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What is indigo used for?

What is indigo used for?

Indigo is a deep and rich color between the shades of blue and violet that has been used as a dye, pigment and food coloring for centuries. Some key uses of indigo throughout history include:

– As a dye for textiles – Indigo has been used to dye fabrics and garments since ancient times, particularly valued for its ability to dye denim that deep, distinctive blue.

– As a pigment in paints and inks – The rich color of indigo has made it popular as a pigment in inks and paints throughout different cultures and eras.

– As a food coloring – Modern food manufacturing makes use of indigo as a blue food coloring to dye foods and beverages blue.

The popularity of indigo stems from its intensity as a dye – it is able to bind strongly to fabrics like cotton to produce a deep, dark blue color that lasts through washing and exposure to sunlight. While synthetic indigo dyes have largely replaced natural indigo in manufacturing, natural indigo dye is still produced and valued by artisan weavers and dyers.

The History and Origins of Indigo

The use of indigo as a dye has origins in many ancient cultures and civilizations. Some key historical notes:

– Indigo was used in ancient Egypt for dyeing fabrics and as a pigment in paints and cosmetics. The indigo dye was obtained from plants, most commonly the indigofera tinctoria plant native to Asia and Africa.

– The oldest known fabric dyed with indigo has been dated back to around 2500 BC from the ancient civilizations located in modern day Pakistan.

– In ancient Greece and Rome, indigo was an expensive, imported dye. Roman aristocratic women wore gowns dyed with indigo as a status symbol.

– The indigo plant was brought to Europe in the 16th century and a large indigo dye industry emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The demand for indigo led to colonization in many tropical areas with suitable climate to grow the indigo plants.

– Japan used indigo dye for centuries in traditional textiles and crafts like kimonos and Shibori textile art. The popularity of denim jeans in the 19th and 20th century led to Japan becoming a major exporter of natural indigo.

So the use of indigo dye spans human civilization, valued for its ability to bind to textiles and produce a deep, intense blue color resistant to washing and sunlight.

How Indigo Dye is Produced

Natural indigo dye is extracted from certain plants that contain the indigo compound:

– The indigofera tinctoria species was the primary historical source. It is a tropical plant native to Asia and Africa.

– In Europe and America, the woad plant (isatis tinctoria) was commonly used for indigo dye. Woad is a herbaceous plant native to Europe and Asia.

– In Japan, the Polygonum tinctorium species of indigo was commonly used as the source.

To produce indigo dye from these plants:

1. Harvest and dry the leaves and stems which contain indigo as a glucoside compound.

2. Soak the plant material in water and allow it to ferment. This converts the indigo glucoside to the soluble indoxyl compound.

3. Oxidize the indoxyl compound by churning and beating the liquid. This causes the indoxyl to convert to the insoluble indigo compound.

4. The indigo settles as a blue sludge which can be filtered out, pressed into cakes, dried, and powdered.

5. The indigo powder or cakes are then dissolved in vats for dyeing textiles and garments. Reduction converts indigo back to soluble form which binds to fibers.

So producing natural indigo dye relies on chemistry to extract and convert the indigo compound from source plants.

Using Indigo to Dye Fabrics and Garments

Indigo is ideal for dyeing fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp and silk that have fibers with poor affinity for dyes. The main steps to dyeing with indigo include:

– Indigo cakes or powder is dissolved in a water-based vat along with reducing agents like sodium hydrosulfite. This converts the indigo back to soluble form.

– The textile or garment is dipped in the indigo vat which is yellow-green in color from the soluble indoxyl compound.

– Upon exposure to air when removed from the vat, the indoxyl oxidizes and converts back to the blue insoluble indigo compound bonded to the fibers.

– The more the fabric is dipped and oxidized, the darker the blue becomes on the textile.

– Washing and rinsing removes unbound indigo dye from the textile leaving behind the stable, insoluble indigo compound attached to fibers.

Key advantages of indigo dye:

– It bonds strongly and permanently to fibers like cotton.

– It produces deep, dark blue shades resistant to washing out or fading.

– Layers of indigo dye build up to create very dark navy and black shades.

– The dye penetrates and colors both the inner fibres and outer surface.

– Indigo dyes at low temperatures compared to other dyes.

So indigo is ideal for dyeing denim – it bonds permanently to make the jeans colorfast while allowing the blue to lighten and fade gradually with wear and washing.

Using Indigo as a Pigment in Inks and Paints

In addition to dyeing fabrics, the deep blue color of indigo has been used as a stable pigment in inks and paints worldwide:

– Ancient Egyptian inks used indigo, lead, minerals and gum arabic. Indigo provided an intense, stable blue.

– Mayan artisans created Maya Blue paint by combining indigo and the clay mineral palygorskite. The layered structure provided a stable blue pigment.

– Renaissance era painters mixed indigo powder with lead or minerals and binding media to produce oil and tempera blue paints.

– Indigo pigment added to water along with gum arabic or gelatin produces water-based blue inks. It is lightfast and stable.

