The ethereal spectrum of indigo is akin to the sky; wisps of pale blues descend into a pitch of oily midnight and every hue in between. Textiles dyed with indigo exude arichness and vibrancy that is supernatural and their mysterious luster eludes easy description. The precious pigment was once prized as much as gold, outlawed by European royalty and even called the “devil’s color.” The latest resurgence in popularity of this natural dye marks a point on a very long timeline.
The history of indigo is at once a story of divine alchemy and a dramatic tale of the international trade industry. It’s also a testament to human innovation, as indigo dye techniques developed concurrently in different cultures around the world. Egyptian excavations unearthed indigo dyed garments dating back as early as 2,500 BC. As legend has it, the sail of the pharaoh’s ship alone could be colored with the revered indigo dye. The vibrant pigment was prized in Greek and Roman societies, which used them in medicinal tonics and cosmetics. The brilliant blues that illuminate murals in tropical South America derive from the native indigo plant. In Northwestern India, experimentation with indigo developed alongside the discovery that the cotton plant could be turned into cloth. The region’s textile masters invented techniques with a range of natural dyes, mordants and resists (wax pastes that resisted dye), creating rich patterns that held up against fading. The prime consumer of such labor-intensive cloth were the Europeans, who quickly coveted the lavish blue that indigo produced in comparison to their native woad plant, a source of inferior blue dye. By 1498, trade routes to India were established by Portuguese, Dutch and English sailors, expanding the farming and trade of indigo to new borders.
The skill of indigo dyeing was also cultivated across centuries in West Africa. Cloth dyed with indigo symbolized wealth and possessed such great value that it often substituted currency. As European powers looked to colonize the New World, African slaves working on Jamaican indigo plantations were relocated to U.S. colonies. The British offered subsidies to the colonies to encourage the production of their favored color, inflating indigo as a booming cash crop in South Carolina. In 1755, U.S. colonies exported over a million pounds of indigo directly to England, where it was used to dye functional textiles for soldier uniforms, women’s dresses and housewares. Indigo is stitched into America’s history: The deep blue swath of the original star spangled banner flag was composed with scraps of wool-dyed indigo.
In Japan, indigo is revered for its association with the oceans, sky and inherent life force – and is still prized in contemporary culture. Indigo became popular in the 1600s when silk was banned to the lower classes and the alternative cotton was found to be quite brilliant and colorfast once dyed. Japanese craftsmen continue to pass down the technique and ceremony of dyeing to younger generations, along with the actual indigo vats that are often buried in the ground to maintain ideal temperature. Indigo tradesmen see their permanently dyed hands as a badge of honor, a symbol of their deep connection to their art.
In 1880, the experiments of German chemist Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer resulted in synthesizing indigo, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1905. In 1897, BASF, a company working to produce dyes from the industrial bi-product of coal tar, used von Baeyer’s innovation to create a synthetic replica of indigo. The new dye dramatically improved the cost of indigo and the possibility for mass production. Within a decade, the demand for “natural” plant-derived indigo plummeted by 90%. Today the label of “indigo” can sometimes be given to goods that are dyed with harsh, environmentally harmful chemicals. Typically, textiles that have undergone the natural indigo dyeing process should be labeled appropriately, boasting the artisanal hand process.
The elaborate process of indigo production begins in the lush foliage of plantations that grow in more humid climates. The chemical compound indican is found in hundreds of plants, but the legumous genus indigofera tinctoria (native to India and Asia), indigofera suffriticosa (native to South America) and polygonum tinctorium (native to Japan) are most commonly cultivated, as they yield the highest density. Once harvested, the plants undergo an extraction technique to create a saturated pigment used in dyeing. Today, only a handful of thriving indigo producers remain, scattered across India, Japan and the United States.
One such craftsman is Rowland Ricketts, an American indigo farmer, dyer and artist based in Bloomington, Indiana, who is dedicated to the slow, soulful craft of indigo production. Ricketts trained in a traditional Japanese apprenticeship focusing both on the role of growing and dyeing indigo. As he explains, “The respect for the raw materials I learned has become the foundation for all of my work since.” In the spring, he preps the fields and starts seedlings and transplants of the indigo plant. In the summer, he harvests. The lush leaves are set out in the sun. Once dry (and turned blue from the indican), they are separated from the less potent stems. Ricketts then composts the indigo leaves for 100 days over the winter, a process that allows the micro-organisms to break down, saturating the pile and reducing it to half its original bulk. It’s then ready to be used in making a dye vat.
Like extraction, there are many different techniques and materials used to create a dye vat and customs shift across cultures, but they all have the same goal: fermentation. A vat is a vessel used to contain the dye mixture and the receptacle in which garments are submerged when dyeing. In India, madder root (another magical dye) and wheat bran go into making the vat, while the Japanese use wood ash lye and sake. There are even age-old recipes that call for bizarre ingredients such as chicken’s feet, molasses and urine.
During the fermentation process, which takes several days, the indigo vat reduces, becoming a vibrant yellow-green once it’s devoid of oxygen. An iridescent foam called the “flower” then develops on the surface. Like any recipe, the quality of ingredients and their preparation is reflected in the final product. Creating a lively vat requires skill, patience and intuition. Cloth is dipped into the vat and allowed to rest inside for varied lengths of time depending on the desired depth of indigo hue. The fabric emerges vibrant green and slowly oxidizes to blue. The darkest depths of indigo are created by dipping and oxidizing a piece of cloth as many as 30 times. The vat can be nurtured and kept alive for many years to come, ensuring the craft of indigo carries on.
Image 1: copyright Rowland Ricketts.
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