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Sea Island Indigo

Indigo. One of the most popular natural dyes used around the world dating back nearly 4,000 years.  In the US, indigo had its heyday in the Lowcountry of South Carolina in the 1700’s as an early cash crop grown and processed into dye by slave labor on large plantations. The majority was exported to Europe to meet growing demand. By the early-1800’s, indigo had all but disappeared from the American South as the British shifted the industry to India. Today, textile artisan Donna Hardy is leading the effort to re-establish and reinvent the crop, dye, products, and culture of indigo in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.  

The People

Donna Hardy’s home near Charleston, South Carolina is like a condensed gallery of textile arts from around the globe – intricately woven and dyed rugs, tapestries, clothing, and bolts of cloth from Thailand, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Peru, Japan, India, Himalaya, Africa – all made of natural fibers colored with natural dyes of red, green, brown and, especially, indigo blue.  Included among these are stunning pieces Donna has dyed herself, working in solidarity with indigo growers, dyers, and textile artists around the world.

Donna Hardy with a wide range of indigo dyed textiles (photo: Charleston Magazine)Donna’s story as a modern indigo pioneer is inevitably interwoven with others who she has learned from along the way.  As a child growing up in Georgia, her mother raised her with a deep appreciation for plants and the natural world. This led her to discover how plants could be used in our daily lives, especially the study of natural dying traditions around the world and in her home region, the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia.

While living in the mountains of north Georgia, she began growing various dye plants and experimenting with natural dyes as an ecologically-sound, artistic alternative to the ubiquitous synthetic colors. The Chattahoochee Weavers’ Guild in Atlanta was an early doorway for Donna into the world of fiber arts. 

Over three summers from 2004 through 2006, Donna embarked on a self-designed apprenticeship with master dyer Michele Whipplinger in her Seattle workshop. Whipplinger’s company Earthues has pioneered the use of natural dye extracts and non-toxic mordants used to fix dyes to fabric. Earthues is a leading supplier of natural dyeing supplies and knowledge (www.earthues.com). Donna is deeply appreciative of Whipplinger’s sharing of invaluable skills such as “how to look at plants and dyes to create natural color palettes based on the standard (Pantone) color chart.”

Donna’s journey as an independent scholar continued with detailed research and guidance from other talented artisans she sought out, including Kathy Hattori who markets on natural dyes and consults globally on their commercial use through her Seattle-based company, Botanical Colors.  Donna has studied with master natural dyer Michel Garcia, a uniquely talented botanist-chemist at his natural dye studio in the South of France. Garcia founded the Botanical Garden of Dye Plants in Provence, and Madder Color, an association which connects young natural dye artisans with experienced mentors.

By 2010, following the end of her marriage, Donna answered her calling to move to  Charleston, South Carolina and launch Sea Island Indigo in the town that had been the heart of the early American indigo industry. She was determined to locate the original strain of indigo plants grown in the region.  Her expert-seeking skills led her to meet Dr. David Shields, Chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the agricultural practices, grains, and foodstuffs native to the Carolinas. Shield has been instrumental in documenting and promoting the restoration of heirloom agriculture, including heritage dye crops, and has helped to promote Sea Island Indigo’s work and introduce Donna to a network of kindred spirits.

One of these, Dr. David Rembert, Jr, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the University of South Carolina’s Department of Biological Sciences, is an authority on the development of indigo as an industry in colonial South Carolina. When they met, Dr. Rembert realized that Donna shared his passion and commitment to rediscovering indigo as a cultural and economically important crop.  In the 1990’s, his research had taken him to England to visit Kew Gardens and review their extensive collection of historical plant specimens.  In hopes of reconnecting the past to the present, Dr. Rembert was given indigo seeds from the Kew collections believed to be the same variety historically grown in South Carolina.  Rembert, who at one time had lobbied unsuccessfully to convince the state legislature of South Carolina to invest in reviving the industry, was so inspired by Donna’s vision that he gave her 20 of those same Kew Gardens seeds, the South American variety (Indigo suffruticosa) to include in her Lowcountry trial plantings. 

