Continued from Part One…
French 18th century Toile de Jouy indigo print
In the eighteenth century, indigo plantations throughout Europe’s colonies in the West Indies reduced the need for importing Indian indigo. However, after the loss of its American colonies in 1783 (and indigo plantations of South Carolina), Britain reinvested its interest in India as a source for indigo. Traditionally, Dungri (origin of the word dungaree) in the province of Gujarat on the west coast had been the centre of the Indian indigo industry, until the British created indigo plantations in the eastern province of Bengal, and Calcutta became India’s chief indigo market.
The Indian method to make indigo dye that has been used since pre-history, and is still used today, begins by soaking crushed indigofera leaves until the mixture ferments. After steeping and stirring, the sediment is extracted, dried and ground smooth. At this point the indigo was exported in cakes, but the dye is insoluble in water and needs further treatment to become viable. In India, the indigo sediment is dissolved in a vat of bacteria kept sweet by the addition of lime. The alkaline bath and bacteria make the indigo colour soluble. Cloth is soaked and stirred in the yellowish green dye bath and the blue colour only begins to appear as the dye oxidizes in the air as the cloth dries. The more times a cloth is dipped into the vat, the darker the blue becomes. A final bath of vinegar or salt sets the colour.
Japanese indigo dyed Ikat cotton
During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), when contact and trade with foreigners was curtailed, silk was reserved for Samurai and Imperial use only. Commoners wore kimonos made of hemp, ramie, and cotton, frequently dyed indigo blue from a native plant species that like woad, was not from the indigofera genus. Several dyeing techniques with indigo included: shibori (tie-dyeing), sashiko (stitching the cloth before dyeing to create a pattern where the dye would not penetrate), katazome (resist print stenciling by using a rice paste to paint patterns on the cloth before dyeing) and ikat (resist print dyeing threads before weaving them into cloth.)
European dyers dissolved the imported raw indigo sediment in stale urine to make a soluble dye solution known as indigo white – although the dye bath was actually yellowish-green in colour. A later process replaced urine with caustic soda and the dye bath was heated for the best results. These both worked well for dyeing cloth a solid blue colour, but to create a pattern different methods were employed. Every culture that used indigo developed some form of resist printing to create patterns. Textiles to be dyed with indigo were painted, stencilled, or stamped with paste, wax, or resin in a pattern to create a design wherever the dye could not stain the cloth. Similarly, tie-dyeing was also a form of resist dyeing used with indigo. The most sophisticated form of resist dyeing is ikat where threads are resist-dyed before being woven into blurry-edged geometric patterns.
Africa Bogolan cloth, Mali
Originating from the ancient Arab trade route, indigo dye travelled across the Sahara and became the foundation of a West African textile tradition. Cloths resist-dyed with indigo in a “shibori” technique to create various striped ticking patterns became the standard attire of West Africa, from Senegal to Cameroon. Although amongst the Sub-Saharan Hausa it is the men who are the dyers, most dyeing is women’s work. Amongst the Yoruba of Nigeria female dyers paid tribute to Iya Mapo, the patron deity of women’s crafts, to ensure the success of the complex dyeing process.
Resist printing using stamped designs in paste were used in Europe, but by the eighteenth century indigo blue was being used in semi-industrial printing, requiring new methods of application. A process called pencil blue was developed in England that mixed the dissolved indigo dye with a thickener to make it easier to work with, and arsenic trisulphide to delay oxidation long enough to apply the dye to the cloth with a brush. A dark blue could be obtained in this manner, but the process was poisonous to the printer. Another method, known as china blue, due to its similar appearance to Chinese blue and white porcelain (like those found on a toile de jouy) used the insoluble indigo dye to print directly onto cloth. The indigo was then oxidized through a series of iron sulfate baths. This process wasn’t poisonous but could only produce a light blue colour. Discharge printing developed in the early nineteenth century using a bleach to create a white pattern on a indigo solidly dyed cloth. In about 1880 a glucose process was developed that finally enabled the direct printing of dark blue indigo onto fabric in a safe and inexpensive manner. However, synthetic indigo was created around the same time and within a few decades would overtake the production of natural indigo.
The British Royal Navy first wore indigo-dyed dark blue uniforms in 1748, a colour subsequently taken up by other navies around the world. The especially dark blue colour was initially called marine blue until the term navy blue was coined in 1840. Today, many navies, including the United States Navy, have switched to using black uniforms due to the difficulties in exact colour matching navy blue. Although black in colour, U.S. Navy officer’s uniforms are still called Service Dress Blue uniforms.
