Indigo Gives America the Blues

Indigo Gives America the Blues

Indigo Gives America the Blues

Derived from several different plants in the indigofera family, indigo dye produces a multitude of colorfast blues, from pale sky blue to deep midnight blue. Its range of long-lasting colors made it wildly popular and highly valued when it was first imported from India to Europe in the late 1400s, resulting in the nickname “Blue Gold.”

Antique American textiles of all kinds bear the mark of indigo.

Fabrics for clothing, interior furnishings and bedding all were dyed or printed with indigo. But as you look through this online exhibition, you will see that quilts, in particular, are an ideal source for appreciating the ways in which Indigo Gives America the Blues.

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Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Nine Patch
Maker unknown
Circa 1830 – 1850
Probably made in the United States
92.25 x 76.75 inches
Hand‐pieced, hand‐quilted
IQSCM 2008.040.0008, Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection

This striking quilt exhibits a number of early indigo‐printed and –dyed fabrics. In the lower right quadrant there are several fabrics that feature the earliest European attempt at printing indigo onto fabric, a technique called Pencil Blue. In this method, thickened and chemically modified indigo dye was applied directly to the fabric, usually using a brush, or “pencil.” Because the workers had to work quickly to keep the dye from oxidizing and becoming permanent, the penciling often appears blotchy and uneven. Look for the fabrics where the blue appears to be simply daubed on, without much regard for the outline shapes.

Whole Cloth ‐ Toile de Jouy style Maker unknown
Circa 1800‐1820
Possibly made in Guilford, Connecticut 94 x 83.25 inches
IQSCM 2008.040.0132, Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection

This whole cloth quilt is made of a fabric that is similar in style to a Toile de Jouy—a monochromatic fabric printed with large, finely engraved copper plates. Toiles usually depicted humans and animals in an idealized landscape. One clue that this is not a traditional toile, however, is that the design repeat—roughly 12 by 14 inches—is much smaller than those usually produced with copper plates, which were usually between 24 and 36 inches in width or length. In addition, the fabric’s small, pindot background likely was achieved through roller printing rather than copper plate printing, which more often used thin, hashed lines to create the impression of a solid color. The figures in the foreground appear to have been either block printed or roller printed using a variation of the Pencil Blue method, whereby the thickened indigo dye was applied using carved wood blocks or engraved rollers, rather than brushes.

Whole Cloth with Flying Geese Border Maker unknown
Circa 1820-1840
Possibly made in the Hudson River Valley, New York 102 x 82 inches
Hand-pieced, hand-quilted, IQSCM 2010.051.0001

This circa 1820-1840 Whole Cloth quilt with a Flying Geese border is an excellent example of what is sometimes called “American Indigo Resist.” This fabric type is distinct in that it presents large blue motifs on a white background, as opposed to the more usual small white motifs on a blue ground. This distinctive appearance was derived through the use of a “resist,” a chemical paste that, once it was applied to the design areas of the fabric, would block the penetration of dye. All surviving examples of this fabric type have been found in the United States (although pattern books with similar designs have been found in the United Kingdom), thus the name, “American Indigo Resist.”

Feathered Star
Maker unknown
Circa 1850-1870
Possibly made in Northeastern Ohio 79 x 66 inches
Hand-pieced, hand-quilted
IQSCM 1997.007.0161, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Indigo blue stars seem to float on a red background in this Feathered Star quilt. The background print possibly was achieved using madder. Indigo and madder are among the oldest natural dyes used for textile printing and dyeing in India. The red fabric is faded while the indigo-dyed calico has retained its color, demonstrating the fact that indigo is one of the most lightfast natural dyes.

This quiltmaker meticulously hand-pieced tiny triangles around the eight-pointed stars to create a feathered effect. The maker’s skilled handwork is also shown in the narrow border of small triangles framing the feathered star blocks.

Nine Patch
Maker unknown
Circa 1840 – 1860
Possibly made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania 97 x 71.5 inches
Hand-pieced, hand-quilted
IQSCM 1997.007.0714, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Constructed of a variety of fabrics, the 32 nine-patch blocks in this quilt please the eye with their playful arrangement against the bright yellow setting triangles and dark navy strips. The dark indigo calico used in the strips has an orange and white pattern adding charm to an otherwise dark ground. This pattern was probably achieved through the illuminated discharge printing method, whereby a coloring agent was added to the discharge (bleaching) paste. This one-step process ensured good registration, or pattern matching.

