Our journey through the ancient and mysterious world of the natural dye indigo begins here at ClothRoads. We’ll ride the indigo magic carpet throughout the holiday season. Let’s begin with an overview of this dye deeply embedded in cultures around the world–one that is both art and science, and touches the disciplines of botany, chemistry, economics, fashion, medicine, politics, as well as textile and social history.
Science in the Dyepot
Thousands of species of indigo grow all over the world. Indigofera, Polygonum, Isatis, and Lonchocarpus are four well-known genera. With the exception of Isatis tinctoria (woad), most indigo-bearing plants thrive in tropical climates. Polygonum tinctorium, also known as Japanese indigo, is a frost sensitive annual, but my friend was able to grow a small crop here in the high altitude of Colorado. Organic chemists continue to study the unusual chemical structure and production methods of indigo, which can produce a wide variety of colors by combining with other natural dye materials. Indigo dyes both cellulose and protein fibers without needing a mordant – magical indeed.
Multiple Dye Techniques and Processes
We will explore multiple methods and processes during our indigo travels this fall, but first let’s check out my fresh leaf indigo experiment. Using plants from my friend’s garden, I removed the leaves from stems and added them to a blender half full of very cold water. I blended them for one minute, strained the mixture into a small bucket, then immersed wet silk fabric into the bath for 3-5 minutes moving it through the indigo the entire time. The sample was exposed to the air and then rinsed in cool water and laid out to dry. You can see the result is a wonderful aqua.
History in the Dyepot
Natural indigo is an ancient dye and has been used continuously for thousands of years. It is mentioned in the histories of Herodotus around 450 BC; it was a staple on early trade routes; and became a commercial force around 1500 AD. Although it was once believed that the dyeing process spread throughout the world from India, it is now accepted that indigo dyeing was discovered and developed independently in cultures worldwide. Many cultures guarded their indigo secrets, which were layered with significance and symbolism. One can see why indigo is valued as an exceptional universal dye.
How in the world did ancient artisans discover this unusual dye? No one knows for sure, but leaves crushed on the ground may have come into contact with urine or ash from a fire and produced the telltale blue. Many cultures describe the origins of indigo in myths and stories, and often ceremony surrounds the process with social significance that reveals indigo dyeing as much more than technique. One could travel the world seeking the magical transformation that happens to cloth and self. Or one could explore in the backyard, following the continuous thread that extends back in time and links us all through cloth–cloth that carries history, memories and stories to share.
Contemporary Artisan Cloth and Indigo Projects
Amazing indigo projects are underway around the world. One to take notice of here in the United States is Sea Island Indigo. Donna Hardy is establishing a sustainable indigo culture in the Lowcountry of the Southeastern U.S., using the same indigo plants grown in that area for more than 250 years.
The seeds for my successful Colorado indigo growing experiment came from Rowland Ricketts, an associate professor of textiles at Indiana University. Rowland and his wife Chinami produce and process Japanese indigo following ancient methods to produce contemporary textiles. He managed a wonderful community project, Indigo Growing Blue, from 2010-14–read about it here. Find out more about Rowland and Chinami here. Seeds can be purchased each spring from their online store until they run out!
Another indigo project is from the northeast coast of Italy, east of Florence, is producing results. And the Georgian blue tablecloths which have been revived are based on the oldest samples dating to the end of 17th century. These use indigo and a cold vat dyeing method known as lurji supra.
Beautiful indigo-dyed products being produced worldwide are featured right here at ClothRoads.
Bandhani, shibori, plangi–a few intriguing words and techniques to discover and share next month on the cloth road. For more natural dye resources, go here. Meanwhile, get your dye on and ride the magic carpet…
Judy’s Recommended References
Balfour-Paul, Jenny, Indigo, 1998, Archetype Press, London.
Dr. Balfour-Paul’s book, Indigo in the Arab World, was the result of her PhD research and difficult to obtain. Her book, Indigo, is the best reference book one can own. She covers the world of indigo and culture in a captivating way. Serious dyers should have this on their shelf.
Prideaux, Vivien, A Handbook of Indigo Dyeing, 2003, Search Press, Great Britain.
This is one of my favorite technique books and can get you started on your indigo explorations with confidence.
Vatsyayan, Kapila, ed., 2014, Culture of Indigo in Asia, Niyogi Books, New Delhi, India.
More on this new book next time, but if you want a beautiful explanation of the cultural and historic significance of indigo in Asia, read the preface by Gopolkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Ghandi for amazing insight.
Video – for a quick start without extensive reading, you can watch Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo, a documentary by Mary Lance. Available at ClothRoads.