Indigo Fabric in Quilts


Indigo is a natural dye derived from several plant sources used for dyeing cloth. The manufacture of indigo is indigobelieved to have started in India, thus the name, and from there the dye was imported to Europe since Greco-Roman times, where it was considered a luxury item. Plants from several genera have been used throughout the centuries to manufacture the blue dye. Most indigo was made from plants from the Indigofera genus. It is one of the oldest coloring agents for fabric, and it has been used worldwide. Indigo refers to fabric dyed with this coloring agent.

What is Indigo Fabric?

The extraction of the dye from the plant is somewhat challenging because the dye is insoluble in water. That fact makes the dye colorfast, and valuable for coloring natural fabrics. For centuries, it was the only dye that produced a true blue color that didn’t bleed and faded evenly into a lovely shade of blue. To produce indigo, the plant needs to be collected about the time it starts to bloom, then soaked in water for fermentation to extract the dye. After eight or nine days, the plant is rinsed out and the water left needs to be treated with an alkaline agent, such as lye, for the dye to precipitate and sink to the bottom. The “indigo mud” then is collected and left to dry into cakes. The fabric to be dyed needs to be dipped in the coloring solution made from indigo and a dissolving agent, and then this mixture needs to be diluted with water. The fabric needs to be dipped several times and it achieves its distinctive blue after it is exposed to oxygen.

In Europe, most blue fabrics since the Middle Ages had been dyed with woad, another plant derived dye that produced a clear blue color less intense than indigo. After the fifteenth century, when trade routes opened with indigoIndia, importation of the dye increased. Indigo was used in Japan to dye cotton since the seventeenth century, for summer kimono and work clothing. Superstition has it that it repels snakes and insects, making it a favorite for work clothing. The color reminds them of the color of the sea, so important in their culture.
Indigo dyed fabric has also been used extensively in Africa, being a symbol of wealth. Depending on the area of the continent, the indigo dying process is undertaken by either men or women.
Presently, the indigo cotton cloth manufacture in South Africa is a large import of true indigo dyed fabric.

Indigo Fabrics in the United States

Indigo was introduced as a cash crop in North America and Jamaica. South Carolina became the largest producer of indigo in the USA, being the second cash crop after rice. It was used extensively to dye fabric since colonial times. indigo ombreQuilts from the period before 1830, wholecloth and calamanco made with wool and flax are dark, intense blue with a tinge of violet. After then, indigo blue was a common background color for printed cotton cloth, often times with a small white, orange or yellow print. During the Civil War period, in the South and due to the blockade, women started collecting wild indigo or cultivating small plots of the plant to dye their own thread in order to make fabric at home. The blue uniforms of the Union Army however, were mostly dyed with Prussian Blue, a chemical dye that had become popular since the 1850’s and used to dye ombre prints.

Indigo was also used to produce “poison green”, the only way to achieve green fabric until the introduction of synthetic dyes in the mid-nineteenth century. The cloth had to be dyed yellow first then dyed blue, rendering the fabric “poison green”. This double process dyeing was time and labor consuming.

Blue and white quilts became very popular during the nineteenth century and their popularity continued until the indigoDepression years. Their popularity can be understood since indigo blue was a colorfast agent and withstood washing well. Because of being used so extensively in clothing and quiltmaking, indigo blue fabric is not a reliable fabric to attempt to date antique quilts.

The introduction of synthetic indigo in the late nineteenth century took almost thirty years of research. Most of the indigo dyes nowadays are synthetic. However, plant based indigo dye can be purchased in freeze-dried form for home dying.

Indigo Fabrics Now

Real indigo fabric can still be purchased, mostly from Japan or South Africa. Japanese indigo fabrics are dyed with a resist paste made from rice and applied to fabric through a paper stencil. The fabric is then dyed and when the paste is removed, the white areas underneath are revealed, creating the print. Most Japanese indigo fabric is dark blue.
DaGama indigo dyed fabrics from South Africa are printed with reproduction copperplates from Britain, Three Cats. indigoAlong with Three Leopards and Isishweshwe they are available for purchase worldwide. These indigoes need to be set before being used in quilts with a fixative such as Retayne to maintain their color. If fading is desired, then washing with regular washing detergent will remove the sizing applied to keep the fabric stiff.
The easiest way to know whether a fabric is dyed with natural indigo is the smell. Real indigo has a very distinctive smell. It somewhat dissipates after being air dried for several hours.

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