“With a history as rich as the color itself, garments of indigo blue were traded in the great merchant centers and ports of Africa and the Orient and brought to the markets of Europe. Throughout the ages the color blue has continued to intrigue and inspire. Worn by kings and queens and peasants alike, garments dyed in blue were handed down from generation to generation. As the garments faded and aged they became more valued and cherished.” – Kathleen O’Grady

For anyone who has聽had the pleasure of dyeing with indigo, they will know there is a beauty and magic to聽this natural dye, derived from the indigo plant. If you work with indigo, you don’t just dye with it, you have a聽relationship聽with it. It is a complicated dye that takes years to master. Indigo is not just a colour; it is a slow process to produce the colour and dye with it. Dyers can (and do) spend years dedicated to just this one colour because of its amazing qualities.

Dried cake extracted from indigo leaves

Photo by Evan Izer (Palladian) / CC BY-SA
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There are three essentials to dye with indigo; indigo itself, a base (lime) and a reducing agent. Unlike other dyes, indigo is not soluble in water. To make it soluble, a 鈥渞educing agent鈥 is used. There are chemical reducing agents, but various fruits can also make great reducing agents. When indigo is reduced, it loses its blue colour. If you peer into an indigo vat, you might be surprised to see that the solution isn鈥檛 blue, it鈥檚 greenish-yellow. Only when the fabric or yarn is removed from the vat and exposed to the air does it turn blue. The oxygen in the air reverts the indigo back to its insoluble form, resulting in the colour blue. This is the magic of indigo!

There are different kinds of indigo plants as well as being able to dye with indigo leaves. I took a natural dye workshop in Laos in 2010. These leaves were gathered from the聽mountains that morning.聽

 

Indigo leaves soaking for three days before dyeing with them.
Straining the indigo leaves.聽
Close-up of straining the liquid.聽
A jacket I designed; I dyed the linen with indigo and added the feature stripe of Laotian indigo fabric on the back. Skirt is silk taffeta that I over-dyed with indigo.聽

The history of indigo also includes a dark side because of the聽. Indigo was one of the most valuable exports from the Southeast United States and the Caribbean and it was produced using the labour of enslaved Africans. India under British colonization was a聽.聽聽In Bengal, the farmers were forced to grow indigo rather than food crops. In 1859 the farmers revolted against oppression by the聽聽in what became known as the聽聽or the Blue Mutiny.聽In the early 1900鈥檚聽natural indigo was replaced by synthetic dye and the natural indigo trade dyed out and along with it the indigo plantations.

But there is much more to indigo’s history than this dark side. Indigo dyeing has been practiced since antiquity in India, Asia, Africa and South America. The word “indigo” is聽聽word for “Indian dye.” For generations indigenous people have created exquisite textiles and passed the techniques down from one generation to the next.

I could never聽say I am an expert of indigo dyeing, but it has influenced me. I am inspired by its magic, including the beautiful colour it produces and its practice by diverse cultures.

Visiting a specialty indigo shop in Kyoto, Japan, in 1985.聽

 

Japanese ‘‘ fabric pieces I collected while there.

 

Vintage collectible indigo and naturally dyed cotton.聽

 

More collectible Japanese indigo fabrics. I was there in the mid-1980’s and these聽fabrics were聽old then!

 

In recent times, there has been a world-wide revival of indigo dyeing. I have had the good fortune of being a student of some of the world masters who take great pride in the indigo-textile traditions from their native countries.

I was fortunate to meet聽聽in聽. Dr. Morimoto, a Japanese textile master, came to Cambodia in the 1990’s聽to revive the traditional weaving and聽聽in the time of the聽. Here Dr. Morimoto shows me the location of聽new indigo vats.

Indigo聽can take years to master. I’ve been told that Malian indigo master,聽聽taught a 10-day indigo workshop several years ago in聽Oakland, California. He started the indigo vats with聽the class, but for some reason, the vats did not work. After聽much deliberation, he discovered that the high chlorine in the tap聽water affected the pH of the vats, and he聽had to start them again with purified water. Even the masters are challenged by聽indigo.

Jenny聽Balfour-Paul聽is one of the leading experts on indigo. In 2018 Jenny Balfour-Paul gave a talk at Maiwa Handprints in Vancouver about聽her book聽聽which covers her travels and encounters with indigo. If you would like to be spell-bound by Jenny’s talk, view the video below or聽.