Banner of Denim Jeans with Various Colour Strips of Indigo

Indigo, Denim and the Working Class

Indigo is one of the most influential colours in industrial history.

Before there was Prussian blue and Reflex blue there was indigo blue. It was being used for writings. The colour is a blue-violet and one of the seven colours of the original colour wheel when it was first created. This colour was once considered to be Royal Blue and the name indigo means dark blue. This was a more commonly used ink for calligraphy and writing hence to cobalt blue and lapis lazuli used for paintings. This was a colour that was first adapted to dye pieces of cotton, wools and silks. This colour is a signature colour of the blue denim jeans ever since the creation of the colour.

Most people who used indigo ink would notice over time the colour would fade drastically. The colour would turn from a dark blue to a light brown within years. The lasting power of the colour was weak. The colour has been replaced with newer longer lasting colours over time.

Indigo comes from many plants that derive from the indigo family. The origins of this plant range from East Asia, Egypt, Iran and India. The plant that is native to India is called the indigofera tentoria which were the plants that were used in the first major production of the dye. Peru is the earliest place where indigofera suffructicosa and indigofera arrecta were found in 4000 A.E. in an indigold garment near the pre-ceramic era 1500 years before Egypt. In 7 century BC around Mesopotamia (now Iraq), there were carved recipes for making indigo dye onto clay pots.

Indigo was a once a luxury product. It was in cosmetics and medicine in Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire and Greece. The use of indigo that grew naturally became rare because of the high demand for the dye. The plant didn’t grow fast enough for production. It was also a part of the exotic plant mania that happened in Europe.

Indigo was weird to make because it changes colour in the process and it’s the end colour that we have today. They would tie and cut the plants before placing them into vats made of bricks and cement. Then the plants would be covered with clear fresh water left to ferment for 10 to 15 hours. Dyers would put the fermented dark blue leaves into another vat with urine and other alkali stirring it gently until it turned yellow. The result would then move to the beaters where the vat of indigo was treated with wooden oars or machinery. When the vat gets oxidized the colour changes to indigo. This is called leuco indigo. Leuco is Greek from white. This involves the oxidation of the chemicals being mixed removing the electrons turning it into an insoluble blue indigo. The dye sinks to the bottom, then boiled, filtered, pressed and cut into cubes.

Indigo Dye #00416a
HEX Code for Indigo Dye #00416A

Woad, the original blue colour in Europe

Indigo made a better blue than the instated blue dye in Europe, woad. In comparison, the indigo plant was faster at growing but did not have the dyeing strength like woad. The woad plant which was chemically identical to the indigo plant to fill in the void of demands for the colour. The plants are tall weeds with powdery white fluff. In the spring it blooms small yellow flowers on top of the plants. These plants are indigenous to the southern European countries. Woad plants were used predominately to dye fabrics blue before the indigo plant made it to Europe.

There was a completion between indigo dyers and woad dyers that they tried to lobby and outlaw the use indigo; stating that the plant was poisonous. The Woadites claimed that the dye would also rot yarn and was the devil’s colour. England, France and Germany banned indigo and had inspectors burn any garment of indigo. Anyone caught with any indigo would have been sent to death. The ban was lifted in 1660 and the “Indigo Craze” took over Europe.

Woad Blue #17173F
HEX Code for Woad Blue #17173F

Indigo Plantations

Before the Indigo Plantations were developed many Arab carried indigo dyes on caravans across Bagdad and Cyrpus.

In the 15th century, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a route to India, the Spice Islands, China and Japan. The travel he made indigo more accessible for the average European in the 1800s. The popularity of indigo became on the rise.

On December 31st, 1600, the British East India Company was created by coffee merchants from London granted the Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I. The Royal Charter was to bring them to the East Indies (Indonesia) for coffee. The British East India Company came across the Dutch East India Company in control of spices and dyes from the land. They wage trade wars to find a ranking on Indonesia. The East India Companies started farming indigo in places with warm climates.

Frankly, there were many countries in Europe had East India Companies that also had indigo plantations. The largest plantations were in Jamaica, the Virgin Islands Saint Domingue and Guatemala. One of the largest plantations outside of the East India Company would be the plantations in South Carolina which were family owned.

Spain first began to grow indigo in the 1500s on plantations on Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and in some places in Florida and Mexico. After the Spanish thought that the Indigenous population were dying from the process of the dye making so they brought African slaves thinking they were less susceptible to the illness. This was also a time when Atlantic Slave Trade was running.

