31 Jan NATURAL INDIGO DYE INTERESTING GLOBAL HISTORY IN BRIEF
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.
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.
Let us look at the history of Indigo Dye worldwide
History of Natural Indigo Dye in India
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Synthetic Blue Dye
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.
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.
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