Talking Travel Grassroots Travel Michelle Newman Indigo

Indigo Infatuation
by Michelle Newman


The word alone sounds exotic and mysterious. And the color, dyeing process, and craft have been around for centuries. Indigo has a deep and rich history; many ancient civilizations throughout human history have used this natural dye for many purposes.




As a color, Indigo is commonly considered to be somewhere between blue and violet. It was named and defined by Isaac Newton who divided up the optical spectrum, naming seven colors to correlate with the seven notes of the Western musical scale. It was his belief that sound and light had similar physical properties. Because the human eye is relatively insensitive to the light frequencies of indigo, some people cannot distinguish blue and violet.

But it is a colour that throughout history has had a special significance. For example, in ancient Mayan cultures indigo was considered to have a soothing effect on pregnant women and their fetuses.

Indigo is also a vegetable dye that comes from a plant. The primary commercial indigo (the shrub Indigofera tinctoria) is a species found extensively throughout Asia and Africa, as well as other parts of the world. Its flowers range from red to purple. However Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) is a North American perennial plant and was used by Native Americans (especially the Cherokee) to make this deep and distinctive a blue dye.

Indigo is also a color and substance that reflects history. Jews in Morocco in the Middle Ages were known to be master indigo dyers. The expression “take it to the Jews” meant to take cloth for dyeing to the Jewish neighborhood. Dutch traders, through the Dutch East India Company, made fortunes in the 17th and 18th centuries trading this precious commodity. Before Japan became industrialized, farmers and peasants toiling in the fields used indigo-dyed cloth as it was reputed to repel insects and snakes.

According to Gasali Adeyemo, a master indigo dyer from Nigeria, Indigo has been used as a dye in Africa for at least 200 years. The Yoruba of Nigeria have brought the art of indigo to unrivaled heights in their adire textiles. Gasali says:

“The name for indigo in Yoruba is elu….the plant grows wild in Nigeria. It is one of the plants used for painting the houses; the way it smells helps prevent sickness. In the olden days, women were the ones who worked to collect the indigo. I often went to collect the indigo with my mom; that is how I learned about the plant and how to dye with indigo. Indigo is not for every family, it has to be a tradition passed down in only certain families.”

Some of the countries that still use natural indigo include: Indonesia, India, Morocco, Japan, China, Thailand, and Nigeria.

My Indigo obsession began about 10 years ago on my first trip to Morocco. I met the master dyer in the dyeing section of the souk in Marrakech. Hundreds of hanks of brightly colored yarns formed a canopy above its narrow meandering paths. Dyers were working busily in their dark and dreary dye stalls. Measuring only eight feet by 12 , these small spaces are equipped with only a dirt floor and a huge bubbling dye vat. These “dye dungeons” are an eerie setting in which a witch-like caldron spews over with a bubbly brew emitting clouds of toxic vapors. Seeing local crafts and customs up close — and also witnessing working conditions that would be unacceptable “at home” — is often part of the traveler's dilemma.

Nonetheless I accepted an invitation from the Master dyer of Marrakech to enter his dye stall. I was excited when he handed me a chunky hank of white yarn and instructed me to plunge it into his huge bubbling indigo vat. Obediently I followed his instructions and was mesmerized as I watched an almost magical transformation occur. Each time I immersed the yarn into the dye and lifted it out again using the end of a long broomstick, the color of the yarn changed, from a urine-yellow to a pea-green, then to a pale grayish blue, and finally to a rich indigo. The magic of indigo is that it turns cloth that unique deep blue right before your eyes. It is a complex chemical process that involves, among other things, oxidation.

My next indigo encounter was during a trip to Japan where I visited a traditional indigo dye studio in the historical textile area of Kyoto, known as Nishijin. For centuries, Kyoto has been renowned for its exquisite textiles, both woven and dyed. The word Ai in Japanese means indigo.

