The Origins of Indigo: Why Natural Dyes Matter

Despite the fact that there is denim inside virtually every closet today, blue textiles were once not so easy to come by.

The Origins of Indigo: Why Natural Dyes Matter

Despite the fact that there is denim inside virtually every closet today, blue textiles were once not so easy to come by.

Indigo—the dye traditionally responsible for denim’s distinctive color—is the only natural source of blue color for textiles. It stands as one of the world’s most revered natural dyes, one with a rich history that has experienced a recent renaissance in sustainable fashion and artisanal makers.

The History of Indigo

Indigo dye comes from the  Indigofera  plant, which has been grown and cultivated for thousands of years in Egypt, East Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. When on fabric, it becomes antibacterial, flame resistant, and repels odor and dirt. Thanks to these qualities, indigo-dyed fabrics were worn by firemen and samurais in 1600s Japan. India was also one of the earliest centers of indigo production, from where the dye spread to Europe and took on its current-day name, meaning, “from India.”

Throughout the 17th century, indigo-dyed fabrics were precious amongst European upper classes. The growing demand drove colonial expansion and large-scale cultivation around the world: indigo plantations were created by the British in India and the American South, the French in Louisiana and the West Indies, and the Dutch in the East Indies. As indigo became produced and exported in larger quantities, the cost of indigo began to drop.

Later, the Industrial Revolution and the American Gold Rush skyrocketed global demand for sturdy workwear. In 1873, Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss created a pair of work trousers—the first pair of jeans—which officially transitioned indigo from the mark of luxury to the color of the working classes: the “blue collar” workforce.

At this point, indigo production could no longer keep up with global demand. In 1897, Hoechst and BASF created a synthetic indigo that could be produced in large amounts. Soon after, synthetic indigo almost completely replaced naturally derived indigo.

Synthetic vs. Natural Indigo

Synthetic indigo was able to supplant natural indigo due to one major benefit: speed. When produced naturally, indigo dye can take up to a year to make. It is the product of an arduous process where leaves of the Indigofera plant are harvested, soaked, fermented, and then dried in the sun. The blue that comes out of the leaves is then pressed into blocks of powder, which are used by skilled artisans to dye fabrics--a process that can take over 10 days.

Dyes, Ethical Labor & Sustainable Fashion

The arrival of synthetic dye meant that laborers no longer needed to endure this backbreaking work on the fields. However, it led to a new kind of suffering within factories, where workers became exposed to toxic chemicals. Today, dyes continue to be at the center of sustainable fashion and ethical fashion concerns, requiring high amounts of petroleum and producing dangerous byproducts such as formaldehyde and cyanide. As more consumers become aware of the impact of synthetic dyes on the environment and on workers, attention is shifting towards sustainable fashion and supporting natural indigo dye once more.

An Indigo Revival

Even after over a century of chemical dye innovation, natural indigo remains the deeper, richer blue. Inspiring artisans around the world, the colors of indigo come in a multitude of shades from light blue to navy to pitch black.

Today, indigo-dyed products are increasingly sought after in fashion as well as home textiles. A revived interest in shibori, the Japanese manual dyeing technique that creates patterned fabrics, is bringing indigo into closets around the world. Brands such as Blue Blue Japan are injecting indigo into beautiful pieces, while places like NYC’s Curious Corners provide indigo workshops and artisan textiles. Some people are even taking the dyeing process into their own hands, using indigo dye kits to add a splash of color to their basics and linens.