Sunday, November 20, 2005


Indigo is an ancient blue dye. It was the only way to obtain a true blue color on fabric before the invention of synthetic dyes in 1856. Of all the ancient dyes, indigo is the one that continues to give the greatest difficulty to modern dyers. Steeped in myth and tradition no dye available today continues to captivate and entice the contemporary craftsperson. In spite of the ease and availability of synthetic dyes and the unpredictability and ephemeral nature of indigo, it's blue enticing color still challenges and seduces the modern dyer. Indigo transforms fabric in a way unobtainable by synthetic dyes.
The physical evidence of the use of indigo is thought to be at least 5000 years old. Existing textiles have been found from Pre-Dynastic Egypt with colors that could only have been indigo. Some historians feel that because of the diffusion of the fundamental technology necessary for the use of indigo, and the spread of the dye throughout the world, dates the beginning of the use of this dye to about 25,000 BC. It is thought to be part of the knowledge of a migrant people. The complexity of the dyestuff also indicates an early technology of high specialization. In light of our modern understanding of chemistry, the processes do not seem complicated. For early dyers, however, the use of the various plants that we now know as indigo, must have come from extensive trial and error whose processes developed over thousands of years. Indigo dyeing involves strict traditions that were handed down from person to person,
Many plants contain indican, the chemical responsible for the blue color, but only about five species have come down to us through the centuries and have proved most useful. One of these species Plygonum tinctorum has been named as the National Treasure indigo crop of Japan.
Mention is first made of aozuri koromo (blue rubbed dyed robes) in the Kojiki (712 AD, The Record of Ancient Matters). The Kojiki relates the history of the Imperial line. A further mention of Yama-ai-zuri (rubbed mountain indigo) is made in the poetry anthology Man' yoshu (about 770 AD).