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Donna Hardy brings the blue dye plant back to its Lowcountry roots

Indigo Girls

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Eliza Lucas Pinckney was a badass. The Charlestonian lass has been credited with bringing indigo to the Americas, and, in turn, making it thrive as one of the big three Colonial-era crops along with tobacco and rice. Flash forward 260-some years, and indigo is on the rise again thanks in part to Donna Hardy of Sea Island Indigo.

Pinckney studied in England, and, not surprisingly, one of her favorite subjects was botany. She returned to South Carolina and took over her father's plantation when he was called back to the Caribbean during the War of Jenikin's Ear (1739-1748). While in charge, she searched for a way to pull the plantation out of debt.

Her answer? Indigo.

The blue dye made from the indigo plant today is most commonly used in denim, and it can also create soft, gentle, and subdued tones as well as brightly intense, rich hues. However, it's a labor-intensive process to get the dye. Pinckney was able to make the plant successful, where others had failed. After the war, the British lost much of their trade routes in the West Indies and much of their indigo supply. Pinckney used the British loss as her gain and supplied the crown with her own plants.

More specifically, Pinckney cultivated Indigofera suffruticosa, a variety from the West Indies that her father sent over after he was called back to fight. American grown indigo quickly took off.

However, after the American Revolution started, the crop's production slowed since fewer people were around to tend to it. Luckily Hardy's harvest isn't amidst a revolution. Instead, she's planted indigo — as well as cotton and rice — at City Paper contributor Jeff Allen's Rebellion Farm in Ravenel. Her goal is to help Americans move away from the chemical-heavy dyes.

"The synthetic way is a petroleum base. In China and India, they're polluting the water over there," explains Hardy. "People have no clean water to drink because the dye is polluting the water," she adds. "So why do it, if we can grow it."

Currently, Hardy says that India and Guatemala are the only places that produce natural indigo dye. "In India, they have these huge tanks in the ground and they have men who get down in there and just start kicking like they do in a swimming pool," she explains. But Hardy isn't producing indigo with her feet. "We're trying to bring it into the present," she says.

Hardy became interested in home dying after she read a book on herb growing that had a special section about plants used for their color. Before then she had never thought of where clothes get their pigments. And that's when the Augusta, Ga. native caught the dyeing bug. In the early 2000s, Hardy interned with Michele Whipplinger of Earthues in Seattle before moving to the Charleston area to fulfill her indigo dreams.

But Hardy understands that it isn't going to be easy. Hardy's using the same strand as Pinckney, which is very cold sensitive. She admits that it's debated whether Indigofera suffruticosa or Indigofera tinctoria was grown on Pinckney's plantations, but she's been in contact with Dr. David Rembert, a professor at the University of South Carolina, who did extensive research in the '70s on the matter and came to the conclusion that it was suffruticosa. She came to the same conclusion. Hardy also knows there's going to be some trial and error involved in the project — and, of course, some uncontrollable factors mixed in. "I had a crop on Johns Island last year and the early frost wiped it all out, every last bit of it," she recounts.

She also knows it's going to be time consuming. To create the dye, she uses a process similar to steeping tea. First, the leaves are cut when the plant is in bloom. Then the leaves are placed in water and slowly heated. "At first it'll turn sort of an amber color, and then it'll turn sort of a teal color, and then you know it's time to get rid of the leaves," Hardy says.

Once the leaves have been strained, the water is agitated — Hardy uses an immersion blender. The liquid turns a navy blue as lime and other additives are mixed in. Once the particles start clumping together, they sink toward the bottom of the vat. That's when it's time to draw the water off what has essentially turned into navy blue mud. Dry the mud and, presto, you have indigo. She'll use the blue mud she gets from the crop to dye people's T-shirts, napkins, dresses, you name it. She's even dyed Converse shoes.

But that's just the start. Hardy then gets the vats ready for cloth to be dyed. "I have a sophisticated system," Hardy jokes. "It's a trash can, but it works. You get pretty colors."

The key to that trash can is making sure there's no oxygen in it. If oxygen is present, the indigotin, the dye that comes from the plant, won't bond with the fiber. There's a couple of ways to create an oxygen-free vat. There's fermentation, where the bacteria essentially eats up all the oxygen. But Hardy employs a chemical process. She uses sodium hydrosulfite to remove the oxygen. Both processes don't smell great, but the color is worth it.

Watching Hardy dye is seeing chemistry in action. The white cloth comes out of the oxygen-free vat a beautiful green color, but when oxygen hits the fabric, it's transformed into a deep blue. It's similar to one of those hypercolor T-shirts from the '90s that changed colors in the sun.

Right now her process works because it's done in small batches, but she has plans on making it larger. "The model I'm going to use is that I'll provide the seed. It's a legume, so it'll help rebuild the soil," starts Hardy. "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."

With all that indigo she hopes to help produce a pair of blue jeans that are completely manufactured in the Southeast. Hardy lets us know that the original fabric for Levi's jeans was woven at Cone Fabric Mills in Greensboro, N.C. — and that factory is still producing fabric. "So 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," says Hardy. "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."

But right now, her main goal is on her upcoming seminar Sept. 18-19, where Hardy will teach attendees about the dying process at a two-day course held at Rebellion. The workshop will also have a Gullah quilting workshop and food from Holy City Hogs. The cost of the retreat is $595. For more information, visit seaislandindigo.net. 

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