We dip embroidered linen, plain t-shirts, and other white cotton pieces into the dim liquid—submerging the fabric completely and squeezing out any air. The blue is alive and tenacious now, adhering to the fibers as it washes over our hands and arms, tinting them, too. After a couple of minutes, we lift the formerly white cloth slowly from the gallons, and for a few moments, the cotton appears the green shade of new grass. As the watery mixture drips away and oxygen in the air meets again with the fibers, the fabric begins its turn to turquoise, then dusky blue. The process seems like a magic trick or a science experiment, and as we watch, the blue deepens. This demonstration of alchemy and botany—dyeing with natural indigo—is under way on a rainy June Friday on Kiawah Island, where it’s no stretch to imagine indigo growing. (A few centuries past, the Sea Islands were green, and then blue, with indigo.) We’re here for an introduction to a plant and process thought lost to the Lowcountry, and everyone is soon damp from the rain showers or the vat. The group includes artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and the simply curious. A woman who has just walked up asks if she can dip the sweater she’s wearing. Dyeing continues through the afternoon, and on a makeshift clothesline we arrange the swatches—the blues of spring hydrangeas and soft denim, dripping in the heavy air.
So, this is indigo.
Donna Hardy of Charleston, once a girl in pigtails fishing from docks on Kiawah Island, knows well the centuries-old connections of indigo to the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. She’s spent years researching indigo history—how it was grown and used—and she describes a process that’s time-consuming, temperamental, and beautiful. “We as a people,” she contends, “have always been searching for a source of blue.”
In the 1700s, the Lowcountry became that source. Credit for indigo’s rise goes to a young woman named Eliza Lucas Pinckney—just a teenager when she began testing various indigo seeds on her father’s plantation along Wappoo Creek and the Ashley River. After a few years of agricultural trial and error, she had enough seeds to share with other planters, and the indigo boom began, eventually comprising some 30 percent of South Carolina’s export trade. Then the Revolutionary War erupted and halted sales. (England had been the eager buyer and turned elsewhere.) Hardy explains that indigo was replaced in the South by other, easier crops, including cotton. Indigo went by the wayside. Then in the 1850s, synthetic dyes were developed and ultimately replaced the former sources of color—minerals, bugs, and plants, including indigo.
Fast-forward to present day. In an oak- and pine-edged field about five miles south of Charleston, a few long rows of indigo have grown to just over knee-high. The plants have tender stalks flush with rows of narrow leaves, and the small pink flowers are just starting to bloom. Since the early 1930s, this former plantation land has been fertile ground for agricultural studies by Clemson University. Horticulturalist Brian Ward is overseeing the current project—growing indigo here to increase the stock of seeds in an organic section of Clemson’s several-hundred-acre Coastal Research and Education Center.
“As long as I get more seeds than I planted, I’ll be happy,” says Ward, who notes that the effort will take years to increase the stock of seeds and study the growing habits. He’ll cut the plants, hang them upside down to dry, and use a thresher machine to shake out and collect the tiny seeds to be stored for the next year. To assist in Ward’s “seed increase” trial, Hardy has contributed seeds she gathered from a sea island not far from Charleston—she’s keeping the exact location under wraps—that she believes is a wild remnant of the Indigofera suffruticosa that was cultivated almost three centuries ago.
Word of this potential new day for indigo is exciting to many people around Charleston. Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills (a funder of the indigo trials), notes that rice and indigo horticulture “were inseparable before the Revolution,” and he’s become intrigued by the idea of planting indigo as a cover crop in rotation with rice—to pair them once again and see how the farming culture and processes, and even the flavor of the rice, might change. In the Clemson trial fields, the first steps toward such a mix are already happening. Within yards of one another in the sandy loam soil, carefully tended seeds are sprouting again—resurrected Lowcountry rice varieties of Carolina gold and Charleston gold, James Island “Jimmy Red” corn (the kernels truly are such a deep red that some look black), peas, okra, peanuts, Sea Island cotton, and indigo.
Farming, art, and fashion are part of this blue story, past and present. The Preservation Society of Charleston and the Charleston Museum are adding indigo-centered projects. Brett Carron of Indigo & Cotton, a menswear shop in downtown Charleston, says he’s fascinated and hopeful about the possibility of locally dyed denim. Designer and artist Leigh Magar describes being entranced by indigo and the meditative dyeing process. Best known for her millinery as the creator of Magar Hatworks, she’s learned how to dye with natural indigo and grows a dye garden at her Johns Island studio. Her blue-dyed cotton, canvas, and even stretchy cheesecloth are part of the Madame Magar line of frocks. Magar says her inspiration to use indigo comes from the story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Gullah traditions, and her own affection for local hues—from the pale “haint blue” of porch ceilings to deepest indigo. She describes natural indigo as “ethereal and mysterious,” giving a no-two-alike quality to whatever she lifts from the dye vat.
Meanwhile Hardy’s fingernails are often blue at the edges from dyeing her own pieces and teaching others. Her business card says simply “Indigo grower.” She even has suffered heat exhaustion after spending too many hot July days planting and tending to indigo plants. (She has her own plots and projects growing in addition to the Clemson trials.) Hardy admits that the complex and time-consuming process to extract the blue pigment needs to be improved, yet she is not giving up. With renewed interests in local crops and sustainable everything, she’s among a growing cadre who are resolute about reviving natural indigo here. It’s a simple rallying cry: “Why can’t we do that again in South Carolina?”