While walking on the beach just before sunrise the other day, the ocean was the most beautiful indigo colour and it got me thinking. I knew indigo often appeared in colour trend forecasts over the years, but I didn’t know much about its origins or the process – so I did some investigating and was amazed to discover the incredible story of indigo and why it was one of the most important and controversial colours in the world.
With so many thousands of colours available to us today, it’s hard to imagine that just a few hundred years ago, colour was made from natural materials and many were extremely rare and hard to come by.
The name Indigo is a Greek term meaning “from India.” The colour blue is derived from a plant called Indigofera, indigenous to India, Africa and Asia. The blue dye is obtained through a complicated process of fermentation and cultivation is believed to go back thousands of years – the ancient Egyptians wrapped mummies in Indigo-dyed cloths, in Central Asia it was one of the main colours for carpets.
When the Europeans were trading goods with India in the 1500’s they included some of India’s Indigo together with spices and silks. The exotic Indian Indigo soon became one of the best blues available, it was a much superior and stronger colour to the blue (‘indigo”) the Europeans were producing from woad.
This led to the woad farmers – both peasants and princes feeling threatened by the Indian Indigo and in need of protection from the foreign import. The government intervened and European protectionist policies in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were introduced causing a lot of problems for Indigo merchants. In 1609 the French government had a death penalty for the use of Indigo rather than woad and it was banned in England until 1660. The German king even pronounced Indigo as the “devils colour”
It was around this time Isaac Newton revealed the colours of the spectrum/rainbow – red, orange. yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. With so much attention on Indigo at the time, one can’t help wondering if it influenced Isaac Newtons decision to include indigo, when he could, just as easily, have included turquoise to bridge green and blue.
The Rise and Fall of Indigo
Over time Indigo prevailed due to its superior properties and it was finally legalized in the mid 1700’s. Not long after, woad was out and Indigo was in. The ‘devils colour’ became the “king of dyes.”
As Indigofera grew in tropical climates, the French started the West Indies indigo industry on the islands of (now) Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe and soon the production of Caribbean indigo overtook Indian indigo. After much trial it was eventually also farmed in America.
In the 1900’s England turned to India again for Indigo and the high demand led to terrible injustices involved with the farming of it. Unscrupulous British planters pushed farmers into shocking contracts where farmers were forced to plant indigo instead of much needed food.
One of Mahatma Gandhi’s first acts of peaceful protest was when he supported indigo peasants who felt mistreated in northern Bihar, India in 1917. Indigo gained a bad reputation due to the human injustices and soon fell out of favour. Today few Indigo plants remain and plantations have been replaced with rice.
Krishna the Indigo Hindu God
In Hindu, Indigo Blue is a lucky colour – the colour of Krishna, one of the most popular of all Hindu Gods. Krishna is the God of compassion and love and linked to all aspects of Indian folklore – literature, painting, dance and music. It is sad that the history of blue over the last few hundred years hasn’t been a lucky or happy one for those that have been involved with it.
How Natural Indigo is Made
With the introduction of synthetic indigo dyes in the late 1800’s the craft and art of producing natural indigo could have completely disappeared in India. Fortunately there is a small group of artisans that are not ready to give up on this important part of their culture and are returning to the craft of cultivating Indigo. This is a wonderful video from Asian paints on the incredible story of Indigo.
The Future of Indigo
As the colour of the sky and the sea, and also -in all likelihood – your favourite pair of jeans. Indigo is not going anywhere. A new appreciation of the artisan and handmade craft has once again brought indigo to the fore. The beauty is that the dye is now being made by choice rather than force. Natural Indigo has lasted thousands of years and its stories and mystery are sure to keep it in trend forecasts for years to come – both in fashion and in interiors.
Tom Ford Spring Summer 2018
I think I will have to put visiting one of the natural Indigo farms in India on my bucket list. What an incredible journey it has had, the story of indigo goes on.
Have a wonderful week.