It was a young Eliza Lucas Pinckney who is credited with developing the 18th century indigo industry in South Carolina.  As a teenager in 1739, Eliza Lucas was put in charge of her father’s Lowcountry plantations when he was called out to his commitments as a doctor in the West Indies. She successfully developed methods of cultivation of the plant (Indigofera suffructicosa) and production of the dye, and marketing strategies to overcome competition. Working with enslaved West Africans to run the agricultural and industrial production, Pinckney was shipping 1 million pounds of indigo extract each year by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.  Indigo was grown and processed successfully on plantations all through the South Carolina Lowcountry, and also in counties further inland. The war quickly changed conditions and reduced the market for South Carolina indigo.  Slaves were no longer available for cultivation and processing, and the British soon shifted production to India (especially Bengal), which has remained the world’s major commercial producer of natural indigo dye.  The creation of the first synthetic indigo by a German chemist in 1880 nearly eliminated the huge worldwide market for natural indigo by the early 1900’s.

Donna Hardy’s interest in natural dyes extends to a concern for people in India and China, where much of the world’s clothing is made and where synthetic, petroleum based dyes are polluting water people depend on.  She hopes that by producing natural dyes for the American market, customers will see that they can avoid the impacts of synthetics and choose a healthier alternative.

The Land

As the epicenter of indigo commerce in Early America, Charleston, South Carolina was the logical place for Donna Hardy to establish Sea Island Indigo as an innovative business based on a deep respect for the past and a bright vision of the future. Since its founding as an early American port town in 1671 through the early 1900’s, Charleston was a place where indigo was grown.  By 1689, French Huguenot immigrants came to Charleston and began growing indigo with some commercial success.  Some had come from woad growing regions of France, where this blue dye plant was adapted to northern Europe’s growing conditions. The French brought with them their skills as processors and dyers, with large systems designed for producing the dye extract on each plantation. Nearly 200 years have passed since the indigo industry led by Eliza Lucas Pinckney came to an end in Charleston. 

South Carolina indigo production in the 1700’s (source: “A map of the Parish of St. Stephen” by Henry Mouzon)

Today, the outer edges of the fast-growing Charleston area, in the Outer Coastal Plain of South Carolina, offer the sub-tropical maritime environment and sandy soils that are well-suited to growing Indigofera suffructicosa.  With indigo still lingering in the cultural memory of the land and people, Donna Hardy had no doubt that THIS is the place to once again begin planting and producing true American grown indigo.  Still, a successful indigo crop must be carefully cultivated to prevail through environmental conditions typical of this coastal environment, including drought, low-nutrient soils, competition from weeds, frost, and the occasional hurricane.

Donna planted her first crop in 2012, establishing a plot at Jeremiah Farm and Goat Dairy, situated on 12 acres on nearby Johns Island.  The plants grew well there with the addition of goat manure, but the entire crop was killed prior to harvest by an early fall frost. The next year she planted the seeds from Kew Gardens collection in a 4 foot by 8 foot plot at Magnolia Park Community Gardens, near her home in West Ashley, South Carolina.  This crop thrived, and that same year she realized that she was in need of the support that could be offered by being part of an incubator farm. She also learned that seedlings started in a greenhouse would grow better than plants grown by direct seeding in the soil.  

In 2013 Donna met Jeff Allen, who had established Rebellion Farm in nearby Ravenel in 2011, partly as a location for start-up farm businesses to share access to equipment, labor, growing expertise, and land.  Allen, a recent graduate of Clemson University’s New and Beginning Farmer program, named the farm in honor of the Stono rebellion, the largest slave insurrection in British North America. Rebellion Farm focuses on heirloom produce and livestock, and was a welcome place for Donna to grow a successful indigo crop that was larger than her community garden plot.  Jeff and his crew worked with Donna to prepare the beds, incorporate compost, and provide drip irrigation and weeding necessary for the plants to thrive.  Her seedlings were planted in June (after the danger of frost had passed) by a crop mob of volunteers organized by the nonprofit Lowcountry Local First.  The plants thrived in the summer heat with the support of drip irrigation and plenty of weeding to reduce competition, reaching a height of 8 feet before harvest.  The bountiful harvest in September is done when the plants are flowering, and before they go to seed to promote the best pigment quality.  These plants then served as the source of indigo for her first retreat, also held at Rebellion. 

