Indigo, a dazzling natural blue dye that has been used throughout history, has long piqued our interest. The elegance of this colour, as well as its widespread use in traditional textiles around the world, has a certain allure. This appeal has been purely aesthetic for us. Indigo is used in traditional textiles in such a beautiful way. But as we dug deeper into indigo's roots, we found that there's a lot more to it than meets the eye. The history of indigo is worth learning about, from its almost mystical qualities to its central role in slavery and colonisation to its rebirth in sustainable fashion.
Indigo is thought to be the oldest textile dye in the world.
Egypt, India, and China have early archaeological discoveries dating back over 4000 years. However, it is thought that indigo has a long history dating back to the Neolithic period. Despite the fact that blue is found in many places in plants, most notably in flowers and berries, most naturally occurring blue plants-stuffs are unsuitable for dying. Some may be used to make colour (for food or textiles), but the blue colour is short-lived. In contrast, indigo is the only natural source of long-lasting blue colour for textiles.
The colour indigo, on the other hand, does not exist in nature. The plants that we use to make indigo have no blue in their leaves, branches, or flowers. Rather, indigo dye is made by fermenting the leaves of specific plant varieties. Check out this video to see how a farm in India makes natural indigo dye the old-fashioned way.
Natural indigo dye is extremely difficult to make.
To make the blue dye, it takes very precise chemical processes to ferment the leaves of indigo plants. In addition, unlike other textile dyeing methods, the fabric does not turn blue in the dye bath. A drying piece of dyed fabric must be exposed to the air in order for it to gradually turn from yellow to green to a deep dark blue. However, indigo dying is a delicate process that requires the expertise of a professional artisan. A dye batch can be ruined by too much fermentation, too little fermentation, or the wrong amount of heat.
In many traditional indigo textile communities around the world, indigo dying is valued for its magical qualities due to the abilities needed and the unique qualities of the dye itself. Indigo dying, for example, is considered a sacred process in parts of Indonesia, and only women are permitted to participate. Daughters are traditionally taught how to die by their mothers.
Our obsession with the elusive dark blue colour continues unabated. We humans are still enthralled by indigo and wear it almost every day, more than 5,000 years after its discovery. And marvel at how the colour shifts, fades, ages, and fades away with time. Exactly like us.