Indigo - as a new crop

Indigofera is not the only plant used to make a blue dye. All over the world, different plants are used.

Plant dyes die out

A black and white photograph of fields being ploughed, ready for the sowing of indigo.
Image: Fields being ploughed for indigo cultivation were a common sight in British India in 1900. Dye crops may return again as demand grows.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria) has been used in Europe since ancient times for blue dye. However, synthetic indigo was used after around 1897, and dyers began to favour this over natural indigo. Synthetic indigo was consistent, bluer, and cheaper. Synthetic dyes began to take over the market, dye crops were neglected and the numbers of farmers growing dye plants fell.

New markets

But the market is changing again. Consumers now want products that are naturally sourced. To meet this demand, fields of dye crops are gradually returning, the numbers of growers are increasing and so is research to support them.

In 1991 a European Union funded project was set up called SPINDIGO. It invested over £2 million to develop new and sustainable ways to produce blue dye from plants such as woad and polygonum indigo (Polygonum tinctorium). By 2005, it hopes that the European Union will supply at least 5% of the European natural indigo market.