A passion for indigo can lead you down the rabbit hole into the mystical world of plant-based dyes. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of experimenting with natural colors, but so far I’ve carefully avoided getting into the dye pot.
Maybe it’s because I have a scary vision of myself stirring a bubbling cauldron, muttering spells, squeezing dripping cloth with blue-stained fingers. Not the best way to turn your nails blue. Or your hair.
But would it surprise you to learn that people have been dyeing cloth with indigo for thousands of years? Or that the very first “blue jeans,” made in France, were originally colored with the natural dye? (The source of the word “denim” may be “de [from] Nimes,” a city known for its blue textiles.) In the beginning even Levis were made with cheap indigo-dyed fabric.
Like so many desirable things, indigo probably originated in India. Thousands of years ago, the deep blue dye derived from the leaves of indigofera tinctoria was a hot item in the maritime trade between the subcontinent, where it was grown and processed, and the ancient Greeks and Romans who considered it a luxury. It was the perfect commodity for transporting by ship: light, compact, and immensely profitable.
It became so profitable that centuries later, during the late 1600′s, the East India Company exported a staggering 1,241,967 pounds of indigo from the Indian ports of Bombay and Surat to England—in the process, almost destroying the native woad industry in Europe. (Indigo produces a very concentrated pigment, making it far more desireable than woad which creates lighter hues.) The brutal forced labor used to grow the plants and produce the dye is said to have instigated the Bengali revolt of 1859.
Incidentally, the Greek word for “dye” was indikon, and the Romans called it indicum, both words seemingly based on its place of origin. It wasn’t much of a stretch to get to “indigo,” which appeared in English for the first time in 1289.
Even today, when almost all threads are dyed synthetically, there are still traditional artisans in Asia, Africa and Central America who dye their textiles with true indigo. There are also small indigo workshops in Austria (of all places), and an active natural dyeing community in Europe and the US. Although two plants in the Indigofera genus–tinctoria and suffruticosa–are the usual source of indigo, especially in tropical regions, there are, in fact, over 300 plants whose leaves and stems can be used to produce blue dyes of varying intensity.
As Catherine LeGrand explains in her stunning book, Indigo: The Color that Changed the World, indigo is a universal dye. ”The process unfolds in the same manner the world over, involving exactly the same steps: cultivation or wild harvesting of the plant, extraction of the pigment, preparation of the dye bath, and dyeing of the cloth or yarn. The weaver and/or tailor and embroiderer then transform the dyed cloth into garments of sublime beauty.”
LeGrand, a French textile expert, traveled extensively in order to the interview artisans in over a dozen countries. The book is based on meticulous, original research, and many of her photographs, especially portraits of the artisans in their indigo-colored garments, are magnificent.
In some cultures, mystical powers of protection are ascribed to indigo. (This might have something to do with the fact that the colorant is chemically invisible until it is exposed to oxygen and “magically” turns blue.)
The Tuaregs, or “blue men” of the Sahara, wear blue-dyed veils and turbans in the belief that the color will keep evil spirits at bay. In the same vein, Turkish evil eyes are made of brilliant blue glass so as to repel bad luck.
On a practical level, indigo is also said to repel mosquitos and other pesky insects. Indigo includes a Japanese etching of a woman sleeping under a blue-dyed mosquito net. Summer kimonos, like my yukata, are often dyed with indigo to invoke the cooling power of the blue sea.
But why is indigo having “a moment” right now? In a coffee house yesterday, I saw 7 or 8 men and women wearing at least one piece of indigo-colored clothing, not counting the ubiquitous blue jeans. Interior design magazines are filled with luminous blue-violet walls and overdyed rugs dyed vibrant blue. Even a salvia in our garden has just burst into blooms of darkest indigo.
Clearly it evokes some of the positive feelings we have about the color blue. The Colorwheel tells us that “Blue is the color of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth and heaven.” More to the point, it “slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect. Blue is strongly associated with tranquility.”
Surely this explains why there are so many blue and white bedrooms in the world. I’d like to think that Serendipity’s pale blue room provided a soothing refuge from the storms of her teenage years, but today she has a slightly different take. “I think blue walls and soft white sheets that have been washed many times are very evocative. Maybe blue walls are soft too. Something nostalgic there.”
Nostalgia, tranquility, stability.
But then why do we say we have “the blues” when we’re sad? The “blues” musical genre that originated in the South towards the end of the 19th century may have riffed on the phrase, “blue devils,” which denotes melancholy and sadness. Is it a coincidence that indigo came to America with African slaves who knew its innermost secrets, and that it became an important cash crop on Southern plantations where so many led miserable lives? And that it was the descendants of those slaves who first sang “the blues?”
The sounds and words of this music are about suffering and often about death. “I tried so hard to keep from crying/My heart felt just like lead/She was all I had to live for/Oh, I just wish it was me instead,” sang the late great Bobby Blue Bland in his version of the classic St. James Infirmary Blues.
Then, of course, there’s Mood Indigo, the jazz standard composed and first played by Duke Ellington in 1930. The lyrics, written by Irving Mills, came much later in 1955. The theme is loneliness, but the sound is smooth as silk. This version by Nancy Harms is as soft and enveloping as the color itself.
Indigo is mysterious, neither blue nor violet, yet it shimmers with elements of both. Although its name is used describe to a range of hues, from soft faded blue to a vibrant color closer to cobalt, it’s the darker shades that are so alluring now.
Enveloping oneself in indigo—whether an inky cashmere blanket or walls painted midnight blue—is like being cosseted in the embrace of the ocean, primal source of life, mother of us all. By connecting us to the natural world, it has become a talismanic color, protecting us from all the big bad things “out there.” When life spins out of control, as it often does these days, indigo offers the illusion of stability.
Yet the darker shades are also a bit edgy. As with the ocean, there’s a glint of danger, the chance that one could be pulled into the murky depths, or of losing one’s bearings in a sudden tempest—and, in a way, that makes the color even more seductive. Indigo expresses the tension of our times, balancing a hunger for stability with its flip side: the irresistible attraction to instability.
Because let’s face it: Isn’t all the tumult just a teeny bit exciting?
If I could wave my wand, I would have a room with indigo-dyed cedar floors just like the ones in the Tokushima City Library Gallery. (The Tokushima region on Shikoku Island has traditionally been Japan’s leading source of natural indigo.) I’d hang blue-dyed banners from a high ceiling and curl up on a squishy midnight velvet sofa, wrapping myself in a fabulous blue and black cashmere blanket.
Would I be sad? Not a bit. Just a little edgy, as I’d gaze out the window to the coming storm.