Medieval and Pre-Colonial World

Europe (Vikings)

As they invaded Europe in the 8th century BCE, the Vikings traded extensively with the Near East for textiles and other goods, and also introduced their own styles in weaving. Many of the surviving textiles from the Vikings have been excavated in York, England, an important Viking center. Blue was an important color, and the use of woad amongst the Vikings was extremely widespread, instead of imported Eastern indigofera.

Image: Silk cap excavated at York, England, on display at the Jorvik Viking Centre. 

Near and Middle East

During the 3rd to 9th centuries CE, Egypt was still extremely well known for its textiles and prominent position in both production and trade. “Coptic” or “Late Antique” weavers were highly praised for their skill, and thousands of textiles, especially tunics, survive as examples from this region and time period. The textiles display a wide range of color, including indigo and other shades of blue.  To create purple and black, indigo was mixed with madder, due to the lack of true ‘shellfish purple’. Silk was also a prominent textile produced in the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires (the latter, by the 6th century CE, stretched from Iraq to Central Asia). Surviving Sassanian textiles used mostly indigo to create designs.

Image: Insert from a Coptic Garment c. 7th-8th centuries CE, Egypt. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1971.235.6.


According to scholars, the indigo plant and subsequent dyeing techniques most likely arrived to Japan via Korean artists (who in turn had gotten it from China) in approximately the 5th century CE. Thousands of textiles from Nara dating from around 646 CE – 794 CE have been preserved in a repository there in wooden crates. Indigo features greatly among the textiles from Nara, and after this period, the use of indigo in Japan became much more widespread.

For more information on indigo in Japan, especially on Shibori, visit the Shibori page. 

Image: Plain Cloth Fragment, c. 8th century CE, Japan. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 44.48.3.


Sub-Saharan Africa is well known for its textiles and weaving. Studies of the development of textile techniques used throughout the region indicate that the knowledge of indigo dyeing (which went together with cotton production), diffused from three centers: one in the ‘Old Ghana’ Empire in Upper Senegal, and the other two in Nigeria in the Yoruba region and Hausa region. However, there was not concrete evidence until an excavation in the Dogon region of Mali (done in 1964 – 1974) in burial caves turned up around 500 garments and textile fragments dating from the 11th – 16th century CE. Most of the textiles were cotton, and of these cotton textiles, most were dyed with indigo. 

Image: Cotton Textile Fragment, c. 15th-16th century, Tellem Civilization, Mali. On Loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Musée National du Mali.