Growing Indigo in South Carolina
“Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.”
It’s Summer in South Carolina… The air temperature is 90 degrees on any given day with a humidity that hangs on you like an overbearing parent. The sun bakes everything in its scope. The indigo crop is thriving.
When I moved to South Carolina about eight months ago, I had no idea about the heat or indigo. I knew it wouldn’t snow and I knew vaguely, and was pleased to be going where someone was farming and teaching about the indigo plant. I imagined myself, an indigo apprentice until I realized that Sea Island Indigo was two hours from our target destination. I have been drawn to cloth and dyeing for a long time and considered it a mild omen that I had chosen my retirement place wisely. I had no plans to actually retire, but do more dyeing and stitching and just reorder the priorities of life to improve its quality for the years still ahead.
In an apocalyptic flash, our Connecticut condo sold, we liquidated our fabric store and my husband and I hit the road like a couple of carefree kids, our new adventure ripe with possibility. We had done our research and chose our destination based on the weather and the taxes. Our two vehicles consumed the miles intuitively. We anticipated the tropical landscape and nearby ocean with dreamers’ eyes, stripping ourselves of coats and other real and perceived burdens.
We arrived in October after the two-day caravan. Our cars bulged with the immediate necessities – summer clothes, the dog and her crate, our jade plant, my sewing machine and the coffee maker. If all went awry, at least we’d find solace in our pet, our plant, a bit of craft and our prefered expresso blend of a morning cup. We met our moving van at the storage unit where I commandeered a hefty box of fabrics from the lot. The rest of our pareddown belongings were sequestered.
We had rented a small and beachy house, surrounded by tall palms dressed in Spanish moss. It gave us a place from which to map the next three months. The house was situated in a community of birds, horses and alligators. Salamanders crept into the kitchen to cool their feet and egrets traipsed across our front yard looking for breakfast. We biked at the edge of salt marshes captivated by the colors of the grasses and beach combed for feathers and shells at low tide. We were also learning the route to supermarket and our realtor’s office to find a permanent place.
I started a couple of quilting projects, took an online poetry class and ran my Threads of Meaning workshop virtually from my computer. I was trying to stay connected to something familiar while finding my balance on new ground. It was tenuous and scary and lonely. I had never relied on chance before to such a degree or nature, for that matter, to teach me life lessons. But I called my workshop “New Roots” and proceeded to exhaust the comparisons between the trees and me.
As snow began to blanket the Northeast, I was close to moving into a permanent home and had rented a farm in our new neighborhood. I spent my creative energy on digging and building and planning the 200 square feet of earth in the middle of winter, and I was finding vigor in the uninterrupted warmth. I would have tomatoes to eat and leaves to print and Indigo to dye cloth. It was an experiment in Southern farming and a literal connection to the land, feeding and being sustained by interdependence of gardener and dirt. We built raised beds to counteract our sea level, buried a hose from the water main, built a gate as our signature in the vastness of other gardens. We tested the soil and fed it. I learned about snakes and blight and giving room to the seedlings. Working the soil gave me a renewed sense of purpose.
By February I was planting squash and broccoli, turnips and tomatoes. And there’s the Indigo. I ordered two varieties: polygonum tinctorum from Rowland Ricketts III and indigofera tinctora from Sand Mountain Herbs. South Carolina has roots in Indigo history, but the little I knew was no guarantee of success. Luckily, nature keeps its promise and indigo loves the Low Country, and tufts of indigo seedlings were sinking their roots deeper into my garden. They resisted pests and weeds and crowded their beds. They demonstrated a complete trust of place. As I watched, indigo was transforming me. I had made a commitment to the plant to bring it to blue and it was ready to give.
I had lots to learn in the race to harvest. I’ve been dyeing fabric for about twenty years but this process is not as direct as teas, spices and flowers used as dyes, cold or steamed. Indigo doesn’t mix with water on its own. The dye chemistry is a bit more complicated. The leaves must bathe in an alkaline water and ferment as sugars feast on the water’s oxygen. I could skip a pre mordant and expect greater color permanence. And to confuse me further, there are so many choices of technique.
I learned that the plant is ready when the leaves show blue spots and flowers start to appear. If I cut the stems above a leaf node, new leaves will force future harvests. This step required careful cutting, slowing down my hands because I wanted as many chances as possible to get it right. I dried the leaves of my first harvest with guidance from Rowland. I posted pictures and questions on his Indigrowing Blue Facebook group and received generous attention. – Remove the leaves before the stems wilt too much. Spread the leaves shallowly for drying. I brought my first harvest to my sun baked driveway and within a day, the leaves were breaking crisply into a deep blue tea. They were ready to store and would be backup color for the cooler months, if all else failed.
The plants in the garden continued to flourish. My second harvest coincided with a much-anticipated Indigo workshop cancellation. This time I would have to build the dye from scratch, on my own and I couldn’t postpone what the plants were offering. Nature was giving me another chance. I got some encouragement from Donna at Sea Island Indigo, read about chemical and organic vats, compared measurements and scratched my head in confusion.
I approached the plant with greater calm as I cut the stalks from the plants the second time. I stripped the leaves with an economy of effort. My hands found a rhythm as the leaves broke from their crisp stems. I lost track of time until my back ached from standing and almost two pounds of leaves had weighed in. I rinsed and aerated and measured. I cautiously brought the pot to temperature and the crop delivered its promise with Iridescent crust frosting the surface, ready to give blue.
I’ve harvested indigo for the third time and I’m trying something new again. I made a tea of the leaves, bathing freshly cut branches in water, stems and all. They soak for a day or maybe two. There is no heat other than the hundred-degree South Carolina temperature. The water becomes pale blue as the leaves release color. When I remove the stalks, and add the alkaline, it’s time to aerate. The indigo will bond with the lime and sink to the bottom of the vat into a mesh bag. A dense gel can be scraped from the sieve and stored for two years as the dye for new vats.
Will this happen? I didn’t have a precise recipe to follow, so I really don’t know. But that sums it up for any given day, right? When the lime that sunk to the bottom turned pale blue, I splattered it onto a scrap of cloth. I added some rusty metal and it printed outlines of shapes in a very nice way. It won’t be a total loss, no loss at all. One idea swings into another (kind of like seasons) and I keep trying. I’m getting used to trying and not knowing about indigo, about art, about pretty much everything. I’ll wait another 24 hours to see if the liquid turns pale and the pigment has settled.
In the meantime, what I know for sure is this: nature is not afraid. She is patient, and generous and forgiving and ever present. I have learned a lot from this and I am happy to have bonded with my “wilderness,” even if just a little for today.
-Roxanne Lasky – Growing Indigo in South Carolina – copyright 2015
Resources (I referenced along the way)
“A Weaver’s Garden, Growing Plants for Natural Dyes and Fibers” by Rita Buchanan Orignally published by Interweave Press in 1987. Now available as a downloadable Google document.
Many thanks to Roxanne for this beautifully written narrative! So poetic!
About Roxanne Lasky
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