. Having dropped out of school in Germany because he found it boring he served an apprenticeship for 3 years from the ages of 16 to 18 at an art workshop where he learnt lithography, photography and graphic design before studying book illustration at an academy in Stuttgart. In the graphic design job he held next in an advertising firm at the age of twenty he “was earning more money than I’ve ever done since” he says cheerfully. But he didn’t like having to advertise cigarettes and liquor so he quit. After a reflective break on a Greek island Axel trained as a teacher and taught for a while, but soon felt he was “too young to teach”. At his last party at the school he met Ingrid and they’ve been together ever since. For the last three years Axel has been teaching again.

Ingrid herself is trained in needlework and tailoring. After teaching for a year in Germany she began producing sheepskin garments following the old Norwegian tradition. She used blocks made by Axel which were inspired by the traditional patterns in the libraries of the University of Bergen and Oslo, and dyes which they made themselves, to print on the leather. 10 years ago Ingrid learnt basket weaving from professionals in Denmark, Britain and Finland. She uses textile techniques in her basketry with willow, willow-bark and creepers which she calls “weaved objects”, and has been experimenting with leather curing techniques on bark strips. She now runs weekend basketry workshops 4-6 times a year at the farm. Last month the Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum in Trondheim held a joint exhibition of her work with tapestries by Anne Kvam whose sewing method has an affinity with Ingrid’s basket weaving .

In 1993, the Beckers went “back to their roots as artists” settling in their present farmhouse home at Stadsbygd 60 minutes from Trondheim and not far from Vaernes where Ingrid’s mother grew up.


Translated from Axel Becker’s website:
The Indigo-dye house, Blåfargeriet, which the artist Axel Becker is running in the center of Trondheim in Norway, is the last workshop of that kind in Scandinavia.
Here he uses the original and traditional methods of dying with Indigo-blue on linen and cotton fabrics.…I am carrying on this traditional handicraft which has its origins in ancient times – a technique that has been used throughout the world and in Norway during the 18th and 19th centuries.Inspired by textiles from Japan and by old carved print blocks found at the Trøndelag Folkemuseum / Trondheim, I am in an ongoing process developing new artistic designs, Becker says.
You can experience the magical dyeing process that has been used for thousands of years by craftsmen worldwide.

Come and see the workshop, the block prints and products, the techniques and the products (Table-clothes,scar(f)es, wall-decorations).
Axel Becker`s workshop has got the Nowegian Heritage`s award for highest quality, “Olavsrosa”.
Axel is certainly the only indigo dyer working in Scandinavia and perhaps the only one using vegetable indigo (which he sources from Tamil Nadu) in all Europe, though until recently there had been several. On the Austria-Hungary border in 1998 he found the indigo workshop of Joseph Koo which is now being used for book illustration by his son. “In 2008 and 09 I visited 10 workshops in northern Germany. They were printing with good old blocks, but were using synthetic indigo… I can understand their point because vegetable indigo takes much longer…” and “there’s no money in it” he says. Indigo dyeing is rare today. “In Japan there were sixteen indigo dyers left in 2004”, says Axel, “some of whom are designated as Living Treasures”.
Coincidentally my son and his Norwegian partner live in Trondheim not far from the Beckers, a fact I mentioned to Axel when I met him at the UNESCO sponsored Natural Dyes seminar in Hyderabad in November 2006. Dastkar Andhra had worked with indigo since1992, luring back into indigo dyeing the only traditional indigo dyer in Andhra Pradesh, who had given it up and was working as waged labour in a chemical dye house. By 2006 Dastkar Andhra had set up 4 indigo dyeing centers using the traditional South Indian method. They have taught others, including the organization Charaka of Karnataka and the dyer Mukesh of Magan Sangrahalaya, Wardha, both of whom now run their own indigo vats.

Ratna Krishna Kumar and Victoria Vijaykumar of Tata Tea were also at the UNESCO seminar. Victoria runs Aranya as a natural dyes dye house, a community initiative by Tata Tea for the especially challenged children of their tea pickers:

“The youngsters at Aranya learn and implement the art of using leaves, roots, barks, seeds, sawdust and tea waste to dye yarns and fabrics. Aranya also makes use of several other raw materials, like arjun, goran, pomegranate, catechu, jackfruit, henna and indigo, in the manufacture of natural dyes.Aranya, which got off the blocks with just four disabled youngsters, was part of the Tata Tea’s erstwhile ‘vocational training centre for handicapped youth’. It began as an experimental project and took shape after many meetings and workshops. In August 1996 Aranya was established as part of Srishti.” says the Aranya website, going on to say that there are now 22 youngsters in the project and “The mother figure behind all of these activities is Ratna Krishna Kumar”.

As he tells it Axel got a one-line e-mail from Ratna about a year and a half ago asking him if he would be a consultant to the Aranya dye house. He had been frustrated that in all the years of his work the Troendelag Folkemuseum was not interested in promoting indigo dyeing, and “nobody in this rich country was interested to get this knowledge”. Though there was a lot of interest with people coming to see the free demonstrations at his workshop every Saturday, no-one in Norway had actually taken up the practice. When he got Ratna’s mail he was delighted and sent Ratna an equally brief positive response. The eventual outcome of this to-the-point exchange was that Axel has now passed on all his knowledge of indigo dyeing to the Aranya project. He translated all his recipes into English: “here … please take it or leave it, it’s yours”.

Axel taught the dyeing technique “with the ‘star-frame’, which the Europeans used since at least 200 years – “and which I am still using in my workshop. With our extremely high costs in Norway I want to focus on Munnar instead. It gives much more meaning. They will get all my knowledge and all my formulas, – both for the resist-paste for the printing and the Indigo-vat”

The Aranya indigo vat was inaugurated with a puja on July 7, 2009, the night of Guru Purnima. Axel is delighted that the girls treat the process with respect, saying a prayer before beginning work. “What I’ve learnt from my masters is that there’s no doing without prayer”. The dye-master would mix the indigo bath alone on the night of the full moon, mixing in a small glass of alcohol. The bath would be tested at the half moon and again at the next full moon.

Besides the technique, Axel gave Aranya technical drawings of his dye-bath, following which Victoria got one made in stainless steel, courtesy Tata. Now the plan is to have a big dye-pot for 3000 litres and a star-frame that can take 1.5 metres width and at least 15 metres length at a time. Axel visits regularly and is arranging for two of the four ‘indigo girls’ from Aranya who have learnt indigo printing to participate – sponsored of course by Tata – in the forthcoming Natural Dyes seminar in France next April. Now the circle is closed he says, indigo is back in India.

Axel has charged nothing for this transfer. He had promised the old indigo dyer who taught him that he would forever keep the information secret but has no regrets that he did not. To me, Axel’s noble gesture is not only a shining light in a selfish age but a guide to how natural dyeing practices can be preserved in the public domain.




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