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The Magic of Indigo

The Magic of Indigo


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 had the pleasure of dyeing with indigo, they will know there is a beauty and magic to this natural dye, derived from the indigo plant. If you work with indigo, you don't just dye with it, you have a relationship 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.

Indigo skeletal

Indian indigo dye lump
Dried cake extracted from indigo leaves

Photo by Evan Izer (Palladian) / CC BY-SA

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 “reducing agent” 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’t blue, it’s 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.     

You can dye with indigo powdered extract or with the leaves themselves. I took a natural dye workshop in Laos in 2010. These leaves were gathered from the mountains that morning. 

Indigo leaves soaking for three days before dyeing with them. 

Straining the indigo leaves. 

Close-up of straining the liquid. 

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.  

The history of indigo includes a dark side because of the exploitation of colonized countries and peoples. 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 major supplier of indigo to Europe. In Bengal, the farmers were forced to grow indigo rather than food crops. In 1859 the farmers revolted against oppression by the East India Company in what became known as the Indigo Revolt or the Blue Mutiny. In the early 1900’s 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 derived from the Ancient Greek 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 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. I lived in Japan for two years in the 1980's and was influenced by indigo blue fabrics that were so much a part of their culture. 

Japanese 'Kasuri' fabric pieces I collected while there. 

Vintage collectible indigo and naturally dyed cotton. 

More collectible Japanese indigo fabrics. I was there in the mid-1980's and these fabrics were 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 Dr. Kikuo Morimoto in Cambodia in 2010. Dr. Morimoto, a Japanese textile master, came to Cambodia in the 1990's to revive the traditional weaving and natural dye arts that had been lost in the time of the Khmer Rouge. Here Dr. Morimoto shows me the location of new indigo vats. 

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

Jenny Balfour-Paul is one of the leading experts on indigo. In 2018 Jenny Balfour-Paul gave a talk at Maiwa Handprints in Vancouver about her book Deeper Than Indigo 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 listen to the podcast

 This video is a wonderful depiction of indigo revival in India: 





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