The History, Chemistry and Application of Indigo

Time for some science! Most people reading this blog have a strong interest in denim, and work within the industry. But how much do you really know about Indigo? This article, by Bluconnection, gives a great background into the dye-stuff, its origins, rise in popularity, synthesis and use. The guys at Denim and Jeans blog have broken down some of the main points in their piece here. Below are some key nuggets of info.

  • The roots of indigo go back into the stone age when our ancestors used indigo in cave art and for painting their bodies. For at least 6,000 years indigo has been used as a dye, for example the coloration of textiles.
  • There is no other substance that creates such intensive blue color with such few carbon atoms in its molecule.
  • About 500 to 1000 years ago – the most important dye for black, blue and brown shades was gained from a plant called “dyer’s woad” (isatis tinctoria). Woad was grown in England and Germany and the areas and towns involved in growing and trading woad became extremely wealthy. See our previous post on Denham’s woad jean.
  • Indigo only came to Europe later during the modern age. Although today we know that both dyes had the same chemical  structure.
  • By the second half of the 19th century the global annual consumption of natural indigo had reached 5,000 metric tons.
  • Because of this high demand, the pioneers of organic chemistry were challenged to find a way to synthesize indigo. In 1883 Adolf von Baeyer, a German professor and winner of the 1905 nobel prize in chemistry, discovered the chemical structure of indigo. Based on this work, synthetic indigo production was developed at Badische Anilin & Soda Fabric (BASF) and started in an industrial scale

  • Today we estimate a global indigo market consumption of 60,000 tons. Due to excess capacity for synthetic indigo this market became an oligopoly during the 1990s. lower and lower prices made the smaller producers disappear.

See below the full report, that goes on to explore the indigo dyeing process, rope and slasher dying, ball warping and denimblu products, see below.

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