Indigo is more than just a color and a prefix for the popular folk-rock duo Girls. It’s actually a natural dye extracted from plants that is now commonly used to color your blue jeans. Once upon a time, however, blue dyes were quite rare, and the process for extracting indigo ultimately proved to be an important discovery in textile history. Read on to learn more!
Made from the Best Indigofera Juice on Earth
Though indigo dye can be derived from a variety of plants, it is most commonly obtained from those in the Indigofera genus, especially Indigofera tinctoria—hence the name. These plants can be found in abundance throughout Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and it is therefore unsurprising that ancient Indians were the first to make extensive use of indigo dye.
I. tinctoria was first domesticated in India, and the colorant derived from it is amongst the oldest used for textile dyeing and printing. After it rose to prominence in India, indigo became common in what are now China, Japan, and other Asia nations.
India was not only the primary center for the actual, physical act of indigo dyeing in the ancient world, it was also the primary supplier of the pigment to Europe, dating as far back as the Greco-Roman days. In ancient Greece and Rome, indigo dye and anything dyed with indigo were considered luxury products. India is so closely associated with the indigo trade, in fact, that the Greek word for the dye—indikόn—literally means “Indian”. Those lazy Romans reduced it to indicum, and the even lazier English eventually turned it into “indigo.”
Cuneiform tablets from the 7th century BCE provide a recipe for dyeing wool with indigo, showing just how far back the practice dates. (Though it likely goes back even further than that.) Ancient Romans used it for painting and as an ingredient in medicines and cosmetics. In the Middle Ages, a chemically-identical dye derived from the woad plant was used to mimic indigo dye, but true indigo was still viewed as superior and remained a luxury item.
Indigo from India To Go
This remained more or less the case until the late 1400s, when Portuguese explorer Vasco “Grande Vasco” de Gama “discovered” a sea route to India, opening up direct trade between the Indian and European markets and cutting out those pesky Persian and Greek middlemen who had driven up prices.
Expanding European empires of the day soon established numerous indigo plantations in their tropical territories to keep up with growing demand for the now-inexpensive dye. Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, and what is now South Carolina all had expansive indigo fields during this period. Those buzzkills in France and Germany quickly outlawed imported indigo to protect their struggling local woad dye industries.
Natural indigo continued to be massively popular for centuries to come. In 1897, over 2,700 square miles (7,000 square kilometers) of farmland worldwide were used to grow indigo-producing plants—nearly three times the size of the nation of Luxembourg. Over 19,000 tons of indigo were produced from these and other plant sources.
With continuing advances in organic chemistry came synthetic indigo pigments. By 1914, production from natural sources was down to a mere 1,000 tons worldwide. As of 2002, worldwide production of synthetic indigo had topped 17,000 tons.