In 1856, the teenaged English chemist William Henry Perkin, working as a lab assistant at the Royal College of Chemistry in London, accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye he called mauve. A decade later German chemist Adolph Baeyer began experiments to search for more synthetic dyes and in 1878 patented a formula for synthetic indigo, however his version was more expensive to produce than the real dye. Further research by the German chemical company BASF resulted in an improved formula and in 1897 the first synthetic indigo was commercially produced. Sales of synthetic indigo caught on quickly and by 1913 synthetic indigo was overtaking natural dye sales. In 1925, the synthesis was improved again by BASF resulting in a process that is still in use today. By 1930 the cultivation of indigofera was all but gone.
Beer advertisement from 1949 showing city slickers at a dude ranch wearing jeans, Life magazine, 1949
While the search for a synthetic indigo was underway, the biggest indigo fashion trend in history started in the American west. In December 1870 Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno Nevada who regularly purchased bolts of cloth from Levi Strauss & Company in San Francisco, was commissioned to make a pair of work trousers for a man who complained his pants wore out too easily. Davis used some white cotton duck he had acquired from Levi Strauss to make the trousers and reinforced the pocket corners and base of the fly with copper rivets. His pants were a hit and more pairs were soon sold to local teamsters. Worried someone might steal his idea for riveting stress points, Davis partnered with Levi Strauss to underwrite the patent, which was granted in May 1873. Davis and Strauss went into business together with Davis making a line of rivet reinforced “waist overalls” in either an indigo-dyed denim or a tobacco brown coloured cotton ‘duck’. However, unlike denim, the brown cotton duck didn’t soften as easily and was eventually dropped from production.
Word spread quickly about the durability and practicality of ‘jeans’ (as they were being referred to by the 1920s) and the style became the working class uniform of miners, ranch hands, lumberjacks, linemen, farmers and factory workers. In the late 1930s Easterners began enjoying the latest craze for a cowboy holiday at a dude ranch and when they returned home they brought their hard-wearing blue denim trousers back with them. However, the stigma of blue denim for blue collar men kept jeans confined to house wear, active sports and campgrounds.
Sasson designer jeans, 1979
When anti-hero heart throbs Marlon Brando and James Dean wore blue jeans for their bad boy roles in early 1950s films, the style became a badge of cool rebellion and teenagers adopted the style as well as the name ‘blue jeans’. Blue jean rebellion in the 1950s was nothing compared to the late 1960s when the hippy generation took jeans to a new level of rebellion. Blue jeans became a symbol of anti-establishment egalitarianism – a uniform for modern youth waging a generational war. The motto ‘Do your own thing’ was visible in how many used their blue jeans for artistic expression – sanding and bleaching, embroidering and patching, or even just cutting off the legs to make raggedy edged shorts. In 1973 Levi’s sponsored a travelling exhibition of customized blue jeans to commemorate a century of Strauss and Davis blue jeans.
Other than for dye, the Romans also used indigo as a paint pigment, and as a tincture for treating inflammations and tumors as well as an astringent for cleansing and healing wounds. Although indigofera plants are mildly poisonous and carcinogenic, an extract was used in India to treat epilepsy, piles, ulcers, liver disorders and scorpion stings. In Europe it was used in the past to treat constipation and epilepsy, as it induces vomiting and diarrhea. Modern clinical studies have shown the dye may have antiseptic properties, and extracts show the ability to lower blood pressure and protect the liver from certain kinds of chemical damage. It is also used by the toiletry industry in hair dyes.
In the late 1970s the disco generation made jeans high fashion chic – legs were cut slim and fading was no longer allowed. New manufacturers Jordache, Sasson, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Calvin Klein, who in 1980 hired Brooke Shields to provocatively claim that nothing got between her and her Calvins, grabbed fashion headlines away from the makers of traditional workingmen’s blue jeans. By the late 1980s, jeans had become classics – a staple of the modern wardrobe. Fashion magazines were pairing blue jeans with jeweled jackets, and while blue jeans were still forbidden by many office dress codes in the 1980s, the adoption of casual Fridays in the 1990s transformed blue jeans from blue collar to white collar work wear.
Every season of the last twenty years has brought something new and something old to blue jeans. Grunge revived faded and torn hippie styles, Levi reissued its earliest cuts, designers from New York to Milan redesigned, patched, jeweled, stone washed, and cat whiskered blue jeans into every conceivable look for every market, from toddlers to rock stars. Although indigo blue may fade with every wash and wear, blue jeans will never fade away.