Being an ancient dye popular in Mayan, Egyptian, Japanese and Indian cultures, as well as a bold blue crystalline powder able to create denim and beautiful Shibori and tie dye fabrics, Indigo has a lot to offer and a story to tell.
In 300 BC it began being exported through trade routes to Rome where they named the pigment ‘Indikon’ meaning ‘from India’. Considered a luxury item, it took on the name ‘blue gold’ boasting its high performance as a trading commodity.
Unfortunately, the demand for indigo outstripped supply and a cheaper synthetic alternative was developed which led to a decline in natural indigo production.
Where does Indigo come from?
Indigo is derived from plants. The most popular plant used is Indigofera tinctoria: it is extracted from the leaves and grown in India and El Salvador. Some other plants can create this mesmerising ‘gold blue’ hue, such as rhubarb and even cabbage!
Like coffee beans and cacao, the dye is specific to exactly where it was grown and produced - factors such as the temperature and soil it grows in creates pigmentation variety for those who admire the finer details. It also has impurities which give an artist a lot to play around with.
Natural Indigo is super sustainable mainly since after the pigment has been extracted, all water used can be put back onto crops and even provides fertilizer once composted. Contrasting to synthetic indigo which comes from petrochemicals (oil) and thus produces toxic waste.
Natural indigo is mostly from rural communities in developing nations and so its origins are traceable and more importantly provides employment to communities and farmers needing an economic boost.
What can it be used for?
Indigo can dye lots of materials and is especially good for cotton – Indigo is one of the oldest dyes to be used in textile dyeing and responsible for the iconic blue hue - used to dye the first pair of blue jeans! In 1873 Levi Strauss the Bavarian immigrant went to San Francisco during the 1853 California ‘gold rush’ to start a Western branch of his family’s dry goods business. In 1872 to 1873, Jacob Davis (a Nevada tailor) and Levi Strauss patented the very first pair of jeans and introduced them to the world.
Indigo also works well for linens, silk, wool, leather and feathers, and even materials such as cane, wicker, shell and buttons.
With the move now into increased concern for the environment and consumers becoming more consciously aware of what exactly they are buying and where it comes from, natural indigo is back in demand due to its sustainable production.
Not only this, scientists in South Korea have found a way to dye fabrics sustainably by bioengineering bacteria to produce large amounts of indigo dye without using toxic chemicals (they injected DNA into a type of bacterium, Corynebacterium Glutamicum, that produces the building blocks of the blue dye, Indigoidine). With this transition to more sustainable methods of producing the same colour, in terms of textiles and fabrics for interiors, it’s a positive step in the right direction!
This is great news, as Indigo is a much-loved colour and seems to work well with nearly every other colour – we love Indigo!