The Blues: Indigo

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 6.40.58 PMBy Julie Etra

Añil, scientific name generally referring to Indigofera tinctoria, belongs to the pea family and is the source of the beautiful color indigo. In Nahuatl it is called jiquitle. The plant is a shrub, growing up to 1.5 m in height also used for a blue dye is its close relative Indigofera suffruticosa, which is the species used in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America). Like other plants in the pea family, these plants ‘fix’ nitrogen through the interaction of bacteria living in the nodules of the plants’ roots, thereby and enriching the soil without the need for supplemental nitrogen. They are also excellent plants for erosion control.

Indigofera tinctoria was originally domesticated in India and also the earliest major center for its production and processing. From there it made its way to the Greeks and Romans where it was valued as a luxury product. It was also known to ancient cultures of Mesoamerica and like cochinilla, añil was a dye used for clothes of the royalty and privileged classes in pre-Hispanic times. El Salvador and Guatemala had high volumes of production up until the onset of synthetic die production in Europe. Production also took place in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, which was a center of regional trade center when the Spanish arrived. Añil was even used to paint murals in Bonampak, Chiapas.

After the conquest añil became an important tribute to the Spanish crown through its cultivation by slaves. Añil is not easy to process as it not soluble in water. In 1865, the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began working on the synthesis of indigo and by 1914 natural production had declined dramatically. BASF, a German chemical company, developed a commercially feasible manufacturing process that was in use by 1897. By 2002, 17,000 tons of synthetic indigo were produced worldwide. As synthetic production increased traditional production of natural products declined and basically ruined the industry in Oaxaca and elsewhere.

In spite of this, commercial production continued in Ocotlán up until 1910. It is still in production in small farms and used for traditional dress and weavings. Today there is an attempt to restore traditional production, especially in the Isthmus. Whether or not production there can be competitive remains to be seen and if the global market is willing to pay the price for a sustainable product that is easy on the land.

In the publication Ethnobiologia Zapotaca an entire chapter discusses a current project to rescue the cultivation of the añil industry in the Isthmus from a cultural perspective. The project has three objectives:
1. Rescue the traditional technology to enrich and improve the current situation,
2. Reassess and strengthen the community, and
3. Access the national and international market with natural dyes.

For this project, añil is produced in an organic, sustainable manner, with as little damage to the land as possible. The land is NOT cleared, slashed and burned, and planting is done on contour where the land slopes. Seeds are planted into furrows with handspikes or stakes about 80 cm apart into existing vegetation at the end of May, about 15 days before the first rain. The rows are weeded about 20 days after germination and then again about another month later. Harvest occurs by hand approximately 4 months after seeding and is done early in the morning so the plants don’t dry out. Two brick tanks, one above the other, are used to extract the dye. The plants are soaked in the upper tank and processed in the lower tank. The dye is then strained to remove residual material and dried in fabric. The waste material is composted with worms and reused; no chemical fertilizers are applied.

Although there is an ‘artisan’ market, in Mexico and elsewhere, the cost of production and high labor requirements limit the competiveness of the product with commercial dyes from India Japan. When you purchase one of the beautiful tapetes made here in Oaxaca, you will see the beautiful blue dye of the añil plant.

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