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The history of Indigo dyeing and how it changed the world

The history of Indigo dyeing and how it changed the world

I have long been fascinated with indigo - the brilliant natural blue dye that has been used throughout human history. The beauty of this colour and its use in traditional textiles across the globe has a special allure. Today, indigo dyed garments are an integral part of everyone’s wardrobe. 

It’s easy to forget that indigo used to be a rare commodity. Only a few centuries back, this mysterious dyestuff was so exclusive that only royalty and the aristocracy could afford it. It was imported with great difficulty from far-off colonies, which earned indigo a status similar to that of tea, coffee, silk or even gold.

Indigo's origin:

Indigo’s name gives its origin away: it simply means ‘the Indian’ or ‘from India.’ But we now know that, besides India, indigo is also endemic to the tropical zones in Africa and China. As early as more than 5,000 years ago, our ancestors in India, East Asia and Egypt, used the blue dye derived from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant to dye their clothes. They must have really adored the deep blue, almost violet shade that could be produced with the help of this plant  otherwise, they would not have gone through the very demanding process necessary to achieve it.

How natural Indigo is made:

It involves a series of very precise chemical processes to ferment the leaves of indigo plants to create the blue dye. 

To start with, the harvested leaves of the Indigofera tinctoria plant have to be soaked in water to let the indican (an amino acid) contained therein release glucose. The freed indican soon starts to ferment with the other plant enzymes. As a result, the water turns yellow after several days. The product of this fermentation process is called indoxyl and as it is left to dry in the air, oxidises and coagulates into the blue indigo. 

The regal color and its history:

While the production of indigo dye was an arduous process, importing it to the European royal courts, where the beautiful blue was in such high demand, was even more cumbersome and above all expensive.

At certain points in the 17th Century, Indigo dye (mainly from the plant Indigofera Tinctoria or Indian Indigo) was the most valuable import into the Europe. the desire for Indigo drove colonization, slavery and exploitation. Indigo plantations were established by the British in India and South Carolina, the French in Louisiana and the West Indies, the Spanish in Guatemala, and the Dutch in the East Indies. Basically, wherever indigo was traditionally used, the colonizing power would look to profit from the booming demand in indigo. In West Africa, indigo textiles were considered so valuable that they were exchanged as currency. In fact, traditional Asian indigo textiles were shipped to West Africa by the European powers and used to exchange for slaves, who were then shipped on to work on indigo plantations. This plantation dye from the colonies would then be shipped to Europe. The global history of this dyed was thus tied up in the processes of slavery, exploitation, and colonization. What once was a revered material became a source of misery for countless plantation workers and slaves. One commentator in 1848, E. De-latour remarked “Not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”

Indigo now:

Natural indigo dye only declined in prominence once a German chemist Adolf von Baeyer was able to synthesize the colour in 1897. Within a decade, it devastated the Indian indigo growing industry. While this may have alleviated the human suffering of the plantation workers, it led to new suffering for workers exposed to toxic chemical dyes. 

You can also still find pockets of craftspeople dying with indigo in the traditional way across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in Central and South America. But even these are under threat in the era of globalisation, with cheap manufactured clothing and synthetic dyes displacing labour intensive traditional crafts. These traditional textile skills are in danger of dying out.

However, globalization is also providing opportunity to preserve the valuable cultural heritage as well. More and more consumers are concerned about the impact of synthetic dyes on the environment and the health of the workers who use them. These consumers, like you, also understand that they can make a positive impact with the way they chose to spend their money.

Our love affair with the mysterious dark blue colour is still going strong. Even more than 5,000 years after its discovery, we humans are still enthralled by indigo and wear it almost every day. And observe with fascination how the colour changes continuously, fades, ages and wears away. Just like us.

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