Blue gold: The Story of Indigo
In Mauritius, as in many other countries in Africa and Asia, the use of natural indigo dye stretches back centuries. Throughout history, indigo has been obtained from a variety of species of the indigofera genus of plants – of which more than 300 have been identified – although the vast majority of commercial Indian and other Asian dye comes from a single species, indigofera tinctoria.
After sea trade routes opened up from India in the early 14th century, the demand from western and south central Europe for natural indigo exploded, despite the vigorous protestations of local woad-growers. The woad plant, native to parts of Italy, Germany, France and England, also yielded a similarly-coloured dye but the rich and luxurious tones of real indigo were considered vastly superior. Even so, indigo was ruled a prohibited substance in certain countries to prevent a revolt from the local industry.
But by the 17th century the appetite for Indian indigo had grown so strong that the dye became one of the principle and most profitable products imported by both the British and Dutch East India trading companies, to the point where India found it almost impossible to keep up with demand.
All in denim
By the mid-late 19th century, however, the introduction of synthetic indigo sounded something of death knell for the natural plant-based variety, especially with the rapid rise of clothing items such as blue denim jeans which could be more quickly and cheaply mass produced with a chemically-derived alternative.
As a result, production of the natural dye dropped from 19,000 tons in 1897 to 1,000 tons by 1914 and now, a century later, the vast majority of indigo dye produced for commercial use is synthetic. But natural indigo is making a comeback in both fashion and furnishings through the designs of both small-scale artisan designers and high-end labels, as reported by the Wall Street Journal and the ‘Blue Gold’ is once again coveted for its versatility and bold, rich hues.