Dye Hard: A Brief History of Indigo Production

The woad plant has been used to produce indigo since ancient times

Denimwear is witnessing a return to craftsmanship that runs counter to common mass production techniques. From the re-emergence of shuttle looms and selvedge textiles, to the use of organic cotton by brands such as Nudie, the denim industry is facing a demand for ethically produced goods that combine the heritage of workwear with today’s heightened social awareness.

Indigo is an ancient dye – its first uses can be traced back as far as the Bronze Age. Made from the fermented leaves of the indigofera plant, indigo is known for developing blue finish fades and scuffs during daily usage and repeated washing. These characteristics lead to the individualized wear patterns that many denim enthusiasts strive for today.

With over 50 different species of Indigofera indigenous to its land, India has long been the source of most of the world’s blue pigment. Even the English word “Indigo” is rooted in the Greek word “indikon”, meaning “product from India”. As dyeing techniques spread across the ancient world, the blue pigment became highly sought after and was soon exported through trade routes to the Greeks, the Romans and eventually into Europe. In the early 1600s, Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route linking Europe to China led to the large-scale cultivation of indigo, and its importation to Europe. The result was an immense drop in cost and rapid rise in commercial usage.

Within a few hundred years, the demands of the clothing industry became too much for natural indigo production to bear. The race for alternatives was on, and in 1865 the German Chemist, Adolf von Baeyer (famous for Baeyer Aspirin), began work on synthetic indigo. By the early 20th century, synthetic indigo had become the popular choice for commercial dyeing.

However, the 21st Century has given rise to environmental and regional economic sustainability concerns. The denim industry has responded by gradually returning to natural dyeing techniques that pay homage to communities traditionally steeped in indigo production. This time around, the rise of natural dyes aims to eliminate the use of petrochemicals that contaminate local soil and waterways.

Pick up the Naked and Famous Super Skinny Guy in Organic Vegan Selvedge in store and online.
Pick up the Naked and Famous Super Skinny Guy in Organic Vegan Selvedge in store and online.

A perfect example of naturally dyeing is Naked & Famous’ Organic Vegan Selvedge denim. The jeans are a 12 oz Japanese Selvedge Denim made from unbleached organic cotton and dyed using natural indigo. Not only is the pigment removed from the Indigofera plant using traditional methods, but the plant residue is then used as fertilizer, while the water from the process is reused to irrigate local crops. Companies like Canada’s Naked & Famous should be applauded and supported for their willingness to place accountability before profits. Learn more about Naked & Famous’ “Organic Vegan Selvedge” in-store at Dutil, or online at dutildenim.com.

-Sean Whyte
Cover photo by Nudie Jeans