Who could live without their blue jeans? But what about that blue? Indigo blue has been around for a more than two thousand years. But we still use it–a lot. Today I dyed some of my (white) handspun yarn with this beautiful ancient dye.
To extract the indigo from plants is not a simple process. It takes some chemistry that the ancients figured out and we now replicate with modern chemicals. Mainly we use synthetic indigo instead of the natural indigo that has been around for centuries. But natural indigo is still produced in many parts of the world.
In my trip to Guatemala and El Salvador in 2007 I visited an indigo plantation in El Salvador. It has survived, but barely, for several generations. You can read the story of Grace and her family and the road she has traveled to keep her heritage alive. In the pictures you can see the three huge cement vats used to process and extract the indigo from the plants. What a pleasure it was to be on that hillside looking out to the Pacific on a warm moonlit evening and to feel part of an ancient tradition.
Today I was not the only one using the indigo vat. Other members of Fiber Artisans, who meet once a month, use it regularly. It is a vat that has been kept “alive” for at least twenty years with additions of appropriate chemicals and a warm enough temperature to keep it “alive”.
For many years indigo good were prized. Indigo was expensive to produce. True denim is made by having two threads cross over one. So only the blue threads in the weft (the threads that go crosswise in a fabric) were blue. The other threads were less expensive white threads. This is why many jeans are much lighter on the inside than on the outside. It kept costs down by only having to dye the-thirds of the thread. So wear your blue jeans with a new pride. They have a proud heritage and represent a great link to the past.