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Out of the Blue: The Story of Indigo

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lkmccray

I’d venture to say there’s no color that conjures iconic clothing, honor, and emotion quite like blue — think blue jeans, true blue, and feeling blue. For centuries, the color has been significant to cultures around the world, and for most of that time there was only one way to produce rich, blue fabrics: with the plant-based dye indigo.

Fabric Treasury

A cake of Indian indigo.

Indigo’s centuries-long history can be traced back to 5000 BC. “It is an integral part of the dying traditions in India, which is believed to be the oldest center of indigo cultivation in the Old World,” says Anne George of Fabric Treasury. “India was a primary supplier of indigo to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era.” Indeed, Europeans craved the rich color, and trade in indigo was so profitable that it was sometimes called Blue Gold. Colonization of African countries and India gave Europeans ready access to indigo, and armies dressed in indigo-dyed uniforms (“navy” blue) sometimes fought to protect indigo supplies and production facilities. However, with the introduction of synthetic indigo in the mid-1800s, plant-based indigo lost its importance and production and dying lessened.

Squid Whale Designs

Natural indigo tote bag.

Today, natural indigo is undergoing a revival as artisans rediscover its versatility, sustainability, and historical traditions. “I became interested in natural dyes in general after working with synthetic dyes for both cellulose and protein fibers for 10-plus years,” says Elizabeth McTear of Squid Whale Designs. “My concerns about my own safety in using the toxic synthetic dyes and mordants [a mordant helps fix color to fabric, reducing fading], as well as my growing interest in environmental impact, led me to seek out natural dyes. Indigo is a complex, living culture dye. This means one continuous dye bath, with much less waste water.”

Turning indigo cakes and powder into dye is a trial and error process, but indigo’s sustainability is one reason dyers feel it’s worth the effort. Other sustainable attributes include indigo’s ability to be produced twice yearly and grown in combination with edible plants like wheat and corn. And indigo benefits the soil by releasing nitrogen back into it. There are more than 275 varieties of plants that produce indigo.

Fabric Treasury

Fabric dyed and printed using natural indigo dye.

Because indigo has grown in many parts of the world for so many centuries, those new to dying have a myriad of traditions to explore. “Indigo fell back into tiny pockets of the world where traditional textile dying practices persisted,” notes George. “The farming and dying is a skill passed down through generations.” There are batiks and ikat from Indonesia and strip-woven kente and ashoké cloth from Ghana and Nigeria. In Japan, indigo is used for shibori, a technique of stitching, twisting, and folding fabric before dying. This is the tradition that Karen Grover of Karen Grover Designs explores in the fabrics she sells.

“You get such crisp lines with indigo, and there is the contrast of the natural fiber color with the many shades of blue that is so fresh and clean,” she says. “Indigo works well for me because the patterns created with arashi shibori are so fluid and organic — they are reminiscent of ripples on water or wood grain — and indigo ties into that nicely. There is a long, rich tradition and history surrounding indigo, and I like the connection to other cultures and other times.”

Rebecca Desnos

Shibori scarf in indigo.

While indigo’s historical, aesthetic, and environmental properties are important to Karen, she notes it also has a mysterious quality. When textiles are removed from the dye vat and mix with air, they transform.

Karen Grover Designs

An example of Karen’s dreamy dyed fabric.

“One of my earliest creative memories is of dipping folded tissue paper in Rit Dye and waiting to open it,” says Karen. “It was a moment of anticipation and expectancy and utter surprise, waiting to see how the folds and colors interacted to create a pattern. I get that same feeling when I do shibori and particularly with indigo, there is an element of magic. You witness the fabric changing from a yellow green to iridescent teal and purple and then blue. It’s mesmerizing.”

Shop Indigo on Etsy

A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.

4 Featured Comments

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  • HappyEarthTea

    Niraj Lama from HappyEarthTea says: Featured

    Inspired to hear and see the return of the Indigo. It's history in India is glorious, as pointed in the article, but at the same time tortured. Indigo during the colonial rule symbolized brutality of the colonialists when indigo farmers were executed for refusing to plant the crop. The peasants were protesting the harsh exploitative terms imposed upon them. The current use of indigo as a traditional eco-friendly dye is a nice way to exorcise some of the ghosts of the past for this wonderful plant. The featured works are lovely indeed!

    2 years ago

  • PruAtelier

    Jeanne B from PruAtelier says: Featured

    Great story of the history of that wonderful color blue indigo! It's wonderful and often quite surprising to learn WHAT our dyes from the natural world are made from, together with the histories of their use acquired through the ages. Now if I could only better understand the dye process to do my own dyeing, I'd be happy!

    2 years ago

  • Itemlore

    Gina Hall from GinasTreasureTrove says: Featured

    How neat it was to read this. My Grandfather Walter Wright worked in the indigo industry for decades, including back during WW2. Later on in life he traveled to Brazil to help one of the major indigo manufacturers troubleshoot some of the problems they were having with their dye works. I suppose its no wonder that indigo blue is one of my favourite colors.

    2 years ago

  • lkmccray

    Linzee from lkmccray says: Featured

    Thanks for your comments! It isn't possible to share indigo's complete and complex history in this short article, of course. Suffice it to say that it's always amazing to me that the desire for dyes and textiles changed the course of history, and not always in a pretty way. Niraj Lama's comments above about indigo's tortured past are just one example. Several people mentioned woad—a less vibrant, less colorfast blue dye derived from plants—and the only blue available to Europeans before the mid-1500s, when explorers "discovered" indigo on their travels. European woad growers convinced governments to ban the import of indigo to protect their interests. I echo Niraj Lama's generous comment about indigo's current usage exorcising some of the ghosts of the plant's past, and I admire those who are exploring its rich traditions.

    2 years ago