Key properties that make indigo effective as a blue pigment:

– Vibrant, deep blue color
– Insoluble in water and stable at high temperatures
– Does not fade over time due to light or chemical exposure
– Mixes well with binding media like gums, oils, resins and glues

Modern synthetic indigo dyes have replaced natural indigo in inks and paints. But traditional techniques still use natural indigo as a non-toxic, organic pigment.

Using Indigo as a Food Coloring

Indigo dye has been approved as a food coloring for use to produce blue foods and beverages. As a food additive it is labeled as FD&C Blue No. 2.

Key properties that make indigo suitable as food coloring:

– Intense blue color even at low concentrations
– Water soluble for mixing into foods and drinks
– Non-toxic and approved as a food coloring by the FDA
– Stable under conditions of manufacturing and storage
– Does not add noticeable flavor of its own

Some examples of indigo food coloring use:

– Blue raspberry, blueberry, blue cherry and other blue-flavored beverages, candies, frostings
– Blue ice creams, yogurts, sherbets
– Coloring blue baked goods like cakes, cookies and pies
– Producing blue sauces, condiments, pickled vegetables
– Use in sweets like blue rock candy, lollipops, gummy candies
– Coloring blue cocktail mixes, spirits, liqueurs and cordials

The FDA sets limits on how much can be safely used. Indigo is commonly used in combination with other dyes like Blue No. 1 to produce deeper shades of blue.

Health and Safety Precautions with Indigo Dyes

Natural indigo dye is considered non-toxic, however there are some precautions for safe use:

– Plant material high in indoxyl content can cause skin irritation during harvesting and processing. Workers should use gloves and protective clothing.

– The dye baths undergo chemical reduction which produces alkaline conditions. Skin contact should be avoided to prevent irritation.

– Inhaling fine indigo dye powder can irritate lungs. Dye work areas should have good ventilation.

– Indigo can stain skin, hair and surfaces so precautions should be taken to avoid unwanted staining.

– Synthetic indigo dyes may contain impurities from chemical manufacture so plant-based indigo is healthier.

– For food use, the FDA approves indigo dye within strict limits, typically blended with other blue dyes.

So while plant-based indigo is non-toxic, care should be taken to prevent direct skin contact and inhalation during dye production and use. Proper handling and dosing provides effective color while maintaining safety.

Economic Importance of Indigo Dye

For centuries indigo dye and textiles colored with indigo held major economic importance worldwide:

– Demand for indigo helped drive colonization in tropical areas suitable to grow the indigo plants. India was a major exporter in the 17th and 18th centuries.

– America’s colonial South Carolina had a booming indigo farming industry in the 1700s, second only to rice in economic value.

– Germany established industrial scale production of synthetic indigo in 1897, destroying demand for natural indigo.

– Japan became a major exporter of traditional natural indigo dyed textiles in the early 20th century.

– Denim jeans exploded in popularity post-WW2 which benefited Japan’s indigo dye industry.

– Today most indigo dye produced is synthetic. The natural dye industry provides dye for artisanal textiles and crafts.

Some key reasons why indigo dye was so economically important include:

– Europe and America depended on imported dyes before synthetic textile dyes were developed.

– Deep blue fabrics like indigo denim were sought after luxury goods.

– Indigo’s properties work well for dyeing cotton ideal for work clothes like jeans.

– Appreciation for traditional textile arts and crafts still depends on natural indigo dyes.

So while no longer a major global commodity, indigo’s unique chemistry for dyeing supports traditional artisan textile culture.

Alternative Blue Dyes That Have Replaced Indigo

In the late 19th and 20th century, synthetic blue dyes emerged as alternatives to natural indigo:

– Aniline dyes like Diphenylamine blue and Triphenylmethane blue were the first synthetic textile dyes discovered in the 1850s.

– Phthalocyanine dyes were discovered in 1928 and rapidly replaced natural indigo in the textile industry.

– Vat dyes invlving soluble vats like Vat Blue 1 and anthraquinone types like Indanthrone blue behave similarly to indigo dye.

– Pre-metalized dyes like copper-containing Pigment Blue 15 (phthalocyanine) provide stable insoluble blue pigments.

Advantages of synthetic indigo alternatives:

– Much lower cost to manufacture than harvesting natural indigo plants.

– Uniform quality and availability compared to variability in plant-based dye.

– Wider range of achievable shades.

– Tunable properties like lightfastness and heat stability.

– Insoluble pigments usable for stable paints and inks.

However natural indigo dyes maintain importance for traditional crafts and artisanal textiles that value natural plant-based origin and non-toxic organic materials.


Indigo’s unique chemistry that allows it to permanantly dye fabrics, garments and textiles has made it economically and culturally important globally across human civilization. While synthetic dyes have replaced natural indigo for commercial applications, traditional artisan uses still rely on plant-based indigo dye for its brilliant blue hues, staining properties and natural origin. Indigo’s importance and appeal is expected to continue thanks to ongoing human appreciation for history, culture, crafts, arts and natural materials.