Indigo is used to dye everything from jeans to the uniforms of blue-collar workers worldwide but few people know where it comes from.

Ahead of a major exhibition in Brighton and Hove this month, Ruth Addicott meets textile artist Lucy Goffin, who traced the dye all the way to India and now grows it in her back garden

Braving sandstorms, snake tracks and wild dogs in an Indian desert are the kind of exploits you'd associate with a tough survival expert such as Ray Mears, not a textile designer from Lewes.

But when Lucy Goffin, 60, decided to trace the history of indigo, it took her a lot further than she'd imagined.

While most people have a few hydrangeas and the odd conifer bordering their lawn, Lucy has fresh leaf indigo.

She has about 40 indigo plants in her garden in Laughton, East Sussex, which she uses to dye everything from silk scarves to wall hangings and waistcoats.

As the main local exhibitor at the Indigo: A Blue To Dye For exhibition in Brighton & Hove Museums and Art Galleries this month, she is hoping to bring her passion for indigo to life, as well as offer an insight into its extraordinary roots.

There are many different types of indigo grown worldwide. Lucy uses fresh leaf indigo, which originates in Japan. She plants the seeds in the spring and it is harvested by midsummer.

"We crush the leaves and use the fresh liquor to dye the fabric," she explains.

"The colour comes from oxygen, so as soon as the fabric is exposed to the air it changes from yellow to turquoise. It's a really magical process."

Lucy has gained a reputation worldwide for her one-off commissions, which range from contemporary vestments for Winchester Cathedral to exhibits in the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Her interest in the art of dyeing with organic indigo has been largely inspired by India.

Lucy was commissioned to do a project on natural dye in the late-Eighties by Indian textile company Anokhi and, as part of her research, she spent time with local people finding out about the traditional methods at a factory in Jaipur and remote villages in India.

Her most memorable experiences are from the times she lived and worked among local people in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Sleeping in a mud hut with a straw roof, in the searing heat and with snake tracks outside was a far cry from her garden in Sussex.

"The local women thought I was quite peculiar, being a Western person, but we got on really well," she says.

"It wasn't common for designers to go and work in the villages but I wanted to see what it was like and what their lives were like. I was careful not to impose any Western ideas but to work with them. ."

In India, indigo is kept in huge vats in pits in the ground that are eight to ten metres deep. "They have to be very careful not to get oxygen into the vat as it changes the colour," says Lucy.

"You can have deep, dark indigo or a pale colour, depending on how many times you put the fabric back in the vat."

The fabric is carefully unravelled into the indigo, then lifted out of the vat, quickly unfolded and laid out on the sand to dry.

"To see five metres of fabric being handled so skilfully was amazing,"

she adds.

Lucy has lots of memories of India, including the sandstorms and peacocks going into the trees and squawking to signal a change in the weather.

She got used to the salty water, red-hot curries and toilet and washing facilities (behind a breeze-block wall) and struck up real friendships with the local women.

"We'd sit in a group and do stitching together," she says.

"You don't need a language when you've got a working relationship. I'd often try some of the words and they'd howl with laughter when I'd get them wrong."

She was taken aback by some of the customs, however, especially those of the more medicinal kind. "I had an ear infection on one visit and was taking antibiotics," she recalls.

"There weren't any doctors nearby and the local town was a good three-hour jeep drive. One of the women could see I was in pain and got concerned and offered me some very fat maggots to put in my ear.

"They use them in sandstorms and the maggots clear up their ears beautifully.

But I couldn't quite face having a maggot in my ear so I had to turn it down."

Another episode she recalls was waking up in the mornings and finding strange bits of straw on her pillow.

"In the hut where I was sleeping there was a tiny window with no glass," she says. "There was a picture above my head and when I woke up in the morning I found bits of straw on my pillow. I couldn't work out where the straw had come from until I realised a bird had flown in and was building a nest behind the picture."

Apart from snake tracks in the sand and the fear of being confronted by a cobra, the other potential danger was being bitten by a dog. With several wild dogs roaming the desert - most of which were carrying rabies - Lucy wasn't allowed to leave the camp on her own. She had to be escorted at all times by locals, who would have to shoo the dogs away with a stick.

Lucy says India has been a huge inspiration and she goes back once a year to do workshops for Western visitors - the funds from which go to charity.

"It was an amazing experience and one that enriched my life a lot," she says.

"It makes you feel very humble when you live with a family who have very little in monetary wealth but are hugely rich in terms of their quality of life and experiences. They have to contend with sandstorms and constant eye and ear problems - it's a tough life living in the desert."

Natural indigo is undergoing something of a revival at the moment, with the surge of interest in eco-friendly clothes.

Lucy grows it in the UK with fellow expert and textile designer Jenny Balfour Paul and between them they have pioneered their own method of dyeing - a process which has taken years of trial and experimentation to get right.

Originally they tried dyeing thicker silk and it took several disastrous attempts before they discovered it worked much better with very fine silk.

They import handwoven silk scarves from West Bengal and Bangladesh, which they dye and sell.

Some of their scarves will be on show in the exhibition as part of a display of their work entitled Spirit Of Indigo.

The exhibition - one of the largest ever to come to Brighton and Hove - will also look at blue denim, highlighting how jeans have barely changed since late- Victorian times, yet we still think of them as clothing which makes us feel "modern".

The display will show how denim is constantly reinvented and feature a very rare limited-edition replica of the earliest pair of Levi's jeans from the 1880s. Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen and Issey Miyake are among some of the designers who will be featured, as well as garments from Rock & Republic, Topshop and Howies.

Commenting on her involvement in the exhibition as a whole, Lucy says: "Indigo is one of the earliest known dyes, it's very ancient and very beautiful and it's nice to be part of something that shows its worldwide history."