A fascinating color with a history of thousands of years.

Color is a powerful tool in design. A bold color can drastically change the way a product looks while different color palettes can create completely different atmospheres in a room. This article aims to shine a light on what is indigo color, the indigo color meaning, its cultural impact across hundreds of years of history, and its use today. These topics are explored in-depth in Indigo: The Color That Changed the World, a book by Catherine Legrand published by Thames & Hudson.

Similarly to the color purple, indigo has a long and fascinating history. The earliest established mention of its use dates back to 4000 BC, in an area of what is now Peru. However, the source of the indigo dye was originally India. From there, it reached East Asia, Egypt, Greece, and then the rest of Europe and the US. Used for thousands of years primarily as a textile and silk dye, the color led to the birth of traditional textile manufacturing and dyeing in various regions across the world.

From name to symbolism and meaning.

For those wondering what is indigo color, first we can shine a light on its name. It comes from the ancient Greek word for “Indian”, “iνδικὸν” or “indikón”, which in Latin turned to “indicum” or “indico”, leading to its current name of indigo. The first recorded use of indigo in English to describe the color dates back to 1289, while in the 1660s, Sir Isaac Newton introduced it in his famous color wheel.

Many people who use color as a way to convey a feeling might want to now what is the indigo color meaning. For some, the color signifies wisdom, devotion, and creativity, while for others it’s another symbol of nobility, similarly to purple. But what does indigo look like and what is indigo color? Sitting at the border between blue and purple, it has a deep hue that some perceive as closer to blue than violet. Think of a pair of new jeans in dark indigo. As for the color indigo vs blue question, it’s a matter of hues. While blue encompasses many different hues, indigo is a specific color.

From plant crops to synthetic dye.

Like the color purple, indigo-dyed fabrics were considered, for many centuries, a sign of opulence and nobility. Extracted from the leaves of the Indigofera plants, and especially from Indigofera tinctoria, the natural dye had a deep purplish blue color. Sought-after as a rare product, these plants were grown for dye production throughout the world. While native to the tropics, they were soon cultivated in subtropical areas. So high was the demand for indigo, that the dye received the moniker of blue gold. The color became a foundation for cultural customs and artisan techniques around the world; from the sands of the Sahara to the mountains of Japan.

Before the late 15th century, prior to the opening of sea trading routes with Asia, Europe mainly produced indigo dye from the woad plant, Isatis tinctoria, which didn’t have the same intensity of the Indigofera and leaned more toward a blue hue. After trade routes opened up, countries like France, England, Spain, and America started to encourage cultivation of Indigofera plants throughout their colonies. Which led to a dark chapter in the history of indigo, with local populations forced into slavery and into exploitative, dangerous working conditions.

Today, most of the indigo available on the market comes from synthetic dyes, first introduced from the late 1890s. Although for most of its history the dye came from natural sources, now the vast majority of indigo is synthetic. More widely available as it is easier to produce, synthetic indigo is now most commonly used for denim. Currently, only certain cultures and artisan communities around the world cultivate the plants and use natural indigo dye. Which takes us to Catherine Legrand’s book.

Books that explore the indigo color from different perspectives.

In Indigo: The Color That Changed the World, textile designer Catherine Legrand explores different production techniques of indigo textiles throughout the world, along with the dye’s history and its impact on textile practices in various cultures. With more than twenty years of research, the author offers a fascinating look into the world of indigo textiles. 500 beautiful photographs accompany the texts. The images show everything from local communities, clothing and detailed ethnic designs to artworks and architectural details.

Readers can learn more about what is indigo color or how dyeing techniques differ from one region to another. The author has even included a recipe for indigo which the readers can recreate at home. Specially commissioned illustrations showcase close-ups of intricate patterns and textiles. The book also features photos of beautifully craved wood blocks used for printing.

Catherine Legrand takes the reader on a captivating journey through Central America, Africa, India, Japan, and Vietnam; places where artisans still grow the plants, extract the dye, and then use it to create indigo-colored masterpieces by hand. Both the texts and the photographs paint a mesmerizing picture of the cultural significance indigo still has throughout the world. You can find the book here.

Denim and indigo dyes.

We have also curated a list of other books that explore the subject of indigo in other ways. The first is the limited-edition Book of Denim Vol 2 Royal Indigo Series. The book has the same denim-focused content of the regular volume. However, it comes with 10 custom linen covers, in a series of 100 hand-numbered copies. In Indigo, authors Douglas Luhanko and Kerstin Neumüller have created a practical and complete guide on indigo dyeing. Apart from advice on growing the plants, this book published by HarperCollins features dyeing projects and advice for both beginners and experienced dyers.

The Denim Manual from Fashionary is a great choice for denim lovers. It features detailed info on denim history, specialized terms, and care as well as sections on what is indigo color and the difference between natural and synthetic dyes. Finally, Blue Blooded from Gestalten explores denim’s cultural history. It also highlights traditional brands and cutting-edge designers. Authors Thomas Stege Bojer and Josh Sims also included denim washing guides, stores where to find exclusive designs, and more. Photography © Catherine Legrand, Thames & Hudson.

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