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Seeds of Trade


Region: South Asia

Other regions: 

Product: Dyes and pigments

Other products from this region: 
   Dyes and pigments belong to the category Miscellaneous inedible


Modern context

The cultivation and extraction of dyestuffs from Indigofera tinctoria was an important industry in India from 1750 up to the beginning of the 20th century. Synthetic dyes, developed since, have almost completely replaced indigo (and most other naturally occurring dyes as well).

The indigo dye was known in ancient Asia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Britain and Peru. It was the dye used to colour denim for work clothes, now a worldwide fashion item as denim blue jeans, and also (darker) navy, especially navy woollens.

Woad was once grown primarily as a source of blue dye but now mostly cultivated for its clusters of small yellow flowers. The blue of woad is brighter but not as durable as that derived from indigo, and woad eventually became a source of fixing and reinforcing a colour rather than providing it. The last two woad mills in Lincolnshire stopped production in the 1930s, but cultivation of woad in France and Belgium has continued but with a focus on its production as a reinforcer and improver of indigo dyes.

The introduction of synthetic aniline dyes in the 1880s completely changed the scene for dyes. Woad's medicinal uses were for the treatment of St. Anthony's Fire and for plasters and ointments for ulcers and inflammation were of minor importance to that as a dye but today woad is mainly grown by those interested in its history and those who research into its ancient craft use.

Henna has been widely used in Europe since 1890 for tinting hair, usually applied in the form of a shampoo. When henna is mixed with other plants, such as indigo, a variety of yellow-red and black dyes can be produced. Chemically altered henna is now the basis of many modern hair colorants.

The active chemical component of madder, alizarin, reddens the bones of animals fed on madder. This property was used in the 19th century by physiologists as a way of tracing bone development during the study of the function of the various cells in growing bone. In the 1860s alizarin could be synthesized and the use of madder as the sole source of alizarin has almost completely ceased.

In England, from approximately the Middle Ages, weld in combination with dyer's greenweed (Genista tinctoria L., Fabaceae), indigo and Woad, was used to produce the colour known as Lincoln or Kendal green. The shade is referred to in Act II Scene IV of Shakespeare's play King Henry IV, part 1, where Falstaff laments 'But, as the devil would have it, three misbegotten knaves in Kendal green came at my back...'