The unmistakable, beautiful, deep blue of indigo has been around for centuries. In temperate, ancient Europe and Central Asia, the woad plant Isatis tinctoria was used as the source. In Japan, Dyer’s Knotweed Persicaria tinctorium, was – and still is – used. But it is the tropical plant Indigofera tinctoria that has come, through trade, to predominate.
With all the plants the process of dyeing is chemically the same, involving the breaking down of the leaves through composting, fermentation or decomposition. The resulting substance is then left in dilute form, or precipitated out to be dried into blocks or powder.
Beyond this essential similarity of process, though, are hundreds of regional and arcane variations. All are demanding of time, labour, resource, precision and skill.
All share, too, the magical moment when the cloth or yarn is finally pulled from the de-oxygenated liquid of the dyebath into the air. On emergence it is a yellowish green colour then, as it contacts the oxygen in the air, it gradually turns to the prized deep blue.
So where does the beauty of indigo lie? Firstly, it is a remarkable blue, deep and layered. More than that, though, it is alive. However skilled the dyer, the thousand and more natural variations in each dye lot will mean it is never entirely uniform but always a little uneven. And that liveliness is reinforced by the way it fades with wear and washing – so subtly, its beauty increasing while it ages. It is a good example of perfection attained through imperfection.
Then we love it for its variety of colour and texture – from blue-black all the way to a clear, age-washed palest blue. We’ve seen tribal indigo cloth from northern Burma and southern China that’s black-purple or purplebronze and the finest, floaty pale blue shibori silks from Japan.
Beyond that, we love indigo for its history, its cultural diversity. There are exquisitely beautiful resist-dyes from Japan, ajrakh block printing from Gujarat, bold tie dyes from Cameroon and pleated linen biaudes – smocks – from rural France.
While regional traditions are readily identifiable, the same techniques occur again and again – tie dyeing, resist dyeing – so curious similarities crop up all the way from Northern Europe to South East Asia. We’re always amazed by the effort and skill that goes into these handworked fabrics – that everyday, unselfconscious aspiration to beauty.
At TOAST, we use indigo for tough, workaday denims; for light and heavy linens; for cotton jerseys. We use it, woven for us in Italy, as a component of wool and cotton coatings. We use it in beautiful heavy cotton herringbones and double cloths. The mills we work with to create our indigo-dyed fabrics – one in Japan, one in Turkey – are innovative and, while focused on tradition, thoroughly modern in their approach.
Our Japanese mill has taken the time-consuming, manual process of hank dyeing and remodelled it on a larger scale. By turning the yarns into ropes and building their own dyeing machine, they have expertly mechanised a traditional process. This way, to achieve the same intensity of blue, the rope only needs to dipped and dried 8 to 10 times (instead of up to 30). The results are as spectacular as hand dyeing – with the same variation in shade and hand feel.
And our mill in Turkey is dedicated to creating their indigo through painstakingly green production – they use a process they have coined Indigo Flow, whereby the water usage in the dyeing process is reduced by up to 70%.
It is a pleasure to work with these mills and to see the results they can achieve. We are happy to be taking part, in some small way, in this continuing tradition and to be paying homage to the artisanal masters of the past and present.