We have, over the years, done quite a bit of experimenting with natural dyes, and we try to integrate naturally dyed fabrics into our collections of low-impact dyed yardage whenever possible. We have also been lucky enough to benefit from the wisdom of many natural dye experts. Picking up from a conversation we had last fall, we continue to talk with and highlight the work of experts in the indigo industry in a series on our Journal. Today we feature someone with astonishing knowledge of the history of indigo in America, and years of experience in using indigo and other natural materials—Donna Hardy of Sea Island Indigo.
Years ago, before there was much conversation about “green” or organic products or processes, Donna purchased a book about herb gardening that included a chapter on creating a “dye garden”. Her interest piqued, she researched further and eventually began working with a group of women in the mountains of northeast Georgia who were foraging and growing dye plants. Her network of makers eventually led to an encounter with Michele Whipplinger—a well-known and respected natural dye expert who trained in France and Switzerland to become a master in her field. Donna began traveling to Michele’s home base of Seattle each summer to study and perfect her own techniques. Donna said, “One day, in her studio, we were having a conversation about indigo [and] the subject of the history of indigo growing in Charleston and Lowcountry came up. I had the thought, ‘If they could do it then, why can’t we do it now?’”
Donna continued to explore that idea when she could, doing research on the Indigofera genus—the kind of indigo historically grown in the Lowcountry. She experimented with various kinds of indigo at her home in the north Georgia mountains—but the growing season was too short for the species she wanted to focus on. Donna began to travel to Charleston, South Carolina, once a month to do more research on the historically relevant varieties of indigo, because there simply was not much contemporary information available; she found herself researching historic texts and combing through very old documents for information on how to advance her contemporary goal. If she was going to dedicate the time necessary, Donna felt she had to move to Charleston.
In the 1700s, indigo was South Carolina’s second largest cash crop and Charleston was the center of indigo production in the American colonies, exporting nearly a million pounds of indigo per year at its height. Donna’s research had uncovered the species that flourished in the Lowcountry all those years ago and was working hard to reintroduce the plant and expand its numbers. “The type of indigo used at Sea Island Indigo is Indigofera suffruticosa, from Central and South America. This is the indigo used by the ancient Mayans, Aztecs, and Incans for thousands and thousands of years. The specific strain is from Ossabaw Island, an island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. Before the American Revolution, Ossabaw was an indigo plantation. This indigo has been growing on Ossabaw for over 270 years. It produces particularly rich and vibrant blue that is different from most indigo on the market today.”
There is quite a bit of talk about the idea of preserving heirloom varieties of cotton and vegetables and the differences between those plants and their genetically modified cousins. We asked Donna about the importance of preserving heirloom or rare varieties of indigo. “As far as I know, indigo (and this includes all varieties) has not been manipulated and modified as most modern vegetables and grains have. There was probably some selective breeding, which is different, but most indigo is fairly pure. We need to be preserving these strains because the world is changing day to day, and many areas where these plants grow are being cleared or developed and the plants are being lost. And as you know, when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
She is also working hard to increase the amount of research available on indigo and natural dyeing techniques. “Working with Michele and Michel [Garcia, esteemed botanist] made me realize that there will never be enough time to learn about all the various natural dye materials from around the world. I have studied and experimented and amassed quite a library of books, but I will never know all there is to know. We need to be documenting all of this information because this knowledge—knowledge that has been around for thousands and thousands of years—is being lost on a daily basis.”
Working with indigo is part art, part science. Those with a great deal of experience and understanding of the chemical reactions can tailor and tweak the smallest element or technique to obtain unique results. Donna is one of those people. “On one level, creating an indigo vat is just chemistry. But on another level, creating a vat is art. It involves all of your senses, especially a fermentation vat. Of all the dyes, indigo has the most myth and mystery surrounding it. Vats are sometimes considered living beings with their own quirks. You can be working with a vat and know you have the chemistry correct and the vat just won’t work. It won’t cooperate with you—so you let it ‘rest’, and after it’s rested you ‘wake it up.’ Knowing how to effectively read the mood of a living, but silent thing takes a specially trained eye and a sixth sense, of sorts.” Donna has just that sense.
Just as we at Alabama Chanin have witnessed the effects of fast fashion on the world economy and environment, Donna has seen what careless use of synthetic dyes—combined with the disposable fashion mindset—has done to entire regions and groups of people. “I believe we need to move away from fast fashion,” she says. “Our pursuit of cheap textiles has polluted rivers around the world. The people that depend on these rivers for food and drink can no longer use them. Slavery does exist in today’s world, and it’s in the garment industry.”
“Synthetic dyes have been around since 1854, for 160 years. When they were created, within 100 years they had replaced the colors used for thousands of years that were obtained from plants, insects, and minerals. Most synthetic dyes are created from coal tar or petroleum and are pretty toxic to, well, everything. Historically, natural dyes were not always safe either because a lot of heavy metal and toxic mordants were used.” But, as with other aspects of sustainable fashion, there is realistic room for improvement in this area—if companies are willing to commit. “Today we can create beautiful, lasting colors with natural dyes, without the use of these toxic mordants and chemicals. As far as indigo, the chemical formula for synthetic indigo and natural indigo are exactly the same, but synthetic indigo is flat and has no depth. On the other hand, natural indigo has other chemical components in it that create rich color depth. It seems to glow sometimes; it has life.”
Having faced our own unique challenges regarding supply chain and sustainable production methods, we wanted to know Donna’s thoughts on the feasibility of large-scale natural dyeing, as opposed to small-batch making. “Yes, it can be done on a larger scale, and there are folks doing that. There are many ways to do things and there is room for everyone. I’m working on smaller, artisan-produced indigo that creates a very beautifully crafted product that is a joy to work with, use, and wear. This will be applicable to independent dyers for small industries what want to grow, process, and dye with the indigo they’ve grown. It will be a ‘closed system’, so to speak.” But as with slow fashion in general, there is a challenge in educating both makers and consumers to the benefits of slow and natural dyeing processes. Donna admits that “some people just don’t care. They want cheap clothes, whatever the cost.”
Currently, Donna is working with Dr. Brian Ward at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education center in Charleston. His program is doing practical research on the most effective ways to grow indigo. She is also working with a group of engineering students at the University of Georgia to create a new and more efficient way to process indigo. “I’ve been thinking about the importance of preserving this knowledge and have been contemplating that maybe we need a center to bring all of the blue-producing plants from around the world together and record and document the many ways they are used. Create a center for indigo culture, so to speak.” We consider Donna Hardy to be one of the premier experts on indigo in America and think she could be just the person to create such an endeavor.
For those interested in learning more about Donna, her history with natural dyeing, some of the research she has done on Lowcountry indigo, and any upcoming educational programming she has scheduled, please visit the Sea Island Indigo website. And look for more natural dyeing information on the Journal in the weeks to come.
All images are courtesy of Donna Hardy. Feature image photo credit: Karen K. Powers