A brief history of The Magical Indigo Dye

My wife,Evelyn is a Textile Engineer by training and has long been fascinated with indigo – the brilliant natural blue dye that has been used throughout human history. The beauty of this colour and it’s use in traditional textiles across the globe has a special allure. Althought For her, this attraction has not been purely aesthetic as indigo is used so beautifully in traditional textiles but so much more than what meets the eye. From being revered with almost magical qualities, to a central role in slavery and colonization, to it’s resurgence in sustainable fashion, the history of indigo is worth getting acquainted with.


Indigo is held to be the world’s oldest textile dye

There are early archaeological finds of indigo from over 6000 years ago in the Indus Valley on the Indian sub-continent, then 4000 years ago in Egypt, India and China. However researchers believed that the history of indigo stems back even further, as early as the Neolithic age. It is even believed that our ancestors used indigo in cave art and for painting their bodies. It is suggested that this is why we call it indigo, a greek word meaning “coming from India. Although blue occurs in many instances in the plant world, commonly in flowers and berries, most naturally occurring blue plants-stuffs are unsuitable for dying. Some can be used to derive some colour (for food or textiles) but the blue colour is not long-lasting. Indigo, on the other-hand, is the only natural source of long-lasting blue colour for textiles. However, indigo the colour does not occur in nature. The plants from which we derive indigo do not show any blue in their leaves, stems or flowers. Rather the colour indigo is achieved by fermenting the leaves of certain plant varieties to create indigo dye. Historically, indigo maintained it’s place since it was the only blue dye available and still today, after more than 150 years of organic chemistry and quite a few competitive dyes of blue colour, it is still the most efficient blue dye or pigment. in fact there is no other substance that creates such intensive blue colour with such few carbon atoms in its molecule.

The creation of natural indigo dye is incredibly complex

Traditional indigo Japanese dye vat.

Traditional indigo Japanese dye vat.

It involves very precise chemical processes to ferment the leaves of indigo plants to create the blue dye. Furthermore, unlike other textile dying processes, the fabric does not turn blue in the dye pot. Exposure to the air is required, so that a drying piece of dyed fabric will slowly turn from yellow to green, to a deep dark blue. But this process is also very fragile, and skilled artisan is needed to ensure success with indigo dying. Too much fermentation, or not enough, or the wrong level of heat can destroy a whole batch of dye. Watching Evelyn dye can be quite distressing as she constantly has to dip, monitor, dry then repeat especially for darker shades that may take more than 30 cycles to achieve!

The skill required, and the unusual qualities of the dye itself have led to indigo dying being revered for it’s magical qualities in many traditional indigo textile community across the globe. For example, in parts of Indonesia, indigo dying is considered a sacred process that only women can take part in. Mothers traditionally teach the dying process to their daughters. Although interestingly, exceptions have been made for homosexual men.

The desire for indigo drove colonization, slavery and exploitation

Ancient mural depicting indigo dye trade.

Ancient mural depicting indigo dye trade.

Before the advent of chemical dyes, indigo dying was practiced throughout Europe, most of Africa, the middle East, most of Asia, and South and Central America. The European plant used to create indigo dye, Woad, created a far inferior colour to the plants that grew in the other indigo producing regions. For this reason, trade driven by European colonization soon destroyed the local European dying industry. At certain points in the 17th Century, indigo dye (mainly from the plant Indigofera Tinctoria) was the most valuable import into the Europe.

Indigo plantations were established by the British in India and South Carolina, the French in Louisiana and the West Indies, the Spanish in Guatemala, and the Dutch in the East Indies. Basically, wherever indigo was traditionally used, the colonizing power would look to profit from the booming demand in indigo. In West Africa, indigo textiles were considered so valuable that they were exchanged as currency. In fact, traditional Asian indigo textiles were shipped to West Africa by the European powers and used to exchange for slaves, who were then shipped on to work on indigo plantations. This plantation dye from the colonies would then be shipped to Europe. The global history of this dyed was thus tied up in the processes of slavery, exploitation, and colonization. What once was a revered material became a source of misery for countless plantation workers and slaves. One commentator in 1848, E. De-latour remarked “Not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”

Synthetic indigo dye almost eradicated natural dyeing traditions. Is it about to change?

A heavily polluted stream in China, a direct result from chemical dye discharge.

A heavily polluted stream in China, a direct result from chemical dye discharge.

Natural indigo dye only declined in prominence once a German chemist Adolf von Baeyer was able to synthesize the colour in 1897. Within a decade, it devastated the Indian indigo growing industry. While this may have alleviated the human suffering of the plantation workers, it led to new suffering for workers exposed to toxic chemical dyes.

Synthetic indigo dye begins by drilling down – extracting petroleum. Afterwards it is subject to high heat, high-energy conditions in order to break it up up into its component molecules. One, called benzene, is isolated and then mixed with a host of other chemicals, including cyanide and formaldehyde. This process produces ammonia as an off-gas.

Among few larger companies conserving or reviving natural indigo traditions are The Colours of Nature and Stony Creek. Stony Creek advances in producing consistent identical blue colour batches for the industrial scale dyeing and engaging tobacco growers to grow natural indigo on USA soil instead. The Colours of Nature additionally treats the yarn with a high alkaline soap, instead of caustic soda and most importantly treats water in each stage and recycles it for the agricultural use.

You can also still find pockets of craftspeople dying with indigo in the traditional way across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in Central and South America. But even these are under threat in the era of globalization, with cheap manufactured clothing and synthetic dyes displacing labour intensive traditional crafts. These traditional textile skills are in danger of dying out.

However, globalization is also providing opportunity to preserve the valuable cultural heritage as well. More and more consumers are concerned about the impact of synthetic dyes on the environment and the health of the workers who use them. These consumers, like yourself, who is reading this blog; also understand that they can make a positive impact with the way they chose to spend their money. There are a growing number of fashion social enterprises, and socially minded fashion labels who are serving these consumers, while at the same time providing an economic opportunity to preserve traditional indigo dyeing and textile crafts.

Where does the “blue- collar worker” term derive FROM?

Indigo was hugely favoured as a dye for the whole range of textiles, from fine silks to hard wearing denims. It is the only plant based dye that is capable of creating a permanent fixed colour on cotton and flax. The indigo dye was so ubiquitous, that this is where we get the term “blue-collar worker” after the hard wearing indigo dyed cotton that factory workers and labourers wore!

Indigo by nature has a number of unique features making it successful:

  • it supplies favored shades from black to navy to sky blue.

  • these shades are balanced – not too brilliant or artificial and not too dull.

  • as a pigment it would not participate in metabolism making it very safe for human contact, in fact indigo is used as food dye and as medical indicator applied intravenously.

  • it is “designed” to exist as reduced soluble form during dyeing and as oxidized form as blue pigment.

  • it’s soluble form is not sensitive to water hardness and this allows the dyeing of greige or minimum pre-treated cotton.



Indigo has seen a revival in recent years especially in the west and in China. Whereas Japan has always maintained a strong natural dye culture as seen in their traditional Shiburi art.

Here at Root & Bark you can find a small selection of beautifully crafted garments and accessories that is made with traditionally dyed indigo textiles. We encourage you to take a look for yourself and see why this beautiful dye has been so adored throughout the ages.




Darren Leong