Fascinating Facts About Indigo

Once upon a time, dyes ruled the world. Okay, not literally. But dyes and textiles did play a major role in international trade and economics. And one of the most vital dyes was the color indigo. In fact, traders once referred to it as “Blue Gold” because it was considered such a commodity.

Darker than cobalt but not quite navy, indigo remains a popular color today (mostly in the form of blue jeans and Shibori decor). Read on to learn five fascinating facts about the history of this beautiful blue hue.

A Tint as Old as Time

Indigo is one of the oldest dyes in the world and was used concurrently in ancient China, India, Africa, and South America. The oldest known indigo-dyed cloth is over 6,000 years old and was discovered at Peru’s northern coast at Huaca Prieta, an ancient burial ground.

Prized Plants

Indigo was originally made using plants, and blue indigo from India was the most prized. This was because India is home to the Indigofera tinctoria plant, which yields a large amount of dye and produces a higher quality blue compared to indigo plants indigenous to Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, indigo dye from India was one of the most expensive and valuable imports to the continent. 

A Rush To Mass Produce

Indigo was so coveted that European countries established indigo plantations throughout the world to increase production. Major plantations were set up in colonized regions such as India, South America, Haiti, and Jamaica. In the U.S., a woman named Eliza Lucas was able to successfully cultivate indigo on her family’s South Carolina plantation in 1744. As a result of her breakthrough, the British Government offered financial incentives to American plantation owners who could produce and ship the dye to the U.K.

Not Just Jeans, Blue Jeans

One of the most popular inventions ever, blue jeans, are notorious for their indigo color. When blue jeans were developed in the 1850s, indigo dye was chosen because of the way it reacts with denim’s cotton fabric. Unlike other dyes, indigo binds only to external parts of cotton. When the cotton is washed, a little bit of the cotton’s fibers get stripped away along with the dye. This meant jeans got softer and more comfortable with each washing, a major selling point for the day laborers who wore denim.

End of an Indigo Era

It wasn’t until 1897 that the German firm, BASF, was able to create a synthetic blue color to use in mass production. A breakthrough in the dye industry, the achievement eventually led to the indigo trade’s downfall. Demand for the natural blue dye plummeted within a decade. Today only a handful of businesses in India, Japan, and the USA cultivate natural indigo plants.