Indigenous Culture

The Magic of Indigo

I have discovered a little piece of magic: Indigo.  On a tour with En Vía this past week, Stella – a weaver in Teotítlan – was explaining to us how she utilizes natural dyes in her tapetes (rugs), including Indigo.

Indigo is a dye deriving from a plant to produce shades of blue.  I could feel a little ripple of excitement pass through the group with the words “natural dyes” and as Stella’s husband brought out a small bowl made of calabash containing ash-covered rocks, hands eagerly reached out for a closer look. 

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Indigo in rock form.

I was confused. How do these ash-covered rocks – resembling something I might find in the bottom of my BBQ grill – somehow produce vibrant blues? And that same rock is responsible for the blue in my Levi’s jeans?  I was skeptical.

Thus, duly following the direction of Albert Einstein – “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better” – I embarked on a journey to understand the life of Indigo.

What I have discovered is that these seemingly plain rocks do indeed have a story to tell. The plant, Indigofera suffruticosa, also known as Añil, is one of the oldest dyes used for textiles and printing. Moreover, it remains relevant today. As expressed by Seventeen Magazine, “[d]eep indigo denim is your go-to wash! It will make your booty look amazing.”[1]  (If Seventeen says so, it must be true.)

Throughout its long life, Indigo has journeyed from India – the earliest major production center for Indigo – to Europe, where it was popularized by the Greeks and Romans as a luxury product.  With the onset of the Spanish colonization of Latin America, the Spaniards promoted the production of Indigo among its colonies and its production continues today, although in lesser degrees.

By the early 19th century, the worldwide production of indigo had declined, however it does persist today.[2] In fact, each year the state of Oaxaca produces about 100 kilograms of Indigo.[3]

The process of production is conserved in many places today. In the town of Santiago Niltepec (on the coast of Oaxaca on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), people pick and chop the wild plant and soak it in a fermentation bath for a minimum of twelve hours.  The plant decomposes and accumulates at the bottom of these baths, becoming a thick paste that is strained, resulting in a highly concentrated product.  The plant-based paste is then dried, solidifying into rock-like materials (these are the seemingly uninspiring rocks that I first encountered in Stella’s workspace).

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En Vía borrower Adelaida chops and mashes the Indigo plant in the early stages of converting the Indigo plant into a dye.

It is then pulverized and transformed into a powder. In Oaxaca, traditionalists may use a metate (mortar and pestle) to grind the solidified plant material, others may choose a speedier method, such as a coffee grinder. It is then mixed with water and used as a dye.

To give you an idea of scope, it takes about 200 kg of plants to produce 1 kg of indigo dye.  Given this long, laborious process, Indigo – along with the other natural dyes used by Stella’s family – is quite expensive.  Despite higher prices, Indigo remains a sought after component, even today.

Denim is the premier example of Indigo’s continued preeminence. While most denim today uses synthetic dyes, Indigo remains a staple of Levi’s Denim as proclaimed on their website: “INDIGO IS OUR BIRTHRIGHT.”[4]  In fact, according to Wikipedia – the authority on just about everything – Indigo “is the blue of blue jeans.”[5]

This plant has had quite a journey.  With roots in ancient civilizations, it is conserved in the workspace of Oaxacan weavers like Stella, and graces the streets of the world in the form of denim. Indigo – a magical plant, indeed.

By Gabrielle Newell

Photos by Kim Groves

[1] McGrath, Kara. “Find Your Perfect Jean Fit!” Seventeen. Hearst Communications, n.d. Web. 02 July 2013. <http://www.seventeen.com/fashion/tips/most-flattering-jeans-flat-butt-embellished#slide-4&gt;.

[2] Worldwide, 19,000 tons of indigo were produced from plant sources in 1897; by 1914, production from natural sources fell to 1,000 tons and continued to decline.

[3] Hawthorne, Norma. “Making Indigo Dye in Santiago Niltepec, Oaxaca.” Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. N.p., 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 02 July 2013. <http://oaxacaculture.com/2012/04/making-indigo-dye-in-santiago-niltepec-oaxaca/&gt;.

[4] Levi’s. “About.” Levi’s Made and Crafted. Levi’s, n.d. Web. 2 July 2013. <http://levismadeandcrafted.com/about.html&gt;.

[5] “Indigo Dye.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 June 2013. Web. 02 July 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigo_dye&gt;.

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