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Indigo Dye Cake

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Blue indigo pigment was traditionally supplied as indigo dye cake (also known as indigo blocks or indigo rocks).
Indigo pigment is extracted from leaves of indigo in a large pool or concrete tank.

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Indigo Dye Cake

Blue indigo pigment was traditionally supplied as indigo dye cake (also known as indigo blocks or indigo rocks).
Indigo pigment is extracted from leaves of indigo in a large pool or concrete tank. The pool is drained and indigo paste is left on the bottom. The paste is put in a large wooden mould to dry, but it is cut into square blocks before it dries completely. The indigo blocks are cut ‘by eye’ and are not exactly the same size. Indigo blocks cut in the West Indies in the 1600s were 1½” square while those from India were larger.

Our blocks are from Tamil Nadu indigo and approximately 63 mm by 54 mm and 30 mm high (2½” by 2” by 1¼”). The amount of paste that is put in the mould to dry is also not always the same, so some blocks may be higher than others. This is the result of a small scale operation run by several generations of the same family. Many blocks (but not all) are wrapped in cotton string to provide some protection during transit. The blocks are quite brittle and soft and are not difficult to break.

Indigo was traded in the form of blocks for centuries. In the past, some blocks were individually pressed in beautiful moulds carved with the logo of the company and the weight. Indigo cakes are very compact and didn’t use much space in traders’ luggage. They were the ideal traders’ commodity: high value, low weight, low volume, and water-resistant. Well-dried indigo does not go off and can last for centuries. In fact, Jenny Balfour-Paul successfully used indigo cakes recovered from a three-centuries-old Caribbean shipwreck to dye with.

Due to synthetic indigo dyes, the 4000 year old technique of natural Indigo fermentation dyeing had almost been lost in India. In the range of natural dye colours, indigo is a very fast colour and is one of the more appreciated colours in the world. When the yarn is dyed, it is green in colour turning blue when exposed to oxygen. To get varying hues of indigo, multiple immersions of the fabric are required, from 2 to 24 dips to achieve light indigo to blueish black indigo. Even then, being a natural product, the blue that you get depends on where the indigo was grown and the weather at the time.

Natural Indigo is amongst one of the oldest dyes in the world going back to at least the third millennium BC. Many ancient civilisations in countries ranging from India, China, Africa, the Middle East and Japan have used indigo as a dye for centuries. In ancient times, indigo was often referred to as ‘blue gold’ due to it being seen as an ideal trading commodity, in that it was high value, compact and long-lasting.

Indigo dye can be made from numerous plants across the world and more than fifty different species of plant produce indigo in usage quantities. The most natural indigo dye comes from those in the genus Indigofera, with Indigo tinctoria being the most common.

The earliest example of indigo from Indigofera probably comes from the Harappan Civilisation (3300-1300 BC) now present-day Pakistan and North West India. It is the largest known ancient civilisation which at its peak may have supported a population of over 5 million inhabitants. Centuries ago peasant producers in India formed the indigo dye into small cakes ready for export through trade routes to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era.

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Natural indigo is a sustainable dye. The fermentation process is the most environmentally sound process for indigo dyeing. It consumes less water than other methods. The water used is stored after each step of the dyeing process and recycled for agricultural use. After the pigment has been extracted the plant residue can be composted and used as fertiliser. In contrast, synthetic indigo dye is extracted from petrochemicals, some materials such as denim using heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead in their multiple chemical washes, ultimately creating hazardous waste across every stage of its production.

Producing natural indigo dye is a labor-intensive, environmentally sustainable ancient craft form that produces the most beautiful, indigo blue, handmade textiles. After centuries of existence, the indigo dyeing traditions are rapidly disappearing, unable to sustain themselves economically and hence pass on the craft to future generations. Mass production and synthetic dyes are now the norms. In buying products made of handmade natural indigo dyed fabric traditional techniques are kept alive as well as providing for the economic and social welfare of artisans in developing countries.

Uses for indigo cakes:

Indigo blocks are great for displays in museums and educational institutions.
If you are making a fermentation or urine vat, Liles suggests using indigo cakes. He recommends making a little bag of fine cotton and putting a piece of indigo cake inside. You should then tie the bag shut and suspend it in the vat. Every day, morning and evening, rub the bag to release a little indigo into the vat.
Some artists use the cakes to draw with, in a similar way to drawing with a charcoal stick. This can be quite messy but you can use disposable plastic gloves to hold the indigo block.

You can also grind the cakes and use them in indigo vat recipes that use spectralite. If you need only a small amount you can use a mortar and pestle with a little water. A coffee grinder used just for dyes would work for larger amounts but be careful when you do this as it can generate a large amount of dust.

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