The Suitcase Lady

Indigo

June 4, 2019, 9:29 pm

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The color indigo is a fashion star this summer, popping up in clothes and home goods in stores all over America. This is a trend I can relate to as I love both the color and its fascinating history.

Indigo is probably the world’s oldest textile dye dating back at least 6,000 years. Derived from a Greek word meaning “coming from India”, the dye was used in ancient India, China and Egypt.

While the color blue is common in many plants and berries, few produce a bright, long-lasting dye. Several varieties of the indigo plant are the only natural source for a vivid, permanent blue textile dye. Ironically, no blue color shows in the leaves, flowers or stems of the indigo plant. The dye is produced by fermenting the leaves via a tedious, smelly process.

Sadly, European demand for indigo was an important factor in colonization and the slave trade. The British, French, Dutch and Spanish all established highly lucrative indigo plantations in the New World. The labor was done by slaves.

The invention of synthetic “indigo” dye in Germany in 1897 wiped out much of the demand for field grown indigo. The intricate process of dying textiles with plant-based indigo dyes is now practiced around the world only as an art, which it truly is.

Here as several fascinating facts about indigo:

  • In the Elizabethan era, English law dictated that only royals and others with high status could wear indigo blue clothes. Hence, we still have the term, “royal blue”.
  • Years after the Elizabethans, indigo clothing was definitely not only for the elite. Working people embraced indigo blue jeans and blue-collar shirts.
  • When a fabric comes out of the indigo dye bath, it is pond scum green. When exposed to air, it slowly turns to the characteristic intense blue color.
  • When Newton named the colors of the rainbow, he threw in indigo to bring the number to seven to match the number of notes in the Western musical scale. From ancient times, seven has been cited as a “lucky number”. In the rainbow, indigo is just one of the infinite number of colors on the visible spectrum. Newton had an unscientific moment. Most scientists now have removed the “I” from ROYGBIV. But that does not make indigo one iota less beautiful.

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