Indigo in Guatemala: Textile Dye and the Biology of Culture

By Olga Reiche

Dyeing fabric.

The king of dyes and the dye of kings, indigo—that amazing blue dye—is native to Guatemala. Although it is a common belief that the Spanish brought indigo (añil) to the Americas with the conquest, there is pre-Hispanic anthropological evidence that tells us otherwise. This evidence demonstrates that the Mayas used indigo to create Mayan blue, a pigment that they developed in the late pre-Classic period, 1900 BC to 200 AD. The color can be found in pottery, murals and archaeological remains throughout Mesoamerica. In the 1500s, Fray Bernadino de Sahagún in Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España and Francisco Hernández in Historia natural de Nueva España (A Natural History of New Spain) mentioned the extract of the pigment from the plant by its common names from the period.

I’m fascinated by the possibilities of using indigo and other dyes deeply rooted in nature and history as viable options to synthetic dyes. I’ve spent more than thirty years experimenting with these dyeing techniques, and it’s how I make my living. I have to admit indigo is my favorite dye.

The indigo-producing plant, a member of the Indigofera suffruticosa Mill and Indigofera guatemalensis Monc species, originated in the Americas, as recounted by Paul C. Stanley and Julian A. Steyemark in their 1946 book, Flora de Guatemala.

The plants were grown in Guatemala and El Salvador, and indigo became a successful export product in 1760, creating a powerful economic elite. The Kingdom of Guatemala, the administrative center for the Spanish empire in Central America, became the fiscal hub for this trade, although indigo was exported directly from El Salvador and some of it from other Central American countries. El Salvador bartered indigo with Guatemala for textile and foodstuffs.

During the indigo boom in the late 1700s, the Kingdom of Guatemala exported yearly up to two million pesos worth of dye to Europe. By comparison, it took an unskilled field worker twenty days to earn a single peso. The boom was fueled by the cotton boom and the growth of the European textile industry. But Europe began to import indigo from India towards the end of the century, slowing the exports from Central America. The exports collapsed after the appearance of synthetic dyes in the international market when the chemist William H. Perkin accidentally made the color purple in his laboratory.

However, indigo continued to be produced for the Central American market. The dye is used for the traditional indigenous wrapped garments known as cortes or refajos woven by indigenous women on pedal-propelled looms brought to Guatemala by the Spanish in colonial times. The use of this natural dye declined drastically in the 1960s even in the local markets, when the “tint,” as indigo is known, became available in synthetic form. This synthetic dye is still used today in the same manner as the natural one, and is still highly valued.

But natural indigo is experiencing, something of a comeback now, and cultivation of the crop has been reactivated in both Guatemala and El Salvador since the late 90s. Some of these attempts to revive the use of natural dye have been economically beneficial, but others have met with less success. El Salvador is now exporting indigo to Europe, Turkey and the United States.

Today, with the increasing number of regulatory rules and laws that see many synthetic dyes as posing health risks, including some dyes that have been banned as cancer-producing, the market for natural and sustainable dyes is growing, presenting new opportunities for Guatemala and Central America.

 

Olga Reiche, a Guatemalan of German and Queqchí descent, has spent more than thirty years working with indigenous artisans on product development and marketing, producing her own line of naturally dyed and recycled products, and teaching locally and internationally. Her concern for environmental and artisanal sustainability is a driving force. She is the author of Plantas Tintóreas de Guatemala.