On the southern end of the island, tucked deep in the woods, a marvelous enterprise is taking shape! It is there that Daufuskie Islanders Rhonda Davis and Leanne Coulter are working their indigo dying magic and launching their company, Daufuskie Blues. If you have never seen fabric dyed with indigo, it is an experience I highly recommend.
When Leanne began toying with indigo dyes several years ago, she did not like the harsh chemicals involved in the process. Finding a kindred spirit in Rhonda Davis, the two attended a workshop in Asheville, learning how to dye with indigo using completely organic components and have been hooked on the process ever since.
“We are primarily creating scarves right now but plan on branching out to throws, shawls, runners and towels. Who knows where this will go” said Coulter. At some point they also plan to offer an array of different colors. She explained that by utilizing other natural dyes, a large palette of colors can be achieved.
Coulter and Davis are obviously passionate about their process, but both admit it is very time consuming. From start to finish, a single scarf requires anywhere from a few hours to an entire days work. Dye vats must be continually monitored and tended. The various techniques used to create their designs require pulling, clamping, compressing, folding, wrapping, and often meticulous stitching. Each piece is one-of-a-kind and completely handmade. Their scarves are a bargain, priced starting at $45 depending on the fabric, pattern and size.
The duo is currently selling their wares at island markets and home shows. They have also procured the domain name for a Daufuskie Blues website. A recently purchased plot of land on School Road is where, in the more distant future, they plan to build a workshop/studio. There, they will not only dye and sell their products. At some point they hope to even grow their own indigo plants taking their process from seed to dye.
As they work on a shaded porch, both grow animated describing their love of the process as a “journey of discovery”. Coulter explains, “You never stop learning. You just never know quite what you are going to get. The outcome is dependent on so many factors; the technique used, how the material takes the dye and the vat of dye itself. Each vat varies a bit. Every piece is different and cannot be duplicated exactly.”
According to Davis, one of the aspects of indigo that appeals to them is its history on Daufuskie “Indigo is fascinating! It is a part of the historic culture of this island and a process that we want to share with people who have an interest.”
Davis writes: “Discovered in the ‘pre-dawn’ of history, the blue dye of indigo is the oldest, most revered and treasured color recorded. Fabrics of linen woven with fine indigo dye borders survive from Egyptian tombs dating from 2400 BC. Though Indigo plants existed all over the world, its dye origins trace to Africa and India.
The plant does not produce actual ‘dye-stuff’ ready-made. Parts of the plant must be subjected to fermentation, and the insoluble enzyme is turned into a dying solution through alkaline reduction. When the cloth is lifted from the dye-bath, it is transformed before your eyes from green to miracle blue as the oxygen in the air returns it to its original insoluble state. It is no wonder it was revered as a mystical and holy substance. A complicated process, one cannot help but wonder how the secret of the dye within the plants dark green foliage and pea-like flowers was ever discovered.
The Indigo plant came to colonial America in the 1600’s where it was unsuccessfully and sporadically cultivated. Eliza Lucas Pinckney, at 16 years of age began experimenting with the East India indigo seeds sent by her father. After several failed attempts at cultivation, she interviewed French prisoners and African slaves brought to Charleston to glean an understanding of the fermentation process required to extract the dye. Her continued efforts succeeded and in 1744, her plantation grew plants rivaling the West Indian varieties. Her ‘Carolina Indigo’ was the first from the states to arrive in England. She shared her seeds and knowledge and the crop soon became plentiful. By 1770 over 1 million pounds were exported annually and its profits outpaced those of sugar and cotton in the US. The ‘true blue’ of the original American flag was made from indigo textiles. Indigo was so valued at the time of the American Revolution that indigo cakes were used as currency.
The dye was synthesized just over a 100 years ago and harsh, environmentally harmful chemicals wore the label of ‘indigo’. The “divine alchemy” of natural plant indigo nearly became lost. However, one may be glad for the current resurgence of natural indigo production and the slow and satisfying process of a healthy, living, organic beauty found only in what is natural.”