Blue—Blu—Blau—Blue: Blue Tribes

Indigo blue has been an iconic shade for hundreds of years but not until indigo garments were worn as uniform by  artisans, workers and more recently massed youth has a colour been so associated with groups or human tribes.  

blue tribes intro.jpg
©Legrand.C. (2103)  Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

©Legrand.C. (2103) Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

The uniformity of indigo blue once decreed by governments of China and Japan to render the worker faceless is now worn by affluent tribes of denim wearers. 

The 20th century saw indigo denim become the fabric and garment of rebellion against authority by the youth of the day. The tribal uniform was 5 pocket blue jeans proclaiming the wearer to be part of a freedom tribe.  Today the blue tribe is more diverse.  From the young  wearer of the simple jean to the more affluent sporting higher and higher priced brands of indigo denim. 

©Friedrichs.H, (2014)  Denim Style

©Friedrichs.H, (2014) Denim Style

Indigo blues as well as being diverse in shade are also diverse in wearer style from old western influence 5 pocket jeans and trucker jackets to mariner blues which nod to the indigo jeans of the sailors from Nimes.   Whatever the influence it is the indigo blue shade that creates the recognisable tribe of wearers.

©The Vintage Showroom (2016)  Worn

©The Vintage Showroom (2016) Worn

From the uniform of Japanese and Chinese workers we come full circle to modern workstyle as a fashion statement - basic simple and blue. The garment is minimal in detail with blue being the galvanising feature.

Rock 'n roll tribes synonymous with blue jeans exploded onto the scene with Woodstock in the late sixties.  Both anonymity and rebellion were the motivators of the need to look uniform and carefree, the blue jean answered the need.

©Marsh.G, Trynka.P (2002),  DENIM from Cowboys to Catwalks, A visual history of the world's most legendary fabric.

©Marsh.G, Trynka.P (2002), DENIM from Cowboys to Catwalks, A visual history of the world's most legendary fabric.

Rock bands and their tribes of followers are still in blue jeans - the colour blue is as key to anonymity and uniformity as is the denim jean.   Even if the jeans were made from another blue cotton "with attitude" the tribe would still be cool. 

Blue—Blu—Blau–Bleu : Differentiated Blues

Blue takes on a variety of differentiated hues depending on the host material. In this case the glass diffuses light casting red, russet, yellow to aqua to green.    This range of shades which originate from blue is parallel to the different shades of indigo blue achieved with the natural ageing process of an indigo dyed garment. 

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Naturally aged vintage indigo garments cast green; clear reddish blue;  brown and rust depending on the conditions of wear the fabric has been exposed to.

©The Vintage Showroom (2016)  Worn

©The Vintage Showroom (2016) Worn

Rich red casted deepest indigo is the shade that denim jeans start with before they wear down naturally. when first rinsed the indigo is a rich dense shade and within weeks of wear with no wash the garment takes on the wear creases of the individual making it totally personal.  With further wear the garment and shade become brighter and even more personal.

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This indigo denim garment clearly started life as indigo.  The evolution from dark indigo to such a rich brown red stain gives the garment a unique history.  It could be a result of soil stained hands where the soil contains iron sulphate or indeed another story - the possible reasons add to the charm.   

 Images l-r ©Marsh.G, Trynka.P (2002),  DENIM from Cowboys to Catwalks, A visual history of the world's most legendary fabric.  ©The Vintage Showroom (2016)    Worn.

 Images l-r ©Marsh.G, Trynka.P (2002), DENIM from Cowboys to Catwalks, A visual history of the world's most legendary fabric. ©The Vintage Showroom (2016) Worn.

Positive green casted indigos are very special and very unusual.    The indigo can of course be overdyed or tinted green or it can be chemically treated to cast the shade to look naturally greenish.   Bringing out the green cast from the indigo dye is more easy with a naturally plant based dye.

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Green casted indigos are almost aqua in appearance.  Slight greenish cast can also be achieved with brown or yellow tinting which replicates the natural dirty wear a garment has achieved in previous life.

Blue—Blu—Blau–Bleu : Blue Decoration

In centuries past when hand spinning, hand dyeing and hand painting onto textiles was all part of the clothing process traditional decoration also played a big part.  It was a way in which the local creative culture was expressed.  Traditional motifs were repeated time and again as "stories" on various parts of the garment.  Such motifs all had their different meanings and significance with the provenance of the garment being identifiable by its hand drawn motifs.   India, China, Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Central America  all had motifs specifically recognisable to their country and region.

©Legrand.C. (2103)  Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

©Legrand.C. (2103) Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

Tie dye was and still is traditionally mostly Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese. Although as a hand craft it is taught today in some Western Schools. However the originals created by skilled artists are superior in both technique and complexity. Such craft artists are able to achieve the most intricate patterns layer upon layer.  These skills were handed down the generations such that the resultant fabrics can now command immense prices.

Hand drawing onto fabric using indigo paste was likewise done by tribal artists of great skill.  Motifs were naif and charming. Some were merely decorative and some had greater cultural significance.

©Balfour-Paul.J. (2011)  Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

©Balfour-Paul.J. (2011) Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

Batik is an Indo Chinese art and craft still practised today and immensely popular but very little is achieved in pure indigo as indigo washes down and out too quickly and is costly to produce.

The craft of batik is created using hot wax for the drawing after which the cloth is dyed. The dye is resisted by the wax which, when the cloth is washed the wax dissolves leaving the pattern as the base colour.  This of course can be repeated using different shades of overdye such that a multi level pattern is achieved.  Today it is multicoloured using non natural dyes. The Indigo examples from previous centuries have a simple intricate beauty the motifs of which tell a multitude of stories.  They of course are collectors pieces.

