Eight years ago, in 2015, Tennessee announced that farms were replacing dormant tobacco farms with indigo plants. In short, this was a business decision that rendered former tobacco farmers— long associated with being a crucial foundation of America— a new salt-of-the-Earth initiative: Dying blue jeans.
Indigo is a natural dye that is in high demand for the textile industry, as it is known for its antibacterial properties (think about how infrequently your jeans retain odors compared to other clothes), and acts as an insect repellent and remedy for eczema. America doesn’t just use this native crop for its iconic denim clothing, however. It is also increasingly used in echinacea and arnica for medicinal purposes, as well as in paint and ornamentals.
The plant’s leaves have been cultivated since pre-6000 BCE in Peru according to anthropologists. Ancient civilizations across the world cultivated and utilized indigo dye. Colonial South Carolina was the first industrial cultivator of indigo in what would become the American South as early as 1755, with both native and introduced species.
In recent years, many tobacco farmers in America have been making the switch to indigo farming. This is because indigo is a much more sustainable and profitable crop compared to tobacco, which has been declining in demand due to health concerns and regulations. Tobacco farmers find it particularly appealing because the growing and harvesting the crop uses the same equipment as tobacco.
Additionally, indigo farming helps to promote use of natural dye and coloring, making it an environmentally friendly option over synthetics. Overall, indigo farming is proving to be a smart choice for farmers looking to diversify their crops and find sustainable alternatives to tobacco.
You can do your part by buying natural indigo-dyed products! Dyeing with natural indigo is an intensive process requiring many ingredients, precision timing, and— in the case of handmade or dip-dyed pieces— intensive skill. Here is a list of jeans brands using natural indigo dye. And of course my favorite of all, Shibori Northwest, where skilled artist Alice Manchester has been using silk remnants and Shibori methods with natural indigo dye for over 16 years.