What's the Deal With Indigo?

What's the Deal With Indigo?

Jennifer Hunter
Sep 25, 2013

It was once so rare and coveted that it was called "blue gold," but now it's perhaps the most common clothing color of all. If you wear jeans, then you're probably a fan of indigo. Read on to find out more about this ancient color.

It starts with a plant. Forms of the indigo plant can be found in cultures all over the world from ancient Egypt where indigo-dyed cloth was used to wrap mummies, to Rome where it was used both medicinally and as a pigment for painting and cosmetics. But the earliest indication of domestication of Indigofera tinctoria was in India — mentions of it are found in manuscripts dating back to the 4th century B.C. When Marco Polo (Venetian explorer and subject of my favorite swimming pool game) arrived in India in 1298, he documented the cultivation of the plant for use as a dye.

As British colonial rule was established in India, so was the commercial production of indigo dye. Plantations were set up to produce the color, mostly for export by the East India Trading Company. It's well documented that harsh conditions in these factories exploited both the native workers as well as the indentured servants imported from England after slavery was abolished in 1830.The newly established American colonies also produced indigo (mostly in North Carolina), along with other cash crops like tobacco, but transport was soon interrupted when the colonists began fighting a little war called the American Revolution which put a serious damper on their motivation to grow indigo for European consumers.

The Industrial Revolution created even greater demand for dye as mechanized cloth production skyrocketed, and it was also notably the blue color used to dye wool for the "blue coats" of the Royal British Navy.

In the 1870's, advances in organic chemistry allowed scientists to create chemical substitutes for indigo. By the early 1900's most blue coloring no longer came from the plant but was instead chemically produced, making it easier and faster to manufacture blue cloth than ever before, but decimating the natural indigo trade.

The origin of blue jeans is cloudy, but it's likely that the word denim comes from the French material — serge "de Nîmes," meaning "from Nîmes" (the city in France). In the United States, the increase in cotton production (thanks to Eli Whitney's cotton gin) and the cheaper forms of blue dye available, meant that when California gold miners were looking for durable and inexpensive work clothes, New Yorker Loeb Strauss (he later changed his name to Levi) was able to go west and begin a denim empire.

So that's the story of how you and a mummy might just have had the same wardrobe. At least as far as color is concerned.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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