Considered to be the most popular colour 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 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.
In Mali, the native indigo plants are more than just a textile dye. They are healing plants that are used to treat wounds, repel insects, relieve pain and chase away bad spirits. Traditionally, cloth dyed with its fermented leaves holds a place in every life stage. Women wanting to conceive a child wear a skirt dyed with the fermented leaves to increase their fertility, and when they do conceive, lay their babies down to sleep in indigo-dyed sheets to open their young minds.
From the day that her son was born, a mother started putting aside resources to create for him a special indigo-dyed shawl called a diisa. They were a lot of work and were worth the same as 10 head of cattle.
He would would wear it from the day of his wedding until the day he died when it became his shroud. It was believed that the celestial blue of indigo would help him pass from this world to heaven.
Whilst we take the blue in our embroidery threads and our favourite blue jeans for granted but it was once prized throughout the world. The Greeks called this blue pigment ‘indikon’, meaning a product from India, and this word became indigo in English.
The earliest example of indigo from Indigofera probably comes from the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization (3300 -1300 BC). There are at least 50 different species of Indigofera growing in India.
In the Northwest region, indigo has been processed into small cakes by peasant producers for many centuries. It was exported through trade routes and reached Europe. Greeks and Romans (300 BC – 400 AD) had small amounts of blue pigment in hard blocks, which they thought was of mineral origin. They considered it a luxury product and used it for paints, medicines and cosmetics.
In the late 1200s Marco Polo returned from his trips through Asia and described how indigo was not a mineral but in fact was extracted from plants. Small quantities of indigo were available in Europe then, but they were very expensive due to the long land journey required and the levy imposed by traders along the route. Locally grown woad was the main blue dye used in Europe at the time.
By the late 15th century Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to China, allowing indigo to be imported directly. Large scale cultivation of indigo started in India and in the 1600s large quantities of indigo were exported to Europe. The cost of indigo dropped considerably and by the end of the 17th century it had virtually replaced woad in Europe. Indigo was often referred to as Blue Gold as it was an ideal trading commodity; high value, compact and long lasting.
By the 19th century, natural indigo production could no longer meet the demands of the clothing industry, and a search for synthetic indigo started. In 1865, Adolf von Baeyer, a German chemist began working on the synthesis of indigo and in 1897 synthetic indigo was launched. In 1905, Baeyer won the Nobel prize in Chemistry for his work on organic dyes including indigo.
At the time synthetic indigo was launched, natural indigo production was 19,000 tonnes, and an area of 7,000 square kilometres (a third of the area of Wales) had been dedicated to growing indigo, mainly in India. The much cheaper synthetic indigo quickly superseded natural indigo for commercial dyeing and by 1914 natural indigo production had declined to 1,000 tonnes.
While indigo traces its roots to India, enslaved Africans carried the knowledge of indigo cultivation to the United States. Colonial planters in the Caribbean grew indigo and transplanted its cultivation when they settled in the colony of South Carolina and North Carolina where people of the Tuscarora confederacy adopted the dying process for head wraps and clothing.
When Eliza Lucas Pinckney and enslaved Africans successfully cultivated new strains near Charleston it became the second most important cash crop in the colony (after rice) before the American Revolution. It comprised more than one-third of all exports in value.and in the 1700s, the profits from indigo outpaced those of sugar and cotton. At the time of the America revolution, the dollar had no strength, and indigo cakes were used as currency.
The original American flag was also made from indigo.
The process of indigo dying is demonstrated in this short video from the the V & A by the Cheepa family, indigo dyers living and working in Kala Dera, Rajasthan.
Elizabeth (known as Eliza) Lucas was born on December 28, 1722, in Antigua, British West Indies, where she grew up at Poerest, one of her family’s three sugarcane plantations on the island. She was the eldest child of Lt. Colonel George Lucas, of Dalzell’s Regiment of Foot in the British Army, and his wife Ann.
Eliza was 16 years old when she became responsible for managing Wappoo Plantation and two other Lucas plantations. From Antigua, ELiza’s father sent her various types of seeds for trial on the plantations. They and other planters were eager to find crops for the uplands that could supplement their cultivation of rice. First, she “experimented” with ginger, cotton, and alfalfa. Starting in 1739, she began “experimenting” with cultivating and improving strains of the indigo plant, for which the expanding textile market created demand for its dye. When Colonel Lucas sent Eliza indigofera seeds in 1740, she expressed her “greater hopes” for them, as she intended to plant them earlier in the season. In experimenting with growing indigo in new climate and soil, Lucas also made use of knowledge and skills of enslaved Africans who had grown indigo in the West Indies and West Africa.
After three years of persistence and many failed attempts, Eliza proved that indigo could be successfully grown and processed in South Carolina. While she had first worked with an indigo processing expert from Montserrat, she was most successful in processing dye with the expertise of an indigo-maker of African descent whom her father hired from the French West Indies.
Eliza used her 1744 crop to make seed and shared it with other planters, leading to an expansion in indigo production. She proved that colonial planters could make a profit in an extremely competitive market. Due to her successes, the volume of indigo dye exported increased dramatically from 5,000 pounds in 1745-46, to 130,000 pounds by 1748. Before the Revolutionary War, indigo accounted for more than one-third of the total value of exports from the colony.
For her contributions to South Carolina’s agriculture, Eliza Lucas Pinckney was the first woman to be inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame. President George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral at St. Peter’s Church, in Philadelphia where she had travelled for treatment.
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