Winter 2001–2002

Colors / Indigo

A one-word poem

Frances Richard

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

I’m just a soul who’s bluer than blue can be
When I get that mood indigo

—Duke Ellington

The blues are a swath of the emotional/visible spectrum, and indigo weights its heavy end. Pure indigo is a darkness with hints of reddish purple, ashen black, burnt green; a saturated, inky, night-and-ocean tone. Its affective nature is not unchangeable: Indigo buntings are jaunty little birds, and Timex watches with Indiglo™ lighted faces glow a comfy, television blue. When extended with white, indigo’s intensity softens like beloved worn-in jeans—Levi Strauss & Co. was an early bulk consumer of vegetable indigo, and contemporary denim is dyed with a synthetic version that is as “fugitive” or fade-prone as its natural counterpart. But generally, indigo imbues things with equal parts melancholia and serenity. What makes the color-as-idea so sensual is the Sturm und Drang of its lowering visual presence, encapsulated by the musical complexity of its name. Ellington knew the elaborate play he’d get by rearticulating a funky, lovelorn blues with the sophisticated, liquid o’s and i's and d’s of “Mood Indigo,”—in which a lilting “moon” is imbricated as if behind blue-black clouds. Indigo stands for the dyer’s hands indelibly stained to the elbow and the patch of sky adjacent to starlight; the indigenous hues of Japanese printed cottons, Indonesian batiks, mussel shells, and bruises are all in the word. Hence, in part, the appeal of the Indigo Girls, or Joni Mitchell’s almost-redundantly titled album Turbulent Indigo. In this allusive flexibility, as well as in its aural cadence, indigo implies the psyche, subtly indicating “in,” “I,” “ego.” In the midst of its clouds-and-water tonalities, it appeals to something interior, subconscious, and fundamentally earthy.

Gap jean jacket (detail).

The history of indigo, in fact, intertwines with earth on a more than lyrical level, linked to the establishment of colonialism and the patterning of trade routes. The dye’s subdued allure has been seducing beauty-seekers for millennia, and in exploring techniques by which to reliably create its particular dark blueness, industries were founded and international relations influenced. The story of indigo’s cultivation, preparation, and distribution as a tangible commodity reads as a primer on the development of luxury-goods markets on a global scale. This history can be boiled down to two weedy-looking plants. Whenever a neutral substrate takes on the short-wavelength spectral reflectance peculiar to indigo, the active ingredient is a lustrous coppery-midnight powder known as indican [C16H10N2O2]. Indican must be extracted via a complicated fermentation, aeration, and precipitation process, and it can be derived from some thirty different kinds of vegetation. But the most important of these are Indigofera tinctoria, the common indigo—named for India, the species’ original habitat—and Isatis tinctoria, also known as dyer’s woad. Woad is basically indigo’s poor relation, a European herb of the mustard family producing a similar tint, but offering roughly thirty times less indican per comparable mass of organic material. Both types, despite the involved processes of their facture, boast ancient pedigrees in literature. Mentions of woad occur in Sumerian cuneiform, ancient Egyptian papyrus, and Carolingian manuscripts; there is far-flung evidence for its use in classical and medieval times, from the Russian Caucasus to northern France; from Manchuria to western Africa. Vitruvius describes it in De Architectura and Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, while in his treatise De Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar records that “All Britons paint themselves with woad, which grows wild and produces a blue dye. This gives them a terrifying appearance in battle.” Pliny the Elder concurs: “There they have a plant…with which the women and daughters in Britain paint their bodies at certain festivities; they go naked and are similar to the Ethiopians in color.” Ovid reported that early Teutonic tribes used woad to cover graying hair.

Indigo, meanwhile, circulated in the bazaars of ancient Egypt, Greece, Byzantium, and Rome; in China, Japan, pre-Colombian Central and South America; in Java, Ceylon, Persia, and of course, India—where Marco Polo observed production methods thought to have been practiced since 2000 B.C. After the 17th century, indigo was rarely used by artists, who found that Prussian blue, ultramarine, and azurite dispersed more easily in oil binders. But prior to that era, agents in the ports of Venice, Genoa, and Marseilles traded with Persian middlemen in Asia Minor and Hormuz, providing the pigment identified in blue passages from The Last Supper and Madonna and Child by Leonardo, in Rubens’s Descent from the Cross and Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, as well as in other artworks of various periods from Turkey to Tibet.

The waning of indigo’s use as a fine-art pigment coincided with an increase in its importance as a textile dye. In the early 18th century, European society was swept by a fad for Indian exotica (parallel to crazes for chinoiserie, or tulips), and in order to satisfy the accompanying lust for brilliant blue, French and English entrepreneurs founded hundreds of New World indigo plantations. Facilitated by the slave trade, dyeworks in the West Indies and the American Carolinas were manned by Africans from the regions of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Cameroon, who were sometimes seized specifically for their native skills in growing and processing indigo. (Knowledge of rice cultivation was an African intellectual property similarly capitalized upon; for a time, indigo rivaled rice, sugar, and tobacco as the primary cash crop on colonial American and Caribbean plantations.) Interestingly, the growing of indigo—which, unlike rice, does not require standing water, and therefore does not breed mosquitoes—nearly eradicated both malaria and yellow fever, which were decimating colonists. When the “Indigo Craze” subsided in the 1790s, both diseases resurfaced in new and more virulent strains. For the next hundred years, indigo remained a staple commodity in the international textile trade—the interplay of chromatics and political economy achieving a kind of full circle when, having lost access to American sources after the Revolutionary War, England imposed a plantation system on indigo-producing villages in India. Finally, in 1897, the German firm Badische Anilin Soda Fabrik developed a synthetic substitute. Loosed from its physical roots in the dyer’s fields and vats, indigo migrated toward the abstract as a title-writer’s dream, a one-word poem.

You ain’t been blue; no, no, no.
You ain’t been blue,
Till you’ve had that mood indigo.

—Duke Ellington

  1. Margaret Walch and Augustine Hope, Living Colors: The Definitive Guide to Color Palettes Through the Ages (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995), p. x.
  2. Sociological, medical, and economic data in the following paragraphs are drawn from A. Shimosan, “A Devil’s Dye, Indigo: The Indian Craze and Establishment of Indigo Plantations in Colonial America and the West Indies—Its Technology and Slavery.” Originally published in Japanese in The Journal of Market History (Shijoushi Kennkyu), vol. 9 (June 1991), pp. 29-48. English summary available at: [Link defunct—Eds.]

Frances Richard is an editor at Cabinet. She lives in Brooklyn.

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