Indigo Gives America the Blues, Timeline


Pencil Blue: Mid 1700s

Pencil Blue: Mid 1700s

Technological breakthrough:
Directly applying indigo dye (reduced and thickened) using a brush, or “pencil”

What to look for:
Splotchy, poorly defined areas of blue color

Pencil Blue was the first method developed to apply indigo directly onto fabric. Developed by the English during the 1730s, the name derived from the fact that it was applied by pencil or brush. Arsenic trisulphide and thickener were added to indigo to form the Pencil Blue indigo mixture. The arsenic compound delayed oxidation of indigo long enough to paint the dye onto fabric. Pencil Blue was never a completely successful method as the result was uneven and inconsistent because it was applied stroke by stroke. In addition, the arsenic solution was dangerous to workers.

Chintz fabric with Peacock motif
c. 1880
IQSCM, Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection, 2008.040.0355

Indigo dye appears to have been applied in two different ways on this fabric: by brush, or “pencilled,” and by block-printing. Some of the larger areas, such as the peacock’s body, appear to have been stamped with a repeating shape, while other areas, such as many of the leaves, look less neat and uniform, suggesting a hand application of the dye.

The scene of a peacock, peahen, and peachicks was a common one for chintz fabrics of this era.