©Legrand.C. (2103)  Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

©Legrand.C. (2103) Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

Block printing with indigo, and of course other natural dyes, being another simple craft which when combined with Batik achieves a rich combination of patterns where it is the shade that unites - in this case the rich blue of indigo.   It is interesting to see the traditional motifs used in both building decoration as well as to adorn the body in textiles.

There is something very special about hand crafted decorated textiles in mono colour, particularly blue.  Blue being a dominant shade for decoration dominant in every country in the near and far east because of the tradition of indigo dyeing.  Juxtapositions of Block print and batik patterns are timeless.

TREND ALERT - Blue—Blu—Blau–Bleu : Craft Blues

Original natural indigos arrive in numerous casts from rich deep reddish to deep greenish depending on where in the world the indigo originates.  India is the original country of origin but natural dye extraction is practised in many other countries in the near and far east today.

©Balfour-Paul.J. (2011)  Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

©Balfour-Paul.J. (2011) Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

Extracting the indigo as a dye from the natural plant requires much skill and lots of labour and patience.  Originally and even now the dye works the best on cotton fibre. Although it is quixotic and does not easily adhere to the host fibre bleaching down quickly with both wear and exposure to daylight.

Dyeing the cotton yarn, which was hand spun from the raw cotton balls, was all done by hand therefore the consistency and shade varied enormously. This led to pronounced streaks in the eventual fabric, a characteristic which has become synonymous with an old denim fabric. An effect which we try to emulate today to "pretend" that what we are designing is as close to the old original as possible.

©Legrand.C. (2103)  Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

©Legrand.C. (2103) Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.

 Originally, and even today as a hand craft, indigo plants are soaked in water, weighted down and left to ferment over night. After which the scum is removed and the liquid beaten hard until bubbles form and thickening takes place. It is then passed through a sieve to remove the liquid, leaving behind the indigo paste which is used for dyeing after it has dried into chunks. The indigo rocks or chunks achieved from recovered dye paste above are ready to be re-used. In this case you will see how much reddish cast this particular indigo is. 

Such indigo chunks as well as being used for dyeing, were used as paint or drawing materials, or used to paint onto fabric as hand decoration.

images left-right: ©Legrand.C. (2103)  Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World.  ©Balfour-Paul.J. (2011) Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

images left-right: ©Legrand.C. (2103) Indigo: the Colour that Changed the World. ©Balfour-Paul.J. (2011) Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

The original craft of indigo dyeing was a manual and messy business.  Filthy water, dye sludge, and scum residue are all bi-products of the hand dye process.

The water residue from natural indigo hand dyeing takes on a greenish cast whereas the dye itself seems to cast reddish.  Such is the nature of natural plant derived indigo. Modern chemical indigos are more controllable but nevertheless the locality where it is used has an effect on the cast due to the PH in the water supply.

The craft of hand dyeing seems romantic but in the case of indigo the ultimate contamination was and still is a major pollutant to the environment. In the past indigo artisans didn't care about cleaning the old water before throwing it onto the fields whereas now it is global law to clean up the water to at least the same level of cleanliness as when it was extracted from river or stream.   In fact many modern industrial mills have an enclosed recycling system for their dirty water, cleaning it and then re-using to dye again. When the water has been used too much it is then cleaned to a higher level of purity before being discharged into the river or stream from whence it came.

Behind The Scenes: INDIGO

Indigo is the most romantic and quixotic dye of all shades.  Much can be achieved from the indigo paste from deepest blues which adhere to the host fibre for hardly any time at all to palest weathered indigo blues of either green or reddish cast

Initially a hand process the craft of indigo dyeing has evolved to a mass manufactured product. But still the hand crafted results are the most sought even today.

Waxed tie dyed patterns an hand woven Ikat weaves continue to look joyful maintaining their freshness and style relevance.

.... and of course the antique versions of vintage hand dyed indigo stripes and dobbies are THE most sought after in whatever form be it a garment or a bedquilt.

The Gees Bend quilts are among the most desired and the most marvellous having a naivety and spontaneous charm.


Cotton yarn is raw white before we add the all important indigo colour dye.  

These are charming drawings of a dye range, beaming and slashing processes by Danny Southern late of Burlington Denim.  All are part of putting indigo colour onto the cotton yarn

©The Denim Eye 2016

©The Denim Eye 2016

A modern rope dye range showing cotton ropes before being immersed in the indigo baths or boxes.

There are traditionally a number of boxes through which the indigo can pass. Circulation pumps are used with individual boxes so that the depth and concentration of the indigo can be controlled in each box or in the number of dips. The question of numbers of dips which refers to the depth of the shade is misleading.  12 dips is regarded as being the darkest but there are not in fact 12 actual dips, the extreme depth is achieved by slowing the speed of the range to allow longer dwell time in each bath.  

Today the most modern dye ranges can in fact support 12 dye boxes thereby having the ability to create the most extreme depths of indigo shade.

©The Denim Eye 2016

©The Denim Eye 2016

The rope dye range with coiled ropes after being immersed in the indigo dye baths,

©The Denim Eye 2016

©The Denim Eye 2016

Decorated commercial yarn transportation in Pakistan.  

Traditional transport in Pakistan which still exists today. Mostly however such transport has been replaced by the Tuk Tuk which is a motor scooter with an integral carriage.