Ancestral uses of indigo
The history of denim is intertwined with that of indigo. With its intense blue hue, this ancient natural dye has been used in Asia for over 4,000 years. The earliest evidence of the use of indigo dye, dating back to the third millennium B.C., was found in the Indus Valley, a region north of India incorporating much of present-day Pakistan.
In the West, meanwhile, the Greeks and Romans used indigo. It was also highly valued in Egypt, where it was known as Wadjet after the blue-skinned goddess.
Indigo was traditionally produced by fermenting the leaves of the indigo tree, Indigofera tinctoria, a plant grown in many parts of the world including India, Egypt and South America. Harvested by hand, the leaves were left to ferment in water and the pigment was extracted from the infusion. A long, labor-intensive process made it a precious commodity.
As trade routes developed across Asia, the use of indigo dye spread from India to Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
The indigo tree was cultivated in ancient India to produce indigo, a dye with a rich deep hue that was used to color many things, from textiles to cosmetics. Early production methods were laborious and involved the lengthy fermentation of indigo leaves in large vats. Indian dyers perfected the process over time, passing on the techniques from generation to generation. Besides textiles, indigo was also used as a medicinal plant.
The first evidence of indigo dyeing in China dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.).
Wax dyeing was mainly practiced by the Miao, Yao and Buyei ethnic groups in Southwest China. This process consists of applying beeswax (now a mixture of wax and soybean paste) to the required pattern on white cotton. The primed cotton is then placed in the indigo dye. The wax-covered areas do not absorb the color and once the wax is melted in hot water, the design appears in white on a blue background.
Indigo-dyed fabrics became increasingly popular among the elite of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In addition to its vibrant hue, indigo was highly valued for its ability to repel insects and resist mildew.
Indigo is said to have been introduced from China during the Asuka period (592-710). The Yoshinogawa valley’s suitability for indigo cultivation meant Awa province soon became the first indigo producing region in Japan.
The traditional method of preparing indigo dye, the sukumo process, involved fermenting indigo leaves with wheat bran and limestone. The resulting blue pigment was used to dye textiles, paper and other materials.
The Sengoku period (1467-1568) saw a spike in demand for indigo-dyed fabrics. The antiseptic properties of these fabrics made them popular with warriors who wore them under their armor. Indigo also inspired several textile arts, including shibori (resist-dyeing) and katazome (stencil dyeing), that are still practiced today.
In Southeast Asia, indigo was grown and processed in several countries including Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The traditional method of indigo dyeing in this region involved fermenting the indigo leaves in large clay vats, a process that could take several years.
In these countries, indigo dyeing was used to create stunning batik fabrics featuring signature motifs drawn with wax on undyed cloth. After dyeing, the fabric would be boiled to remove the wax and reveal motifs in the original color of the fabric. Batiks were used for a variety of purposes, including clothing and furniture, and were valued for their intricate patterns and durability.
Indigo and colonialism
Indigo spread from Asia to the Middle East where it was also prized for its dark blue color. In the Middle Ages, Arab traders brought it to Europe. Due to the length of time it took to prepare the dye, it remained a luxury product favored by the nobility.
By the 16th century, Portuguese, Dutch and British traders were importing indigo directly from India to Europe. The British East India Company became one of the largest importers, making the dye one of the most important commodities in the British Empire and a major export for India.
The British East India Company even established indigo plantations, forcing Indian farmers to work under harsh conditions growing indigo rather than food crops.
The invention of synthetic indigo in the late 19th century revolutionized the industry. German chemist Adolf von Baeyer synthesized the dye in 1878 and it quickly became more affordable than the natural product. Today, most indigo is produced synthetically using petroleum as the raw material.
Despite the widespread use of synthetic indigo, natural indigo is still produced in many parts of the world. In Japan, the traditional art of indigo dyeing, known as aizome, is still practiced.
In West Africa, where indigo dyeing is a centuries-old tradition, the bright blue fabrics produced by the Tuareg people are still highly prized.
In recent years, the industry has seen growing interest in natural dyes, including indigo dyes which are valued for their unique colors and textures. They are also considered more environmentally friendly than synthetic dyes, though their impact is not neutral, with the rise in demand leading to the emergence of independent natural indigo producers using sustainable methods.
The denim industry today
India’s contribution to the production of denim fabrics meanwhile, is more recent. In the early 20th century, Indian textile mills were producing a coarse, robust cotton fabric called khadi, which was used to make traditional Indian clothing such as dhotis and saris. However, during World War II, the British government began importing large quantities of denim from the United States to clothe its troops stationed in India.
After the war, denim production in India grew, with mills producing their own denim fabrics for the local market. Today, India is one of the world’s largest producers of denim, led by major textile producers such as Arvind Mills Raymond Ltd and LNJ Denim.
The story of denim in China is also recent. Denim fabrics were first imported from the United States and other countries in the early 20th century. Given their durable nature they were mainly used for workwear before being adopted by Chinese youth in the 1950s and 1960s as a symbol of rebellion. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), however, denim and other Western clothing styles were banned.
Today, denim has regained popularity in China with local consumers buying vast quantities of jeans and other denim clothing. Among the most important players from the region we can mention Advance Denim, Prosperity Denim, Foison, and Black Peony.
Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 when more than a thousand textile and garment industry workers lost their lives, a number of initiatives were set up to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again. From 2013 to 2018, an association of American brands created the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety. Their goal was to audit factories, identify labor safety failures and find solutions.
Social advances and improved fabric manufacturing technologies has led to Bangladesh becoming the leading producer of denim in the European Union and the US. The country now counts around 35 denim factories, with a production capacity of one million yards per month. Some of these companies are worldwide leaders in terms of product innovations and sustainability: Pacific Jeans, M&J Group and Square Denim, for example.
Le denim chez Première Vision
The major denim players from Southeast Asia are Première Vision exhibitors.
China: Advance Denim, Prosperity Textile, Black Peony
Bangladesh: Square Denims Ltd. The two most important manufacturers are also exhibitors at Première Vision: Pacific Jeans et M&J Group.
Denim selection from Southeast Asia and Far East: