Historically, Indigo was a natural dye extracted from plants. This process was important economically because blue dyes were once rare. Nearly all indigo dye produced today is synthetic; we at Flying Horse are fortunate to be able to use natural indigo dye on some of our products.
A variety of plants have provided indigo throughout history, but most natural indigo grown today is obtained from the Indigofera tinctoria species, which is native to the tropics. Indigo travels the world and is among the oldest dyes to be used for textile dyeing and printing. Many Asian countries, such as India, China, Japan, and South East Asian countries have used indigo as a dye for centuries. The dye was also known to ancient civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Peru, Iran, and Africa.
The Romans used indigo as a pigment for painting, medicinal and cosmetic purposes. It was a luxury item imported to the Mediterranean from India by Arab merchants and because of its high value, indigo was often referred to as blue gold.
Indigo remained a rare commodity in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Woad, a chemically identical dye derived from the plant Isatis tinctoria , was used instead. In the mid 1660s Woad was replaced by true indigo as the East India Company opened up trade routes. Importers could now avoid the heavy duties imposed by middlemen and the lengthy and dangerous land routes that had previously been used.
Consequently, the importation and use of indigo in Europe rose significantly. Much European indigo from Asia arrived through ports in Portugal, the Netherlands and England. However Spain imported the dye from its colonies in South America. Many indigo plantations were established by European powers in tropical climates. However France and Germany outlawed imported indigo in the 16th century to protect the local woad dye industry.
INDIGO THE TRAVELLER
THE SPIRIT OF INDIGO
Among the Hausa male dyers, working at communal dye pits was the basis of the wealth of the ancient city of Kano and can still be seen plying their trade today at the same pits.
In Japan, indigo became especially important in the Edo period, when it was forbidden to use silk, so the Japanese began to import and plant cotton. It was difficult to dye the cotton fibre except with indigo. Often decorated with the techniques of Shibori (tie-dye) and other special techniques, examples of clothing and banners dyed this way can be seen in the works of Hokusai and other artists.
Even today indigo is very much appreciated as a colour for the summer kimono Yukata, as this traditional clothing recalls Nature and the blue sea.