Who would have thought that there would be so much to say about indigo, the distinctive blue dye that nowadays is mostly associated with denim? Jenny Balfour-Paul is an author, artist, lecturer and traveller whose book Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans is the definitive work on the dye, tracing its exotic history from the times of the ancient Pharaohs to the present day.
Indigo, first published in 1998 by The British Museum Press, has a recently updated last chapter that focuses on sustainability and the environment in the 21st century, and looks at how the dye is once again growing in popularity thanks to an increased demand for organic clothing made from eco-friendly materials. It is far more relevant today because synthetic dyes made from toxic ingredients and used by the textile and fashion industries are creating a large amount waste that is polluting the planet. Natural indigo is made from plants and is a non-toxic product that enriches the soil. In hotter climates indigo can be farmed in rotation with other crops, or on waste land, and it also provides employment in rural regions. Currently, one of Jenny Balfour-Paul’s projects is to encourage worldwide revivals of sustainable natural dyes.
The book is beautifully illustrated with over 435 images that show how the dye has featured in different cultures and communities throughout the world. Jenny’s experience as a batik artist and teacher is evident in her exploration of how indigo has been portrayed in folklore and through art, exemplified by some stunning photographs of textiles.
Indigo has been the symbol for a diverse range of beliefs, highly prized in some cultures, for thousands of years. Strongly associated with wealth, fertility, rites of passage and even in mourning ceremonies, indigo has always been a desirable commodity.
Nothing is left out that anyone with an interest in the development of indigo could possibly want to know, from the agricultural and botanical origins to the commerce and economics of the dye. Indigo is the world’s only natural source of blue and has undergone many different production and dyeing methods over the years, but if ever a dye could be iconic then indigo with its special and magical qualities, is it!
This book review is also featured on The Green Familia, the light green shopping blog.