past & present

Past & Present: Indigo

by Amy Azzarito

As I sit on a blue-gray sofa, my feet propped up on my pink coffee table made comfortable by a purple pillow, it’s hard to imagine a time when color itself was a luxury. We have an entire month of color planned for May, but in the meantime, I’ve found myself completely obsessed with one of the world’s oldest dyes: indigo. Maybe it’s a little rebellion against all the neons and metallics (although I’m still a fan of both). Of course, Grace and I aren’t the only ones who have fallen under the indigo spell. Throughout its long history, indigo has been revered. In ancient Egypt, the color blue was venerated, and weavers inserted blue stripes in the borders of plain linen mummy cloths. Tutankhamun’s funerary wardrobe included a state robe that was predominately blue. (An interesting aside: Egyptian clothing had no hooks; tucking, wrapping and tying were the sole means of keeping the clothes on the body.) It is a favorite color in the painter’s box, the basis for the blue-collar worker and Levi’s jeans. In a little order reversal, the “present” piece of this Past and Present ran a little earlier today. See Grace’s obsessions for some beautiful examples of indigo. — Amy Azzarito

Image above: Indigo cloth from the Charleston Museum’s exhibition, Indigo: Natural Blue Dye in the Lowcountry

Image above: An extremely rare example of indigo-dyed cloth from ancient Egypt. This is a kerchief from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache. Linens that were not actually used for mummification were sometimes buried in the embalming cache. This kerchief, discovered in the Valley of the Kings, may have been used by Tutankhamun when he was a child. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

More indigo history after the jump . . .

Image above: Indigo-dyed skirt in the collection of the British Museum

Naming Indigo

The word indigo refers to where the color historically comes from. The word is derived from a Greek term that means “from India.” Indigo cultivation is thought to have existed in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan and northwest India) more than 5,000 years ago. They called it nila (meaning “dark blue”), and as good things often do, it spread. By the time European traders arrived in Goa in the early 1500s, Indian indigo was one of the goods they took home (along with embroidered silks and nutmeg and camphor from Indonesia).

Image above: A postcard of a British-run indigo factory in India, where the low cost of labor kept the factories unmechanized in spite of the Industrial Revolution. This is a beating vat where the indigo was oxidized. It would have produced a nauseating smell.

Indigo: A Plant-based Dye

Indigo is a colorfast, plant-based dye that can come from a number of different plants, but it was primarily found in Indigofera, a tropical plant that was cultivated and became a staple agricultural crop. There are three steps to the traditional process of extracting the dye from the plant. First the leaves are fermented in a steeping vat. Then a liquid is extracted and oxidized, and from that, a blue solid forms in the bottom of the vat that is collected and dried. In the 19th century most indigo was made in British-run factories in India.

Image above: Royal display cloth from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Indigo is different from all other natural dyes (apart from shellfish purple) in that it needs no mordant (a substance used to set dyes on fabrics); it is insoluble and is deposited on the fibers as microscopic particles without needing to form a chemical bond with them. The chemical properties of indigo dye remained baffling well into the 19th century. It was so mysterious and challenging to work with that, in many cultures, folklore arose around the dyeing process. In Bhutan, pregnant women were not allowed near the vat in case the unborn baby stole the blues, and women in Morocco believed the only way to deal with a particularly challenging vat was to start telling outrageous lies. All this trouble was worth the final result. Once dyed, indigo is so colorfast that it can last for centuries or even millennia.

Image above: Mood Indigo, Jack Bush, 1976, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Books to Read

Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans — A little dense for a straight-through read (at least for me), but this is a great reference book to have on hand.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette — One my absolute favorite books. Victoria Finlay travels the world looking for the history behind the colors in the artist’s paint box. This one you’ll read straight through.

Colors: The Stories of Dyes and Pigments — A short survey of the history of color with beautiful glossy photos. My favorite is the section on the naming of colors.

Image above: Indigo-dyed cotton from Japan, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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  • I love love love indigo, particularly katazome and kasuri patterns – for me I think it’s an earthy tangent to all the bright pendleton type prints that are so popular. I use this indigo a lot in my booths as a jewelry backdrop.

    I’m such a fan of these historical posts! I am designer/librarian nerd so they are so refreshing for me, they give an added layer of meaning to so many objects. Thank you!

  • Bonjour et Merci pour cet Article captivant ! Cela me fait plaisir de découvrir des origines qui m’étaient totalement inconnues. Merci. Vi et Joyeuses Pâques

  • Thanks for the background! very cool to hear about the historical background of a color we now associate with the everyday – like jeans. I’m noticing dark blue everywhere now, clearly it’s become trendy (again). I’ve always thought of it as one of the neutrals because so many colors really go with it.

    Shobha (nylonliving.com)

  • I love that Victoria Finlay book! She’s written another about gemstones which is also wonderful.

  • Thank you for sharing this information on indigo. I have had the opportunity to dye fabric using indigo and loved the process and the results. Looking forward to more on color in May…..

  • What a lovely post about a such a rich topic. I think it’s worth mentioning indigo’s connection to Atlantic slavery, too. The more we know about the history, the better we can appreciate how lucky we are to enjoy indigo today, after all. Thanks for the post!

  • Having dedicated so much of my life to this fascinating dye with its unique beauty and historical importance, it’s always good to hear about exhibitions of indigo-dyed textiles.