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Indigo: a future far from dark

For centuries one of the few sources of true natural blue was indigo. An important colour in most cultures, there are indigo-bearing plants on every continent. There are eight genera of indigo-producing plants. The largest genus is Indigofera, but Isatis tinctoira and I. indigotica and Polygonum tinctorium are other important sources. Indican, which is the chemical source or 'precursor' of the dye and is usually in highest concentration in the leaves, produces the same indigo-blue colourant after processing whichever plant it comes from. It can be used to dye fabric any shade from blue-black to pale sky blue. As demand grew and peaked in the nineteenth century, centres of production shifted from India to South America to Europe to Bangladesh. But with the rise of synthetic blue dyes, commercial production in most countries crashed. Now that natural indigo is back in fashion, indigo-growing is back.

Abraham Raman farms about 100 kilometres north of the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, near the town of Mymensingh. "I'm cultivating indigo since 2001. In the old days when this area was under British rule farmers were forced to grow it for very little money. But now it is much better than any other crop and this is what convinced me to grow indigo."

The fast-growing, shrub Indigofera tinctoria gives a return to farmers in under four months. Towering two metres tall in the field, the plants are not susceptible to damage from cattle and, as they are leguminous, they also improve soil fertility. Most importantly, according to local agricultural advisor, Shyam Gobinda Chakrabati, indigo is a good earner. "Indigo can earn five times as much as rice. These are the reasons that farmers like it."

Back to Blue

Indigo is resurfacing in other parts of the world as well. In Britain, with support from a European Union funded farm diversification scheme, a group of twenty arable farmers have begun growing indigo Isatis tinctoria - a relative of cabbage but traditionally/locally known as woad - in an area where indigo last grew a hundred years ago. However the crop has little value on the open market and the farmers had to seek out a buyer before sowing a single plant.

Linking producers to markets is crucial. In Bangladesh the Menonite Central Committee, a non-government organisation, saw cultivating indigo as a rural employment opportunity for farmers. They have invested in training in cultivation and extraction of indigo to produce the quality and quantity that designers wanted. Whilst at 200 kilograms of indigo production a year the Mymensingh farmers are well below the 2000 kilograms a commercial dye house would require, there are specialist designers willing to pay the premium for the natural dye. In Britain, a mobile field processing unit has been developed to extract the colour on site on each farm and collect enough to supply to the London fashion house that uses it.

Blue business blooms

Suraj Narayan, master printer from Jahota village, Rajasthan with block-printed, indigo dyed fabric that will be sold to Europe
Suraj Narayan, master printer from Jahota village, Rajasthan with block-printed, indigo dyed fabric that will be sold to Europe

In her craft workshop, Aranya, in a suburb of Dhaka, natural dyed goods specialist Ruby Ghuznavi has a wide array of clothes and furnishings on sale all dyed with Mymensingh indigo. "Indigo has been around for centuries. There are records from the second century BC of indigo being used. I don't think there's any fear of losing that in today's world. The indigo revival is helping farming communities who grow the dye, also the people who process it and those outworkers who sew the products."

Natural indigo has always held on to a small market, but there are signs that the market for indigo could increase markedly. Northern India, just outside the town of Jaipur in Rajasthan, is the base for the textile and clothing company, Anokhi, which exports a wide range of women's and men's clothing to Europe and North America. The company sources indigo from India and neighbouring Bangladesh. According to their lead designer, Rachel Bracken Singh, the future for indigo is getting brighter. "I think there is a definite increase in our indigo business, especially in the UK. East, the chain of fashion stores we supply, has had a really good summer with Anokhi and the stores are very focussed on a big plan for indigo prints in 2005 too."

It is unlikely that indigo will ever compete with synthetic dyes and regain its place as the world's favourite blue dye. Synthetic dye is cheaper and more colourfast. However, for as long as natural blue has a niche in fashion and furnishings, indigo as a crop will have a place in farmers' fields in Asia, and elsewhere in the world. To a new generation of farmers it is a novel crop and, with close connections to buyers, going back to natural blue may prove a good step forward for the future.

Date published: November 2004

 

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