Into the History of: Indigo

It doesn’t seem to matter how much indigo, I see. I’m never sick of it, and I’m certainly not alone.

The History of Indigo

Considered to be the most popular color worldwide, blue has been revered since the time of the Ancient Egyptians who wove strips of indigo-dyed cloth into the borders of plain linen mummy strips. Indigo certainly is special – it has an unique chemical makeup that allows it to work both as a dye and as a pigment. The Mayans mixed indigo with a clay mineral to produce the color we now call “maya blue”, which they used for paintings on murals, sculptures and ceramics, and which despite the passage of time, still have not faded. (For the Mayans, blue was also the color of human sacrifice).

Image above: Nigerian textile, resist-dyed with indigo from the collection at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum


But the story of the modern obsession with Indigo begins with an 18th century teenager in South Carolina. When she was 16, Eliza Lucas’ father was called back to his post in Antigua to deal with the brewing conflict between the Spanish and the English, leaving her in charge of the family farm. Just the year before, Eliza had arrived to South Carolina from her English finishing school and her world had been all dances and charming young men, and now she was in charge of a 600-acre estate (with 60 slaves,) her little sister and her ailing mother – who died shortly thereafter. With falling prices, it became clear that the once reliable rice crop was not going to be enough to support everyone. So the family began the search for a new cash crop. Eliza’s father, who had been posted in Antigua in the Caribbean, started sending seeds. First he sent alfalfa, then he recommended ginger. Both of which Eliza tried but neither which did well. But when he sent indigo, the family’s fortune would change.

Image above: Folio from the “Blue Qur’an”, Gold and silver on indigo-dyed parchment dating from the second half 9th–mid-10th century from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Just to back up for a minute. The word indigo is derived from Greek term meaning “from India.” Indigo cultivation is thought to have existed in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan and northwest India) more than 5,000 years ago. They called it nila (meaning “dark blue” in Sanskrit), and this remarkable color-fast blue dye began to be traded all over the region. (The Arabs called it an-nil, and this is where the name for the dye class `aniline is from because indigo formed the basis of the first dye to be synthesized.) By the time European traders arrived in Goa in the early 1500s, Indian indigo was one of the goods they took home along with embroidered silks and nutmeg and other spices.

The English dyers were resistant to using indigo. They already had a thriving trade in blue use woad trade (which is a flowering plant)  and didn’t want another product – no matter how superior, competing with their woad industry. The French, embraced indigo as a superior blue, and by 1640 had a little monopoly on the market. And the English became top consumers of that French blue.

Image above: Indigo resist-dyed skirt made from hand-spun yarns from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum


So when Eliza Lucas started her business in 1745, the British were at war with the French and were looking for a new source for the nation’s favorite blue. Eliza was perfectly positioned to capitalize on the vacuum in the market. But it took a few years to get things going, and Eliza’s indigo story is a lesson in persistence. The first crop had been destroyed by frost, the second season was even worse. And for the third crop, her father sent over a young man from Antigua to help Eliza learn how to ferment the leaves and make the indigo cakes for export. But this young man apparently feared that Eliza’s success would interfere with the success of his family’s export business in Antigua because he was found deliberating sabotaging the indigo, and so Eliza sent him packing.  The fourth crop was eaten by caterpillars, but finally her perseverance paid off and the final crop was just right.

Image above: Indigoterie, L’Opération de battre L’Indigo, Pillage des gousses, Broyage des feuilles, Secherie, et Ratelier, 1782 – 1832 from the collection at the New York Public Library.

Subscribing to the notion that high tides raise all ships, at a time when trade secrets were highly prized, Eliza actually gave seeds to her neighbors and gave them advice for starting their own crop. Her theory was that in order establish an export market in South Carolina indigo and have enough to meet the needs of the British, she would need help. And her gamble worked. The American colonies had a thriving market in blue. So much so that by the time of the American Revolution, one could use cubes of indigo in place of paper currency. A more sobering effect of the booming indigo market, was the insatiable demand for plantation labor, which led to South Carolina having the highest prices for slaves in the colonies.

Image above: A vat of indigo dye at Noon Design Studio, photograph by Nancy Neil

These days, artists have been rediscovering indigo. Indigo is different from all other natural dyes (apart from shellfish purple) in that it needs no mordant (a substance used to set dyes on fabrics); it is insoluble and is deposited on the fibers as microscopic particles without needing to form a chemical bond with them. The result is that once dyed, indigo is so colorfast that it can last for centuries or even millennia so if you’re looking to work with indigo or simply buy an indigo-dyed product, know you’ll have it forever.

Image above: Indigo stitch resist dyed machine plain woven cotton of two pieces machine-sewn together and hemmed at the ends; with a pattern described as ‘Gbetan’, Abeokuta 1953 from the collection at the British Museum


What to Read: Indigo

This is only one little piece of the fascinating history of indigo. If you are interested into delving into the subject further, check out the following:

Color: A Natural History of the Palette —  A riveting read. Part memoir/part history/part travelogue, writer Victoria Finlay travels looking into the history of color.

Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans — If you want to be well-versed on every indigo, this is the book for you. It dissects the use and meaning of indigo around the world and is a great resource if you’re looking for some artistic inspiration.

Eliza Lucas Pinckney: Indigo in the Atlantic World – If you’re interesting in learning more about Eliza Lucas Pinckney, and in particular on the reliance of indigo on the slave trade, I would suggest this paper by PhD candidate Eliza Layne Martin.

Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes – If this post has inspired you to make indigo at home, this is the resource for you.

Image above: A stack of indigo dyed cloth at Noon Design Studio, photograph by Nancy Neil.