Crop Mob planting at Rebellion Farm, 2014 (photo: Sea Island Indigo)Donna also began working with Dr. Brian Ward, Research Specialist at Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center on Johns Island to establish a nursery for starting seedlings in a greenhouse in the spring, and then test plots to try different varieties and methods of cultivation.  The seeds came from a line grown on Ossabaw Island near Savannah, Georgia for more than 250 years.  Through her research Donna learned that botanists at the University of Georgia had verified that small patch of naturalized indigo (Indigofera suffructicosa) growing on the island was indeed a remnant from 18th century indigo plantations. Ossabaw Island, now a state natural area, was owned through the 20th century by a family of northern industrialists. It was managed primarily as a hunting retreat and, later, a retreat for artists, writers, and ecologists.  Donna contacted the Ossabaw Island Foundation to learn more about the remnant indigo plants, and they responded by sending her seeds that were then planted by Ward in trial plots at Clemson.  For the 2015 growing season, Donna will work with Ward to establish seedlings from an estimated 20 to 30 lbs of seed harvested from her 2014 crop.  Donna has determined that these seeds will be the focus of her work to expand indigo production – surviving in the wild more than two centuries, they are well-adapted to their environment, and reflect the terroir of the Lowcountry.

The Products

Sea Island Indigo offers products and services designed to advance indigo culture in America.  Intensely blue, useful, natural products such as dyed yarn and fabric. As she expands her indigo crop and processing capacity, Donna plans to begin offering indigo dye powder for home dyers and commercial use.

One of the main services Sea Island Indigo offers at this time is a re-dyeing service for clothing and linens. Send Donna your cotton, linen or silk shirts, faded jeans, skirts, jackets, scarves, table cloths, napkins, and she’ll dye them in genuine indigo and send them back to you in different shades of that vibrant natural blue.

Fine cloth re-dyed with indigo at a recent workshop (photo: Heather K. Powers)

Indigo dyeing workshops are another offering, with the first held this past September as a multi-day intensive held at Jeff Allen’s Rebellion Farm near Charleston.  A small but dedicated group gathered for a weekend learning the history of indigo and its current production, sharing barbecue with an Ossabaw Island Hog, traditional Gullah-Geechie dishes, and bluegrass, and to try their hand at dyeing different natural fabrics in both fresh leaf and conventional vats. Sea Island Indigo has also held recent indigo natural dye demonstrations (indigo dye days) at Kiawah Island South Carolina and Ossabaw Island Georgia with the Fiber Guild of the Savannahs. Future offerings may include smaller workshops working with indigo and other natural dyes.

Hands-on indigo dyeing workshop at Kiawah Island (photo: Heather K. Powers)

But the foundation of it all -- the product and service Sea Island Indigo can offer that will contribute the most to reinventing indigo culture in the Southeastern US -- is the growing, harvesting, and processing of a substantial annual indigo crop, and the processing of that crop into indigo extract (concentrated dye powder) for use by home dyers and commercial dyeing across the country.  Sea Island Indigo is well on its way to making that happen.

To produce the indigo extract, Donna bundles and weighs the harvest to calculate the yield of pigment.  She then steeps the indigo leaves in large vats of warm water – currently a 32 gallon trash can on wheels with a lid.  Steeping can last several days, going from amber to teal to deep blue as it releases the colorless indican and indoxyl into the water as the base of the dye.  She then removes the leaves (this can be done using large strainers) and agitates the dye water with an immersion mixer to oxidate it and transform the indoxyl into indigo.  Additives are then mixed in (such as lime and natural reducing agents) which can remove excess oxygen and help the indigo to clump and precipitate, settling to the bottom of the vat to form a navy blue mud.  She gradually draws off the water and skims sediment until all that is left is the dry blue extract powder.  This is then packaged in jars or bags, stored, and used for dyeing, workshops and, ultimately, for sale to customers.

To prepare a vat for dyeing cloth, Donna works to reduce and eliminate oxygen, which prevents the indigotin dye from bonding with the fiber. Fermentation has historically been used to accomplish this, known as a “fresh leaf’ vat.  though chemicals such as sodium hydrosulfite can be used. The vats must be kept fairly warm for the dying to work, and they can be used repeatedly and replenished with dye extract.  Mordants are then used to hold the color to the fibers. 

The hands of an indigo dyer and the precious seeds of the plant (photo: Sea Island Indigo)

More than 300 species of plants can produce a blue dye and many have been used to produce “indigo” blue dyes, though the main plants for commercial production are South American indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa), Indian varieties (Indigofera tinctoria), and other plant species such as Japanese indigo, aka “dyer’s knotweed” (Polygonum tinctorium) and a European plant known as woad (Isatis tinctoria). 

The seeds brought back by Dr. Rembert from Kew Gardens and planted by Donna Hardy near Charleston were the South American variety of indigo (Indigo sufruticosa) It was this native South American variety that they both believed was primarily grown as an 18th- and 19th-century cash crop in South Carolina.  Mayan, Aztec, and Incan cultures in Central American had used Indigo sufruticosa as a source of dye for centuries. With the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, they began to export Guatemalan indigo dye (then called Anil) to Europe as a means of competing with the Indian dye being imported to Europe at that time by the Dutch and Portuguese.  It is believed that early indigo production in the Lowcountry included both Indian and South American varieties brought from England, though the South American variety was apparently better adapted to the environment and methods of cultivation and thus became commercially successful.

