Indigo: History and Present Days of this Magical Blue Dye

I have long been fascinated with indigo – the brilliant natural blue dye that has been used throughout human history. The beauty of this colour and it’s use in traditional textiles across the globe has a special allure. For me, this attraction has been purely aesthetic. Indigo is used so beautifully in traditional textiles. But once I started delving into the history of indigo (for the purposes of writing this article) I discovered that there is so much more than meets the eye. From being revered almost magical qualities, to a central role in slavery and colonisation, to it’s resurgence in sustainable fashion, the history of indigo is worth getting acquainted with.

Indigo is held to be the world’s oldest textile dye

There are early archaeological finds from over 4000 years ago in Egypt, India and China. But it is believed that the history of indigo stems back as early as the Neolithic age. Although blue occurs in many instances in the plant world, commonly in flowers and berries, most naturally occurring blue plants-stuffs are unsuitable for dying. Some can be used to derive some colour (for food or textiles) but the blue colour is not long-lasting. Indigo, on the other-hand, is the only natural source of long-lasting blue colour for textiles. However, indigo the colour does not occur in nature. The plants from which we derive indigo do not show any blue in their leaves, stems or flowers. Rather the colour indigo is achieved by fermenting the leaves of certain plant varieties to create indigo dye. You can also check this video to see how one farm in India creates natural indigo dye in a traditional way.

The creation of natural indigo dye is incredibly complex

It involves very precise chemical processes to ferment the leaves of indigo plants to create the blue dye. Furthermore, unlike other textile dying processes, the fabric does not turn blue in the dye pot. Exposure to the air is required, so that a drying piece of dyed fabric will slowly turn from yellow to green, to a deep dark blue. But this process is also very fragile, and skilled artisan is needed to ensure success with indigo dying. Too much fermentation, or not enough, or the wrong level of heat can destroy a whole batch of dye.

The skill required, and the unusual qualities of the dye itself have led to indigo dying being revered for it’s magical qualities in many traditional indigo textile community across the globe. For example, in parts of Indonesia, indigo dying is considered a sacred process that only women can take part in. Mothers traditionally teach the dying process to their daughters. Although interestingly, exceptions have been made for homosexual men.

The desire for indigo drove colonisation, slavery and exploitation

Before the advent of chemical dyes, indigo dying was practiced throughout Europe, most of Africa, the middle East, most of Asia, and South and Central America. The European plant used to create indigo dye- Woad- created a far inferior colour to the plants that grew in the other indigo producing regions. For this reason, trade driven by European colonisation soon destroyed the local European dying industry. At certain points in the 17th Century, indigo dye (mainly from the plant Indigofera Tinctoria) was the most valuable import into the Europe.

Indigo plantations were established by the British in India and South Carolina, the French in Louisana and the West Indies, the Spanish in Guatemala, and the Dutch in the East Indies. Basically, wherever indigo was traditionally used, the colonising power would look to profit from the booming demand in indigo. In West Africa, indigo textiles were considered so valuable that they were exchanged as currency. In fact, traditional Asian indigo textiles were shipped to West Africa by the European powers and used to exchange for slaves, who were then shipped on to work on indigo plantations. This plantation dye from the colonies would then be shipped to Europe. The global history of this dyed was thus tied up in the processes of slavery, exploitation, and colonisation. What once was a revered material became a source of misery for countless plantation workers and slaves. One commentator in 1848, E. De-latour remarked “Not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”

Synthetic indigo dye almost eradicated natural dyeing traditions. Is it about to change?

Natural indigo dye only declined in prominence once a German chemist Adolf von Baeyer was able to synthesize the colour in 1897. Within a decade, it devastated the Indian indigo growing industry. While this may have alleviated the human suffering of the plantation workers, it led to new suffering for workers exposed to toxic chemical dyes.

Synthetic indigo dye begins by drilling down – extracting petroleum. Afterwards it is subject to high heat, high-energy conditions in order to break it up up into its component molecules. One, called, benzene, is isolated and then mixed with a host of other chemicals, including cyanide and formaldehyde. This process produces ammonia as an off-gas.

Among few larger companies conserving or reviving natural indigo traditions are The Colours of Nature and Stony Creek. Stony Creek advances in producing consistent identical blue colour batches for the industrial scale dyeing and engaging tobacco growers to grow natural indigo on the USA soil instead. The Colours of Nature additionally treats the yarn with a high alkaline soap, instead of caustic soda and most importantly treats water in each stage and recycles it for the agricultural use.

You can also still find pockets of craftspeople dying with indigo in the traditional way across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in Central and South America. But even these are under threat in the era of globalisation, with cheap manufactured clothing and synthetic dyes displacing labour intensive traditional crafts. These traditional textile skills are in danger of dying out.

However, globalisation is also providing opportunity to preserve the valuable cultural heritage as well. More and more consumers are concerned about the impact of synthetic dyes on the environment and the health of the workers who use them. These consumers- like yourselves who are reading this blog- also understand that they can make a positive impact with the way they chose to spend their money. There are a growing number of fashion social enterprises, and socially minded fashion labels who are serving these consumers, while at the same time providing an economic opportunity to preserve traditional indigo dyeing and textile crafts.

Here at Amberoot you can find a small selection of beautifully crafted garments, made with traditionally dyed indigo textiles. We encourage you to take a look for yourself and see why this beautiful dye has been so adored throughout the ages. Below are just some of the natural indigo dyed garments we have. Shop the whole natural indigo garment range here.

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Where does the “blue- collar worker” term derive?
Indigo was hugely favoured as a dye for the whole range of textiles- from fine silks to hard wearing denims. It is the only plant based dye that is capable of creating a permanent fixed colour on cotton and flax. The indigo dye was so ubiquitous, that this is where we get the term “blue-collar worker” after the hard wearing indigo dyed cotton that factory workers and labourers wore!

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