Dyeing For Indigo

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Indigo, what once was a natural dye that is traced back civilizations ago, is now a simple synthetic that helps put the blue in our jeans.

The dye has a deep history that mirrors the evolution of trade in human history. First mentioned by Western European writer Herodotus around 450 B.C., this plant-based dye is said to have been a prized trade item because of it’s deep, violet-blue color. Due to the plant being located in Asia, Central, and South America, it quickly became an exotic must-have for those in Europe.

For a deeper look at how the dye has affected a culture, Catherine E. McKinley’s study of indigo in Western Africa is a vibrant read. Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World explores the dye’s unique history alongside the author’s own.

Instead of giving her readers a historical review of indigo, McKinley combined the dye’s history with the present culture of Western Africa. The locals weren’t too impressed with her interest, in fact it was seen as odd. Although the area did have artisans who handmade the dye, it was practiced by very few due to the modernization of synthetic dyes. Despite this, McKinley sought the dye everywhere, from a traditional funeral to a professional known for her work.

The majority of indigo today is produced synthetically for clothing products like blue jeans. When natural indigo dye is used, it is mostly for artworks or special textiles. Although how it is created is as historic as the result, modern technology has created handy kits for DIYers.

No other dye has had such a rich history as that of indigo. It’s influences range from Western African mourning clothes, Japanese Shibori to South American textiles. Who knew a plant could have so much impact?


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