As the plants grow tall in late August, the leaves begin to take on the blueish cast which indicates that the dye chemical “indican” is concentrating.  The plants flower in late September, when honeybees and other pollinators help the flowers turn into seeds for the next generation.  

Mixing the indigo extract to start a vat for dyeing (photo: Heather K. Powers)

What’s Next

Donna Hardy is making her blue mark on the worlds of agriculture, textiles, fiber arts, and ecological stewardship in the Southeast. As Sea Island Indigo grows as a mission-driven business, more people will be inspired to use indigo dye and indigo textiles and fibers. Indigo is once again beginning as a true cottage industry with an open road ahead to access growing interest and a growing market.  After years of research, education, and strategic networking, Sea Island Indigo is being smart about expansion.  Donna plans to continue working with Brian Ward at Clemson and producing her crop at Rebellion Farm to improve growing methods and create a high quality dye crop. 

As demand for workshops and collaborations with clothing and textile companies continue to increase, Donna will increase production of the dye extract, and will need to further expand her network of partners and collaborators to do so. As a leader in the indigo resurgence, Donna Hardy is wisely assembling the right team of partners with complementary strengths, including people who truly appreciate and support her work like David Shields, Brian Ward, and Jeff Allen. 

One of the key next steps is to increase the indigo harvest. This means working with more farmers in the Lowcountry and beyond.  She outlined her approach in a recent interview.  "The model I'm going to use is that I'll provide (the farmers with) the seed. It's a legume, so it'll help rebuild the soil,” she explains.  "Put it in the farmer's summer cover crop, and then at the end of the summer, I'll come in and pay him for what he's produced and I'll cut it, process it. And then we can put the leaves back on the field as a green biomass. It's a win-win for everybody."

Natural indigo extract powder (photo: Sea Island Indigo)

A larger crop requires larger vats and equipment to increase production capacity for the dye extract, and for this Sea Island Indigo will need access to capital (grants, investment, or some combination) to establish a commercial indigo dye production studio, and hire dye production assistants. 

Denim is a good example of the indigo’s potential.  As one of the world’s most popular fabrics, it originated in the town of Nimes in the south of France (de Nimes = denim) and was used by Levi Strauss as the indigo-dyed fabric for his original blue jeans. Denim has been produced in North Carolina since 1891 by Cone Denim Mills in Greensboro, an early and current supplier of denim to Levi Strauss.  As Donna describes it, "…my goal is to have on store shelves a pair of jeans that the cotton is grown in the Southeast, ginned, milled, processed, the whole thing in the Southeast, and dyed with Carolina indigo. Within the Carolinas, we already have the structure to do so. It's just a matter of connecting all the dots. And to get the indigo growing — somebody has to do the indigo so we have a domestic source."

Donna likes to share with her guests a West African folktale passed down in the oral Gullah tradition of the Lowcountry. It is the story of a priestess who made an offering to the gods in the blue sky that touched the roofs of the houses. All of the clothes and fabric at that time were white. As she was cooking rice, she laid her baby on a blanket, and ate the sky. She ate so much she got drunk on the sky and fell asleep. When she awoke, the baby had died, and the rice had burned.  As her sadness grew, the tears full of blue from the sky combined with ash from the burned rice and the baby’s urine to create the blue of the blanket.  

“Today, Gullah cottages are painted blue to keep out the demons (haints). Blue like the heavens. Indigo is spiritual. It reminds us of the heavens, of the gods. Indigo just can’t help it – that’s what it’s here to do. To make blue that reminds us of the heavens.”  

Phone: 678-936-9761

 email: indigogrower@gmail.com

 website: www.seaislandindigo.net

Reader Comments (3)

As a native South Carolinian, I was extremely interested in this article and am delighted with the work of Donna Hardy to re-establish indigo crops and support her vision of producing denim created with all domestic products. I would love to see state monies used to support the manufacturing of domestically produced denim.

Such a well-written and evocative story -- I read the whole thing at one sitting. Thank you for sharing! This answers so many of my questions. I'm really looking forward to meeting Donna in person next month.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMari Stuart

I read with great interest the history of indigo. I am especially impressed with Donna's tenacity. This lady has her act together!

January 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia Hudson

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