NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF

The Singh Twins painting of the story of indigo, showing both its value as well as the suffering caused

NATURAL INDIGO DYE: Blue is the color of the sky and the sea.  It is the color of the sapphire and the tanzanite. It is a color we take so much for granted when we wear our denim and fleece that we forget that at one time, it was worth its weight in gold, worn only by the richest and royal. Indeed it was called Blue Gold.  It also has a turbulent history associated with famine, slavery, and human suffering.

The Origin of Natural Indigo Dye

As the name suggests, indigo is associated with India:  the Greek word for the dye, indikón, which means from India. Though, of course, it was found in Africa and China too. The Romans Latinized the term to indicum, which passed into Italian and eventually into English as the word indigo. It is obtained from the leaves of a parasitic shrub called Indigoferearsa. Still, the secret of how it was initially discovered that treating these leaves would result in a miraculous blue dye is lost in time. 

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
The indigo plant. A botanical representation
NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
A tablet showing the trading of indigo in Rome

Let us look briefly at the process of making Natural Indigo Dye

Harvested leaves are soaked in water to release glucose. 

The indican ferments, and when dry, oxidizes. 

It is then combined with bicarbonate of soda.  The combination is made into cakes and dried. These cakes can be powdered to start the dyeing process.

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
Cakes of indigo

Let us look at the history of Indigo Dye worldwide

History of Natural Indigo Dye in India 

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF

Priest king of Mohenjo Daro

Indigo had always been used in India from time immemorial.  The bust of the Priest-King found in Mohenjo Daro wears a garment with a trefoil pattern identified with Ajrakh, arguing a knowledge of the dye 5000 years ago. The dye was traded along the Silk Routes with Rome and Greece, where it was highly prized. But when Vasco Da Gama found a sea route to India in the late 15th century, the demand was fuelled.  Paradoxically, greater availability led to a greater thirst for the dye.

ABOUT SILK ROUTE, THE PRIMARY GOODS OR IDEAS TRADED, AND HISTORICAL IMPACT

When the English set up their East India Company in Bengal, they forced the peasantry to grow indigo instead of food crops in slave-like conditions, leading to some of the worst famines in history.  Every indigo box sent to England was smeared in human blood, according to a saying.

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
A painting by William Simpson showing an indigo factory in Bengal.

After the 1857 revolt, situations became marginally better, only to deteriorate again.  Gandhi made the indigo exploitation one of the cornerstones of his Civil Disobedience movement, eventually leading to India attaining freedom. 

NATURAL DYES – THE HISTORY OF EXTRACTION OF BEAUTIFUL PLANT PIGMENTS

ANIMAL PIGMENTS – THE HISTORY OF EXTRACTION OF BEAUTIFUL NATURAL PIGMENTS

THE FASCINATING TEXTILE CRAFTS OF JAPAN

TOILE DE JOUY, THE FABRIC SYMBOLIC OF FRENCH SAVOIR-FAIRE

FRENCH ART DECO TEXTILE MOVEMENT’S STRONG INFLUENCE ON DESIGN

History of Natural Indigo Dye in Africa 

Indigo was at the center of the transatlantic slave trade. As demand grew, plantations sprang up in North Carolina, Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands, of a relative of the indigo of India.  Slaves were brought, in horrific conditions, from W Africa, to work on these plantations. 

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
A 1773 depiction of an indigo farm in S Carolina 

Sadly, W African women with indigo dyeing knowledge had become powerful as master dyers and traders in earlier times.  Later, many were involved with the anti-colonial movements of the 20th century. 

Uses of Natural Indigo Dye & The Origin of Denim Jeans

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF

Indigo as hair dye. Image India mart

Indigo has not been used only as a dye for apparel.  It has been used as hair dye and cosmetics in Europe, as tattoos and body painting in Africa. It has been used medicinally as a contraceptive, as a cure for syphilis, eye infections, and antiseptic.  No wonder Sir Isaac Newton referred to it as ” visible yet immaterial,” almost magical.

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
Indigo in ceramics. Image Pinterest
NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
Indigo in tattoo. Image Catherine Cartwright Jones
NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF

Genoan precursor of denim. Drawing by George Thomas

Of course, the most famous use of indigo is in denim.  The first pair of blue jeans was introduced 150 years ago by a Bavarian immigrant, and Genoa became famous for strong blue cloth suited for extreme workwear. In fact, Bleu de Genes, or the Blue of Genoa, later evolved into ‘Jeans.’

Nimes in France soon started experimenting with their own indigo dyed cloth, eventually leading to the word denim, or from Nimes. 

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
The Musee de Vieux Nimes which carries an entire history of denim.

The Synthetic Blue Dye

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF

Portrait of von Baeyer

Increasing industrialization in America and Europe kept up the demand for indigo, with a vast need for sturdy workwear.  There was enormous pressure on chemists to find a synthetic equivalent, and in the 1860s,  German chemist Adolf von Baeyer created a synthetic dye, reducing the demand for indigo. 

In a strange twist, the dye worn by the richest became associated with workwear.  But the mystique of indigo continues to dazzle us, though in an artisanal context, particularly in India and Japan.  Painted by Matisse and Bonnard, it continues to be the most magical of dyes. 

NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
Matisse painting indigo textile. Interior with Egyptian curtain at MFA Boston
NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
Ajrakh from India which continues to use indigo in its natural form. Image Amounee

AUTHOR BIO

Mira Gupta

Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury.  She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft.  She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.

Read more articles by the Author HERE

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