“From fifty to sixty hands work in the indigo factory; and such is the effect of the indigo upon the lungs of the laborers, that they never live over seven years. Everyone that runs away, and is caught, is put in the indigo fields, which are hedged all around, so that they cannot escape again.”

–James Roberts, The Narrative of James Roberts a Soldier under Gen. Washington in the Revolutionary War, 1858

These plantations worked on the power of using slave-labour from Africans and African-Americans. There were plantation owners that went through wars, drought, frost and competition from neighbouring plantation owners for equity. This was also associated with cruelty, isolation and conditioning people to work in a field and process this dye for 20 hours a day for blue cloth. Many slaves were able to wear blue clothes from this dye when they were out in the field.

Cultivating indigo was less labour intensive than sugar and rice. But there were common illnesses of respiratory problems and tuberculosis. It was suspected it came from the yellow the dye made during the process.

Synthetic Indigo Dye

The first synthetic indigo dye was made in 1878 by German chemist Adolf von Baeyer. It was made available in 1897. This was to make the colour survivable in the clothing industry. Baeyer won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1905 for his work on organic dyes like indigo. This helped the environmental concerns and the demand for blue. By 1914, synthetic production of indigo was not only cheaper and faster than natural indigo dye production. Natural indigo production declined, and synthetic production is what is now currently used.

America and the Colour Blue

After the American Revolutionary war was lost to the British in 1783, they were determined to keep the colour blue for production. This was done by exploiting the workers of this work which led to major riots in the 1860s. Americans wore indigo dyed clothes when producing materials in the 1800s. “Blue collar” workers once wore indigo-dyed clothes to cover up dirt which was more effective than wearing white collar clothes in the fields. The blue-collar working class were usually for ranchers, railroad engineers, miners, factory workers or other trade jobs. This was a term that derived from the 1920’s.

In 1873 San Francesco Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss patented the original indigo dye of pants.

Levi Strauss was from Buttenheim, Bavaria. During the California Gold Rush, he travelled to 1853 San Francisco to make money. He ended up establishing wholesale dry goods which were eventually renamed to “Levi Strauss & Co.” Strauss was known for his operation, business and local philanthropy. He received a letter from one of his customer detailing a unique way to make pants to last longer by riveting them.

This letter was by Jacob Davis a tailor from Reno, Nevada. Davis came up with the idea when a local labourer’s wife requested to make a pair of pants that won’t fall apart for her husband. Davis placed rivets on the area of the pants that wore out first. Pockets, zipper, fastening button. He needed a business partner to receive a patent his idea and get to in production. He asked Levi Strauss, the person how sold him the cloth of the pants. The name Levi Strauss agreed and on May 20th, 1873 blue jeans were in production by receiving the U.S. patent for their invention. Levi Strauss remained at the company by the end of the 19th century.

One of Levi's First Ads
One of the first advertisements of blue denim jeans by Levi Strauss & Co.

The name denim is the abbreviated name of “de Nîmes”, a town south of France. This was the town that created the blue denim for jeans. The commonly found fabric of denim is the dry production process. Dry/raw denim is fabric not washed after being dyed during the production. It’s a dark blue that collects most of the indigo dye in the denim. Denim is known as the traditional fabric of labourers.

Blue denim jeans are still worn today but for more of a fashion statement than for workwear. Celebrities and movie stars made the “cool factor” of wearing blue jeans so iconic. Stars like Marilyn Monroe, Cliff Montgomery, Elvis Presley, James Dean and Steve McQueen. Blue denim was also featured in a lot of movies if a character was in the city, a cowboy, a young person or a working-class person. Movies like “Rebel without a Cause” and songs like “Rebel in Blue Jeans” made a modern persona for the pants. People started to not only emulate the rebel-look but wear it for durability and comfort too. Denim turns more fashionable the more it is worn. It was the shift from workwear to wear anywhere. There are jeans that are $3000 just for the statement of the style and name attached than the origin of the use of the pants. It’s a stable in casual wear.

“…they have been worn by soldiers and protesters, headbangers and heartthrobs, vagrants and presidents. They have been worn on campus and in prison, on horses and Harleys, to the opera and the mosh pit. They are versatile and stylish.”

— James Sullivan, journalist describing the history of jeans.
Image of an advertisement from the 1990's for Lee's Jeans with James Dean
Image of an advertisement from the 1990’s for Lee’s Jeans with James Dean

Banner credit: Under the Moonlight


Wild Colours – History of Indigo & Indigo Dyeing
History of Jeans – History of Indigo – Blue of Blue Jeans
Levi Strauss & Co. – Our Story
Denim Blog – Celebrity Icons Wearing Denim Throughout History

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