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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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Clothing to Dye For: The Story of Indigo

27 Oct 2020 9:58 AM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
  Vintage Japanese Fireman’s Jacket Dyed with Natural Indigo
In this post I dive into the inviting blue world of indigo to explore the pros and cons of natural and synthetic dye and to shed some light on new initiatives to create environmentally sustainable garments.

Rebecca Burgess and the Search for a Natural Blue Dye

Textile artist and environmental activist Rebecca Burgess traces her thinking about sustainable garments to the summer of 1998 when she was teaching a class at UC Davis on textiledyeing. She and her students had to don the equivalent of hazmat suits to protect their skin, eyes, and lungs from the toxic chemicals in the synthetic dyes, which they then poured down the drain when the dyeing process was completed. Her concerns about the environmental and health impact of these practices prompted her to embark on an intense study of plant-based dyeing in indigenous communities in the US as well as village-based textile cooperatives in a variety of other countries.  

In 2009, Burgess challenged herself to create a homegrown personal wardrobe based entirely on local resources. A core objective of this year-long experiment was to develop plant-based dyes in a variety of colors. She had no problem sourcing local plants to create green, pink, orange, yellow, and brown dye, including Toyon, coffeeberry, and hinsii walnuts. 

  Rebecca Burgess
However, she hit a wall when it came to producing a blue dye. Most indigo comes from a plant family called Indigofera, which grows throughout tropical and subtropical regions. However, it is not easy to cultivate it here; in fact, it took Rebecca years to find a genus that would grow locally and then to master the art of extracting blue pigment from the leaf material. Today, she and others in the Northern California Fibershed continue to study the economic, social, and environmental efficacy of local indigo production.  

My interest piqued by Rebecca’s quest, I decided to learn more about the history of indigo dyeing, and find out the current status of natural indigo production. 

Indigo: Early Days

Indigo plant   Double ikat textile made from natural indigo dye

The first thing I learned is that people of the world really like to dye their clothing. The earliest known dyed fibers were found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia; these fibers are estimated to be 36,000 years old. Indigo dye, in particular, has been used throughout the world for a good 5,000 years. 

Japan is particularly well known for its indigo textiles. The art of indigo dyeing flourished during the relatively peaceful Tokugawa period from 1603 to 1867. During that time, people in the lower classes were banned from wearing silk and they turned to cotton fabrics, which took indigo dye very well. Regions where the indigo plant was plentiful became wealthy, and indigo artisans perfected their patterns, hues and skills. One particularly beautiful Japanese textile that is made with indigo is called kasuri, which is called ikat in other parts of Asia. I really love double ikat weavings, a process in which the warp and weft threads are meticulously tie-dyed to form distinctive patterns when they are woven together.

When it comes to indigo, nothing says success like the American invention of blue jeans. But how did indigo come to the US, and when was it first used to dye a pair of jeans?

From West Africa to South Carolina

I was surprised to learn that indigo came to the US as a by-product of the slave trade. Beginning around the fourteenth century, Africans began creating indigo in the dye pits of Kano in northern Nigeria. Textiles, and those made from indigo in particular, held significant cultural and economic value in many West African communities, particularly for women. In Ghana, Mali, The Gambia and Nigeria, textile artists created beautiful batik and stitched resist techniques using fabric dyed with indigo.

Some Lowcountry residents are interested in re-introducing natural indigo  

In the 1700s, slave traders bringing their human cargo to the Southeastern coast of the US also introduced knowledge about indigo and its value. Indigo plants began to be cultivated in South Carolina and for a time were one of the most lucrative crops produced in the region. 

In the Lowcountry area of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, enslaved people from a variety of West African communities lived in relative isolation from whites while working on large plantations. They were thus able to retain many aspects of their varied linguistic and cultural heritage, including a belief in the power of blue to offer protection from harm. Early inhabitants of this area used indigo to dye fabric for garments and other household uses. 

  Vietnamese woman with indigo dyed hands and scarf (photo by Rehahn)
As Rebecca Burgess found out during her years of experimenting with indigo, the natural dyeing process with indigo is long and arduous. Unlike other natural dyes, indigo is not water-soluble. Instead, the leaves of the plant must be fermented along with other products in order to extract the dye. When the dye is ready, the artisan soaks, wrings and dries the textile to be dyed, repeating the soaking process many times to achieve the deepest indigo hue. 

