Indigo - Alvins Art
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The story behind the colour indigo

The colour indigo is nowadays an integral part of most people’s wardrobe, probably without many even realising it!

 

Indigo is also part of the rainbow (as decided by Isaac Newton in 1672 as a result of his sunlight/prism experiments) and this in spite of it being the only colour of the seven, which isn’t a primary or secondary colour.

 

Indian dye

The word ‘indigo’ is derived from ancient Greek and means ‘Indian dye’ or ‘from India’. However it is now known that indigo was not only endemic to India but also to the tropical zones of China, Africa and Maya (Central America).

 

But the story behind this ‘Indian dye’ goes back much further than ancient Greece and in fact our ancestors as early as 3000 BC figured out how to extract this special colour from the leaves of the plant called  ‘Indigofera Tinctoria’.

 

The process of producing the dye was complicated and time consuming, and further more costly to import to the European royal courts, where the demand for this luxury product was steadily increasing.

 

To cut down on the shipping expenses, producers in Europe started to look for an alternative plant, which could tolerate the cooler climate. By the 12th century they had found the plant Isatis Tinctoria (or simply woad), which gave similar results to that of the original indigo plant.

 

By the 17th century the plant Amorpha Fructicosa (also called ‘bastard indigo’) had been discovered and became also part of the production of the very much sought after dye.

Jeans and denim

One of the largest buyers of the new ‘bastard indigo’ dye was Genoa in Italy, which was known for their production of sturdy cotton material, suitable for making durable clothes for workmen like fishermen, miners and dock workers.

 

At the time French was widely spoken throughout Europe and thus this hardwearing ‘workman‘ fabric got named ‘Bleu de Gênes’ (the blue of Genoa), which later would evolve into the English word ‘jeans’.

 

The main importer of the ‘bleu de Gênes’ cloth was Nîmes, a French town with a booming textile industry. However, to reduce the import costs, the weavers in Nîmes began experimenting with their own cloth weaving techniques – and eventually came up with a new type: the ‘twill cloth’.

 

This special fabric was made with two different coloured threads and had a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs. The result was a durable cloth with two distinctly different sides to it, one dark blue and one light blue. This French twill cloth was called ‘Tenue de Nîmes’ (clothes from Nîmes) or in short ‘de Nîmes’, which later in English/American became the word ‘denim’.

From natural to synthetic dye

With industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, the demand for the indigo dyed hard wearing clothes continued to grow amongst blue collar workers*, as did the pressure to finding cheaper and easier ways of producing it.

 

At the end of 1880 Adolf von Bayer, a chemist at the University of Munich, succeeded in developing a synthetic indigo dye, which was the first to replace the natural dye. A few years later professor Karl Heuman of Zurick discovered another synthetic technique which got adopted by chemist giants BASF and Hoeschst, and patented as being suitable to be produced at an industrial scale. This was an important step in order to keep up with the demand for the denim used for the manufacture of the jeans.

 

Today about 6 billion pair of jeans are manufactured annually, most of them being indigo coloured. Only a very few of these are made with the original natural dye, usually imported from either El Salvador or Brazil, where the indigo plant is still being cultivated at a small scale.

 

Have a think…

So not only is indigo special by having been included in the rainbow (without even being a primary or secondary colour!), but it has also developed from being a colour reserved for royalty many centuries ago to being a colour that most of us wear on a daily and informal basis in modern 2020.

 

So perhaps next time you put on your jeans (or other denim clothing), you might like to have a think about Indigofera Tinctoria, Isaac Newton and what a fascinating background story there is to the colour of Indigo.

 

 

*Blue collared workers – the term stems from the late nineteeth century, where workers doing manual jobs, wore shirts with blue/indigo dyed collars, which didn’t show the dirt as much as white ones would do.

Sources:

The secret lives of colour

Kassia St Clair, 2016

 

On colour

David Scott Kastan with Stephen Farthing, 2018

 

The story of colour – An exploration of the hidden messages of the spectrum

Gavin Evans, 2017

 

The history of Indigo dyeing and how it changed the world

Thomas Stege Bojer, 2017

The story behind the colour indigo

The colour indigo is nowadays an integral part of most people’s wardrobe, probably without many even realising it!

 

Indigo is also part of the rainbow (as decided by Isaac Newton in 1672 as a result of his sunlight/prism experiments) and this in spite of it being the only colour of the seven, which isn’t a primary or secondary colour.

Indian dye

The word ‘indigo’ is derived from ancient Greek and means ‘Indian dye’ or ‘from India’. However it is now known that indigo was not only endemic to India but also to the tropical zones of China, Africa and Maya (Central America).

 

But the story behind this ‘Indian dye’ goes back much further than ancient Greece and in fact our ancestors as early as 3000 BC figured out how to extract this special colour from the leaves of the plant called  ‘Indigofera Tinctoria’.

The process of producing the dye was complicated and time consuming, and further more costly to import to the European royal courts, where the demand for this luxury product was steadily increasing.

To cut down on the shipping expenses, producers in Europe started to look for an alternative plant, which could tolerate the cooler climate. By the 12th century they had found the plant Isatis Tinctoria (or simply woad), which gave similar results to that of the original indigo plant.

 

By the 17th century the plant Amorpha Fructicosa (also called ‘bastard indigo’) had been discovered and became also part of the production of the very much sought after dye.

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