I have an ongoing love/love affair with fabrics, fabrics of all kinds, all colors or textures. I love the feel, the patterns, the history, the endless possibilities of what can be created from them. They make me happy.
I am however a little biased to a particular type of fabric, and that is the indigo dyed fabric . I am referring to fabrics made from the natural indigo dyeing and weaving techniques in Africa and Asia, including the resist-dyed Adire cloth of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, tie-dyed fabrics of the Yoruba and the Bamana people of Mali, and strip-woven indigo kente cloth from the Ewe of Ghana and Togo and known in Camaroun as Ndop, in Japan as Shibori, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibori and https://www.tofugu.com/japan/tenugui/
A Short History of Indigo
Indigo, a vibrant deep-blue hue, is derived from a plant family called indigofera tinctoria. The dye process requires boiling or steeping the leaves of the Indigo plants and then a fermentation of the brew. Once the fabric is dipped into the dye and lifted into the air it almost magically turns blue. Each region has its own recipes and techniques, but in most cases it requires many successive dippings to attain the intense blue color we associate with indigo.
Indigo was grown in India, Indonesia, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, Peru, and Africa. Each country has it’s own history and traditions of dyeing with Indigo. When indigo was first brought to Europe it was an instant sensation, largely replacing the much weaker blue hue of woad. By the 17th century it had become a precious trading commodity, a “blue gold” which brought with it both great wealth and intense suffering. Ships called “East Indiamen” crossed the seas laden with silks, spices and Indigo.
In the new world indigo was by far the most valuable crop of the slave economy. It was largely because of the cultivatiion of indigo by African slaves that Haiti became the most valuable colony in the New World. In the mid-18th century indigo cultivation, also using slaves labor, was brought to South Carolina. In India, the British colonial powers imposed indigo cultivation at the expense of food production to the extent that the peasants starved. This led to the “Blue Mutiny” of 1861, in which the Bengali peasants rose up against the planters and refused to grow indigo.
In the United States the current cachet of indigo dates to 1873 when San Francisco merchant Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis first fashioned sturdy trousers for miners by reinforcing indigo-dyed denim with metal rivets. The rest is history, as they say. The invention of far cheaper aniline dyes in 1856 ultimately supplanted natural indigo dye in the world marketplace. Though Levi Strauss & Co. stopped dyeing their jeans with natural indigo over a century ago, indigo, like blue jeans has persisted as a symbol of “cool” worldwide.
Large scale indigo plantations died out in the 20th century, but small-scale cultivation has persisted in the parts of the globe where indigo dyeing and weaving are still treasured. Traditional indigo artisans in locales as diverse as Mali, Nigeria, India and Japan have preserved old techniques. Fortunately there are centers where the art form is being passed on to new generations. One such center is the Nike Center for Arts and Culture in Oshogbo, Nigeria.