Thursday, April 18, 2024

DOWN TO EARTH: Producing natural dyes


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I READ an interesting article in the Nation of Thursday, June 24 which indicated that the recently launched Barbados Fashion Alliance was attempting to reintroduce the indigo plant to Barbados. The plant produces a violet-blue dye which is to be used in the local fashion industry, as well as possibly for export. Ms Pat Blackman of the Barbados Fashion Alliance was reported as saying that funding had been secured through the United Nations Development Project GS Small Grants Programme for a pilot project for indigo and other sustainable natural dyes.Indigo was first introduced into Barbados in the 1600s when it was grown along with tobacco, cotton, ginger and aloes for export, and sweet potato, yam and bonavists for local consumption.However, sugar cane was later found to be more economically attractive, and indigo was among the crops which disappeared from the local landscape.According to Wikipedia (, a  variety of plants have provided indigo, but most natural indigo was obtained from plants in the genus Indigofera, which are native to the tropics. The primary commercial indigo species in Asia was true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, also known as Indigofera sumatrana). In Central and South America the two species Indigofera suffruticosa (Añil) and Indigofera arrecta (Natal indigo) were the most important.The leaves were soaked in water and fermented in order to convert the glycoside indican present in the plant to the blue dye idigotin. ProcessThe precipitate from the fermented leaf solution was mixed with a strong base such as lye, pressed into cakes, dried, and powdered. The powder was then mixed with other substances to produce different shades of blue and purple.India was the earliest major centre for its production and processing.The Greeks and Romans also used the dye as a luxury product. It is among the oldest dyes to be used for textile dyeing and printing. Many Asian countries, such as India, China, Japan and South East Asian nations have used indigo as a dye. The dye was also known to ancient civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.Indigo remained a rare commodity in Europe throughout the Middle Ages.  Much European indigo from Asia arrived through ports in Portugal, the Netherlands, and England. Spain imported the dye from its colonies in South America. Many indigo plantations were established by European powers in tropical climates; it was a major crop in Jamaica and South Carolina, Indigo plantations also thrived in the Virgin Islands. Indigo was the foundation of centuries-old textile traditions throughout West Africa. Clothes dyed with indigo signified wealth. Women dyed the cloth in most areas, with the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Manding of Mali particularly well known for their expertise.Among the Hausa, male dyers working at communal dye pits were the basis of the wealth of the ancient city of Kano.In Japan, indigo became especially important in the Edo period when it was forbidden to use silk, so the Japanese began to import and plant cotton. It was difficult to dye the cotton fibre except with indigo. Because of its high value as a trading commodity, indigo was often referred to as blue gold. Another plant which grows well in the tropics and produces a natural yellow to red dye, usually used as a food colouring for cheeses and other products, is annatto (Bixaceae). There are a number of these plants growing in Barbados. Natural colourant It is said to be one of the world’s most important natural colourants. The  global commercial production of the seed, estimated in 1990, was 10 000 tons per year, Brazil being the largest exporter.The annatto flowers are white or pinkish, while the fruit (capsules) are ovoid or rounded, reddish brown, about four centimetres long and covered with long, slender spines containing many small seeds covered with a dye-yielding red pulp. Propagation is from seed or woody cuttings.Turmeric, which also grows well locally is used mainly in cooking but can even be used to dye textiles. The colour is however, not light proof.I look forward to the progress of this project which, combined with the use of our very own Sea Island Cotton, could be the basis for a unique Barbados fashion brand.• The Agrodoc has nearly 40 years’ experience in agriculture in Barbados, operating at different levels of the sector. Send any questions or comments to: The Agrodoc, c/o Nation Publishing Co., Fontabelle, St Michael.


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