The economics of indigo dyeing began to change in the mid-1800s, when a German chemist named Adolf von Baeyer succeeded in determining the structure of indigo. Shortly thereafter other German scientists developed a way of synthesizing it. There can be no doubt that the advent of synthetic dye was a boon to the modern textile industry. 

Blue Jeans: From Natural to Synthetic Indigo and Back? 

Readers from the Bay Area may know that blue jeans were “invented” in San Francisco by Levi Strauss, a German-born immigrant who came to New York in 1847 to work in his family’s dry goods business. In 1854, he opened a West Coast branch of the company in San Francisco, which was expanding rapidly as a result of the Gold Rush. Together with Jacob Davis, Strauss obtained a patent for work pants with copper rivets to reinforce points of stress such as the pocket corners. The men settled on denim, a fabric first developed in France for work clothes, as the most suitable fabric for their new pants. They used natural indigo dye to create the now iconic jeans color. 

The company eventually switched to synthetic dye, along with rival brands that started springing up in the early part of the 20th century. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide.

Given the huge amount of water and many toxic chemicals use to create all these blue jeans, is there a way to meander back to the days of natural indigo? Basically the answer seems to be…yes!

  High-end denim fashion in Japan
  Patagonia Denim Jeans
The New Frontier for Blue Jeans….in Japan?

For consumers willing to spend more money for higher-end garments made with indigo, it might be of interest to take a look at Japanese jeans. As many of the American brands increasingly chose to outsource their work overseas, a number of Japanese jean producers decided to keep things local, refining their craft and sometimes continuing to use vintage looms and old techniques. The result is a high quality denim fabric that is only half the width of the rolls produced by newer machines but one with a more durable finished edge. Some denim brands, such as Japan Blue, still choose to dye the cotton by hand using the leaves from the indigo plant for their most premium jeans. However, these jeans tend to be pricey…a pair will most likely set you back around $180.

American brands are also experimenting with less harmful ways of creating blue jeans. For instance, Wrangler is now using a new foam-based process called “Indigood” to transfer indigo to the fabric without using so much water. The company also notes that they obtain recycled denim from pre-consumer denim waste and break down the fibers to produce recycled cotton which is then spun into new yarn. And the other good news is that Wrangler has kept prices low on their jeans.

Patagonia has also made a commitment to sustainability. Their denim garments are made from organic cotton, grown without the use of GMO seeds or harmful fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Like Wrangler, they are also using an innovative dyeing process to reduce the use of water, electricity and chemicals. Less carbon dioxide is also produced, compared with traditional dyeing methods that make use of synthetic dyes. 

While the specific claims of Wrangler and Patagonia are somewhat hard to verify, I have hope that their efforts represent a move in the right direction.

What Can You Do?

Fibershed Learning Center in Point Reyes  

Maybe you are not ready to raise a small herd of sheep or weave a water-resistant poncho, although Rebecca Burgess and her colleagues at Fibershed would be happy to help you get started on either project. But you might want to take a class from them on natural dyeing processes or let them teach you how to mend clothing in a way that looks cool and extends the life of your favorite jeans. Check out their website to see what classes are on offer. You can also download their handbook with practical solutions for the clothing consumer. If you want to learn even more, I encourage you to read Burgess’ absorbing and informative book Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy.

I also recommend that you watch "Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo," an independent, feature-length documentary by Mary Lance about the history, culture, and revival of indigo. Lance focuses on people around the globe who are using indigo in projects intended to improve life in their communities, preserve cultural integrity, and nurture the environment.

If you love indigo textiles, read Indigo: The Color that Changed the World” by Catherine LeGrand. This beautiful book, published in 2013, explores the production of indigo textiles throughout the world, with lots of photographs and drawing that provide close-ups of patterns and textiles.

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. Don’t forget to vote if you haven’t already done so!

Many thanks to Rob Badger Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Nita and Rob’s new award-winning call-to-action book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” is available at To see more birds and other images visit

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