Indigo Histories and Futures

During the recent Project Threadways Symposium—a virtual event in partnership with Alabama Chanin, Project Threadways, and the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area—several presenters discussed the topic of indigo dyeing and processing, both historical and modern. As our partner, Alabama Chanin, moves forward with their Botanical Colors collaboration using natural dyes, we want to revisit those conversations and briefly explore the complex history of textile creation and indigo.   

This year’s symposium theme was “Textiles Across Time and Place: Examining a Complicated Past to Create a More Sustainable Future.” The day-long event, moderated by Dr. Ansley Quiros, an associate professor of history at the University of North Alabama, hosted eight presenters: Carrie Barske-Crawford, Jessamyn Hatcher and Thuy Linh Tu, Dana Thomas, Katie Randall and Katie Moore, Kate Knowles, and Julius Tillery. With a variety of backgrounds, these scholars, historians, authors, and farmers, came together to offer rich perspectives on textile production and history.  “The Geography of Textiles,” with Jessamyn Hatcher and Thuy Linh Tu reframed the story of textile production by stretching the chronological and temporal bounds. In so doing, the history of textile production and the story of fashion begins in the US South, rather than the New England mills and factories in the North, and includes indigenous and African enslaved peoples. The production of indigo, considered a luxury item, also produced the exploitation of the enslaved — primarily in the Carolinas.

“A Bunch of Seed enlarg’d to its Natural Size” from an engraving from the 1785 Henry Mouzon map cartouche” from the Charleston Museum.

Over time, as indigo crop production increased and, with it, the demand for dyed garments, there was a shift in forced labor, from the indigenous to enslaved Africans. There are several reasons for this: the scale of production required a larger workforce; slavers feared that indigenous workers might use social connections and knowledge of the landscape to escape; and, perhaps most significantly, enslaved Africans had a deep knowledge of and experience with the craft. As Tuy said: “(Indigo production) demands not only many workers, but a specific type of work. Indigo production requires a lot of expertise and Africans were already doing indigo production in Africa. Part of the reason they were brought here to the US to work indigo plantations was first, because of the requirements of labor, but second, because of the requirements of their skills.” Reframing the history of textiles not only brings in the American South and the horrors of slavery, but recovers the essential skills, knowledge, and creativity of enslaved people in indigo production. 

 “Wilted indigo plant in a field”, 2017 by Rinne Allen for Stony Creek Colors.

In, “Enslaved People and Fast Fashion,” Katie Knowles expanded on African, Indian, and indigenous contributions to indigo production. “They exploited not just the bodies,” Knowles said, “but the mind, this way of knowing from all these people around the world who were experienced in making indigo in order to create this cash crop.” 

“Wool fabric samples” from the American Civil War Museum 985.10.247, .248a, .248b

Yet, there is another part of this story, Katie shared, that may not readily come to mind when you think of enslaved peoples: that they were fashion designers. Even after indigo became a less-desired market commodity, those who knew how to produce indigo-dyed garments, continued to do so for their own pleasure. Over decades, many enslaved individuals learned how to use the loom to create striped and checked patterns. Some were able to make clothing for themselves that made them feel distinctive and beautiful. The freedom to make something in and of itself could be empowering and enjoyable. “It is this knowledge, this connection to ancestors, even back in Africa, that is an important part of this story,” Knowles explained, “and that continuation of the way of knowing, and how that way of knowing can help in this moment to make people feel beautiful.” 

“Indigo”, 2017 by Rinne Allen for Stony Creek Colors.

“Indigo vat”, 2017 by Rinne Allen for Stony Creek Colors.

Author, journalist, and researcher Dana Thomas discussed the role of indigo in fast fashion today and the role it might play in the future of sustainable fashion. Of the denim we wear today, 99% is dyed with synthetic indigo, which is made using harmful chemicals like petroleum, benzyne, cyanide, and formaldehyde. The embedded assumption is that it is cheaper to pollute than it is to find sustainable ways to create. However, some makers are seeking to produce natural indigo for denim. Sarah Bellos of Stony Creek Colors has been able to convince former tobacco planters to switch to indigo and, though their cash return percentage is lower, their net profit is actually higher because the indigo plant does not require the expensive overhead of tobacco.  

Jeanologia, based in Valencia, Spain, invented a greener way to distress or “finish” denim on a mass level – using lasers instead of sandblasting and bleaching, ozone to fade fabrics without chemicals, and a washing system that cuts water usage by 90%. Traditional methods of finishing a pair of jeans requires an average of 18 gallons of water; Jeanologia claims their process uses about one glass of water per pair. 

Only by grappling with the long, hard history of indigo production in America—stolen land, stolen knowledge, stolen bodies, and stolen health—can we push for better and cleaner ways to produce in the future. Our partner, Alabama Chanin, is committed to these sustainable practices. And we, at Project Threadways, are committed to telling these stories and truths

Learn more about the presenters, Jessamyn Hatcher, Thuy Linh Tu, Dana Thomas, and Katie Knowles

Below we share a reading list and resources provided by these presenters. 

Jessamyn Hatcher + Thuy Linh Tu 

Feeser, Andrea. Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life. Athens, Ga: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2013. 

Taussig, Michael. Redeeming Indigo. Theory, Culture & Society, 25(3), 1–15, 2008. 

NYT Podcast 1619, Episode 2, “The Economy That Slavery Built” 

Dana Thomas 

Thomas, Dana. Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Penguin Press, 2019. 

Jeanologia: https://www.jeanologia.com/ 

Jeanologia is an innovative and multicultural company with over 20 years of experience in the development of sustainable and eco-efficient technologies for the finishing industry. 

Katie Knowles 

De la Haye, Amy and Elizabeth Wilson, eds. Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999. 

Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 

Miller, Daniel and Susanne Kuchler, eds. Clothing as Material Culture. Oxford: Berg Press, 2005. 

Miller, Monica. Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. 


Lead image: “Tobacco plant in field”, 2017 by Rinne Allen for Stony Creek Colors

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