Crown of Thorns
Maker unknown
Circa 1890-1910
Possibly made in Eastern Pennsylvania 85 x 86 inches
Machine-pieced, hand-quilted
IQSCM 1997.007.0614, Ardis and Robert James Collection

This Crown of Thorns quilt exhibits a very formal appearance in its perfect symmetry. The repeated blocks set on point are framed with a fabric featuring a bright blue floral design on a black background. The dark navy-blue calico used in each block is the same, except for the two blocks on the right corners. The dark blue used in most blocks was probably printed, whereas the two corner blocks were likely dyed in a traditional resist method. The use of these two different methods suggests that the quilt was probably made at the turn of the 20th century, the transitional period when successful indigo printing was achieved and synthetic indigo became available.

Center Diamond
Maker unknown
Circa 1890-1910
Possibly made in Pennsylvania 83 x 82 inches
Hand- and machine-pieced, hand-quilted
IQSCM 1997.007.0423, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Reminiscent of the medallion-style format popular in quilts during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this Center Diamond quilt presents a strong graphic image. Constructed of basic geometric shapes using a simple indigo print, the sawtooth edges and diamond border add a vibrant rhythm to the design.

The invention of the glucose process in the 1880s gave textile manufacturers an easier, and less expensive method to produce printed indigo fabrics. The navy blue calico composed of two shades of blue used in this quilt was possibly printed using this method.

Maker unknown
Circa 1890-1910
Made in the United States
89.5 x 79 inches
Machine-pieced, hand-quilted
IQSCM 1997.007.0452, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Pinwheel blocks of various blue calicoes and a solid white fabric create movement in this turn-of-the-century quilt. The direction of the pinwheel blocks is not consistent; seven of the fifty-six pinwheels spin in the opposite direction from the others.

A total of sixteen blue calico fabrics are used in this quilt, indicating that indigo cotton prints were abundantly available by the end of the 19th century. The maker may have saved the remnants of previous dressmaking projects for use in this Pinwheel quilt. Many of these fabrics could have been printed using the newly-developed glucose process and/or with the use of synthetic indigo, which was developed in the 1880s.

Delectable Mountains
Maker unknown
Circa 1890 – 1910
Probably made in the United States 79 x 69.5 inches
Machine- and hand-pieced, hand-quilted
IQSCM 2008.040.0079, Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection

This Delectable Mountains quilt is a striking album of late 19th- century fabrics, including a range of blue prints. One distinctive color is the lighter, blue-gray print you can see in many blocks; this color is often called Cadet Blue and is a strong indicator of quilts made around the turn of the 20th century.

It is impossible to tell the difference between fabrics printed with natural indigo and synthetic indigo, so the darker blue prints you see could be either. But because indigo was synthesized in 1880 and rapidly became popular, it is likely that many of them were printed with the synthetic version of the dye.

Britchy Quilt
Made by Maggie Smith
Circa 1980
Made in Greene County, Alabama 78 x 67.5 inches
Hand-pieced, hand-quilted
IQSCM 2000.004.0022, Robert and Helen Cargo Collection

Both the front and back of the Britchy Quilt are pieced entirely of worn-out jeans showing different levels of fading in the many shades of blue. Notice the stains on the pants and dirt around the pockets: traces of their former lives are left on this utility quilt.

Blue jeans, an American icon, are made of denim, as is this quilt. Denim, originated in Nîmes (pronounced neem), southern France, as “serge de Nîmes,” which later was abbreviated to de Nîmes, hence denim. The continuous popularity of blue jeans has extended the use of indigo (in its synthetic form) into the 21st century.

Nyx (Marie) Lyman Dated 1975
Made in Portland, Oregon 64 x 64 inches Machine-pieced, tied
IQSCM 2008.014.0001

Nyx Lyman (who used the name Marie Lyman until 1992), was a quiltmaker, teacher and textile scholar. As an artist, her work was shown in a number of solo and group exhibitions at regional and national museums and international venues, including the Vatican Museum in Rome and the Renwick Gallery.

As a teacher at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts in the 1970s and 80s, Lyman encouraged her students to explore the craft of quiltmaking and also introduced them to historical quilts. She had a special affinity for the color blue, curating an international traveling exhibition in the late 1980s of both traditional and contemporary blue and white quilts.

Works in the Exhibition
This exhibition was made possible through funding from the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit for more information.
Event Date
Friday, September 7, 2012 to Sunday, June 2, 2013