Of blues there is only one real dye, indigo (William Morris, 1834-96)
The story of the world's most valued and widely used dyestuff since the time of the ancient Pharohs is nothing short of compelling. Whether you are interested in its role as a currency and traded commodity throughout history, its unique chemistry that renders it compatible with all natural fibres, its involvement in clothing nearly half the world's population from farmers to royals, its medicinal properties, or of course, its rich textile legacy that spans the globe; its story will undoubtedly fascinate you.
What is in a name? The etymology of the word "indigo" alludes to, at the very least, its extensive travel throughout the ages. India is believed to be the oldest center of indigo dyeing in the Old World and was a primary supplier of indigo dye, derived from the plant indigofera tinctoria, to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era. The association of India with indigo is reflected in the Greek word for the 'dye', which was indikon (meaning "from India"). The Romans then used the term indicum, which passed into Italian dialect and eventually into English as the word indigo.
Of all productions called colonial, indigo is the one which demands, in the manufacture, the largest share of intelligence and judgement (John Crawfurd, 1820)
Indigo is completely different from all the other natural dyes, apart from its close cousin, shellfish purple. It needs no mordant to make it fast to light and washing, it is insoluble, and is deposited on the fibres and microscopic particles without needing to form a thorough chemical bond with them. For dyeing in India, a deep vat is filled with an extract from the indigo plant (fermented leaf material), water and lime powder. These days, many dyers use a synthetic indigo, a laboratory replica of natural indigo colour, which was developed in the late ninetheenth century by German chemists. The strong alkali of the vat reducees the indigo dye, removing oxygen from the liquid and so making the colour chemically available to bond to the cloth. On re-introduction of oxygen, when the dyed cloth/yarn comes in contact with the air as it is removed from the vat, the cloth develops to a rich blue tone. There is something very mysterious about a dye that only reveals its colour after yarn or vloth emerges from the dye vat. One cannot fail to be enchanted when they first see the slow transformation of yellow into blue take place as newly dyed cloth is removed from and indigo dye vat and "oxygen turns sorcerer" (Jenny Balfour-Paul). These indigo vats are used regularly and 'fed' extra ingredients to replensih the stock liquid, so that with sensitive care a traditional vat may last for many years.
When dying was becoming more scientific, indigo was still considered the most difficult of all dyes to use. The renowned craftsman and textile design genius, William Morris, found it so challenging that he wrote to a friend:
"It would be a week's talk to tell you all the anxieties and possibilities connected with this indigo subject..." (William Morris)
However, just like all his predecessors, he found that indigo dyeing repaid the trouble taken as the end result is inimitable. (Jenny Balfour-Paul)
For richer and for poorer, indigo has been favoured by all throughout history. Plain and simple indigo-dyed cloth made ideal workwear everywhere as when it grew tired, it could be freshened up by returning it to the dyers for a new dip. From British service uniforms, Indian dungarees and aprons for gardners and butchers in France, to the infamous 'Mao suit' universally worn in China, ndop ceremonial cloths from West Africa to the quintessentially American Levi's jeans; indigo has touched lives the world over and continues to do so today.
If your thirst for knowledge of the infamous indigo is still not quenched, we suggest seeking out the following books. Both written by self confessed indigo addicts, they dive deep into the multifaceted journey of indigo that has threaded its way through history, accompanied by magnificent illustrations and photographs. These books are a constant source of fascination and inspiration for us here at Walter G.
Indigo - Egyptian mummies to blue jeans (Jenny Balfour-Paul)
Indigo - The colour that changed the world (Catherine LeGrand).