Josef Koó stands in front of three large dye vats at his workshop in Steinberg. It is a village in Burgenland, the Austrian state which stretches ribbon-like along the country’s eastern border with Hungary.
Giant metal spools wrapped with a spiral of cloth hang above the vats, one of them white, the others a deep, almost impenetrable indigo blue. Koó wears a blue waistcoat over a darker, indigo shirt, the cloth of which is decorated with small diamond-shaped clusters of white dots, and a plain blue apron. His hair is swept back from his brow, and in his hands he holds two small cakes of deep blue Indian indigo, the tips of his fingers stained a tell-tale faded blue.
Josef is a Blaudruck textile artist, continuing a tradition of indigo dyeing which stretches back several hundred years. “I learnt from my father, who learnt from his father,” he says. It was Josef’s grandfather (also called Josef) who founded Blaudruckerei Koó in 1921.
“Back then, it was the cheapest form of apprenticeship,” he explains matter-of-factly. The current Josef Koó studied graphic design in Vienna, and had an office there, but when his father died he took over the business in Steinberg with his wife, who is also a painter. A hundred years ago there were many, many indigo dyers in this part of Burgenland. Today, the Koó family are the last ones upholding this regional craft tradition.
Blaudruck — a German word which translates as ‘blue printing’ — is the art of resist block printing and indigo dyeing on cloth. The decorative pattern, of which there are a huge number and variety, is first ‘reserved’ on the cloth using a dye-resistant resin which is mixed into a paste (known as Papp in German), then imprinted onto the cloth by hand using wooden blocks ( Druckmodels) or wooden rollers.
The cloth is then stretched over a star-shaped metal frame or spool, to which it is attached by small brass hooks as the spool is rotated, leaving a characteristic series of small holes along the edge of the finished cloth, and left suspended to dry. The Papp is allowed a period of two to three weeks to dry sufficiently, a step known as hardening ( versteinern in German). After this the cloth, still stretched on its frame, is immersed several times in a vat of indigo dye (made from water mixed with indigo and lime), each time for ten minutes and leaving a pause between each immersion.
The first time the cloth is lifted from the vat, it turns a yellowish green, then over subsequent immersions it turns an increasingly intense, pure indigo. Between seven and ten immersions are required, depending on the depth and intensity of indigo required. Finally, after initial drying, the cloth is washed in another vat — but whereas the indigo vats are cold, this last one is hot, so the resin dissolves and is washed away, leaving the pattern reserved on the undyed areas of cloth. Then the cloth is hung to dry — the Koó family hang the finished cloth on washing lines in the garden. To ensure the cloth can dry, the main season for indigo dyeing is March to October, when the weather is a little more predictable. The prolonged drying time often left the indigo dyer with time on his hands — time sometimes spent at the local pub, giving rise to the German expression blau machen, meaning to take a break from work.