The Aizenkobo studio is a magnificent work of art in itself. This little gem is nestled among other shops and studios on a narrow side street; its indigo banner welcomes guests and customers who come from all over the world just to learn the art of indigo here. Inside Kenichi Utsuki, the Master Dyer, and a person who in Japan is considered a living national treasure works his magic. Many people also come from all over the world on a kind of “indigo pilgrimage” just to pay homage to Kenichi. His work is displayed in the British Museum in London and he has lectured and taught workshops at both Princeton and Columbia Universities.

The workshop is located in an Edo Period building dating from around 1850 which has been impeccably restored into the home and studio of Kenichi Utsuki and his beautiful wife Hisako. (She has the look of both a model and a movie star.) Hisako is also the designer of the fabrics produced here and was formally trained in the traditional art of tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging.

Sitting cross-legged on the tatami mats in their home, my guide and I were privileged to be given a private viewing of Mr. Utsuki’s extensive textile collection. He is extremely proud of his outstanding vintage shibori, katazome, and rozome textiles. I was very impressed with the obvious museum-quality of the pieces Mr. Utsuki showed us; they were some of the finest examples of this art form that I had seen.

After viewing only a small portion of his exquisite textile collection, we joined Mr. Utsuki in his studio to witness the indigo magic first hand. His studio is an area delineated by a bamboo lattice fence separating the enormous clay vats from the rest of the house. The distinctive odor of the indigo became more pungent as we approached the workshop. The strong odor of indigo is because it the plant products are fermented using a combination of lye ash water, wheat husks, limestone powder, and sometimes even sake.

Inside the workshop we saw the great vats in which bubbles floated to the top of a dark murky concoction. Several pots of indigo were at various stages of fermentation, yielding different intensities of indigo dye.

Mr. Utsuki proceeded to take a white silk scarf with areas that had been stitched with thread tightly in several places to repel the dye and thus would create a batik pattern on the scarf during the dyeing process. He then placed the scarf in the dye for just a few moments, explaining that this caused the fibers to open and become more receptive to the dye. Next the scarf underwent a second dipping, this time with agitation. This aeration process was repeated until the desired shade of indigo was achieved. Once he satisfied with the result, Mr. Utsuki carefully removed the stitches and a classic Japanese design was revealed.

I am not an expert in the art of Indigo dyeing, but after trying my hand at the real thing, I now have a greater appreciation for this art form. Fortunately for me, I can achieve a look that is almost as rich as the Master dyers in Marrakech and those of Mr. Utsuki using PRO Chem’s PRO MX Indigo Blue 422N dye. And I can do it in a lot less time and with much less fuss.

However, when I produce indigo-dyed cloth using commercial dyes, there seems to be something missing. I suppose it is the centuries of tradition and culture that makes Indigo such a magical experience.

“If you hold a leaf of the indigo plant in your hand it looks like an ordinary green leaf, but if you rub it between your fingers, it turns blue. Everything about indigo is magical and definitely blue. Perhaps the most famous for their indigo cloths are the Yoruba of Nigeria. The origins of indigo in African societies are often attributed to supernatural forces and the Yoruba woman who do the dyeing worship a goddess who protects all exclusively female trades like dyeing, pottery, and soap making.” — Ellie Schimelman of the Cross Cultural Collaborative in Ghana

For a comprehensive overview of Indigo and the dyeing process, see Indigo Dye.

Useful Websites Related to this Story

The Japan National Tourism Organization

Welcome to Japan

Kyoto Prefecture

Kyoto City

The Aizen Kobo Workshop

Photographs by Michelle Newman

Mood Indigo

You ain't been blue; no, no, no.
You ain't been blue,
Till you've had that mood indigo.
That feelin' goes stealin' down to my shoes
While I sit and sigh, "Go 'long blues".

Always get that mood indigo,
Since my baby said goodbye.
In the evenin' when lights are low,
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

'Cause there's nobody who cares about me,
I'm just a soul who's
bluer than blue can be.
When I get that mood indigo,
I could lay me down and die.

Lyrics by Ella Fitzgerald