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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.