The roots of indigo in Edisto Island run deep, starting with Eliza Lucas Pinckney and continuing with Caroline and David Harper.
by Pat Branning
Edisto Island is a flat, subtropical barrier island just South of Charleston—a place of majestic live oaks, heavily laden with Spanish moss that forms cathedral-like canopies over ever-winding sandy roads. Oysters crowd the creek banks and shrimp, blue crab and mullet are there for the taking for anyone with a cast net. Most of the land is a jungle of tangled oaks, magnolia trees, palmettos and yuccas standing high above a woodland floor.
On this enchanting island deep in the heart of the Lowcountry of South Carolina is a farm where Caroline (pronounced care-oh-lean) Harper and her husband David grow indigo.
For Caroline, the day begins with the multistep process of soaking bundles of entire plants of indigo, both leaves and stems, in tanks where they will ferment. Once a neon bluish water appears, it is mixed with lime and aerated until it turns a deep navy blue. After a while, the indigo particles settle in the bottom of the tank. Handheld pumps take the excess water out; this creates a paste that is then filtered, dried and ground into indigo dye powder.
When dying a piece of fabric, Caroline has to sense when it’s time to remove it. At first, it turns green. When lifted, it’s dripping with dye, then slowly like a photograph developing, the material becomes blue before her eyes. She gently releases the clamps placed on the folded fabric that create a pattern. At first, the once stark white material becomes green, but once exposed to the air, it transforms into a deep blue. Carefully she lifts the material and holds it up to see the unique pattern that emerges. Once it’s dried, it can become a gorgeous piece of clothing, an accessory or item for the home. Next she takes the fabric and hangs it on a clothesline to dry.
A native of France, Caroline moved to South Carolina for college and never left. However, her passion for indigo did not happen in South Carolina. Her enthusiasm for the plant and the art took place about six years ago while on a trip to Japan. While spending 10 days on a silk and indigo farm near Tokyo, she learned about the plant and the dye and the ancient Japanese art of shibori—the art of tying, knotting, and clamping fabric to produce different dye patterns.
Caroline had experimented with different fabrics and chemicals as a hobby while working as a graphic designer, but nothing ever captured her imagination like indigo.
This passion only increased upon returning to South Carolina, where she learned the roots of indigo run deep into the history of the state. It all started with Eliza Lucas Pinckney, one of the most influential agriculturalists in the South. In the 1740s, while managing her father’s Charleston-area plantations, Pinckney laid the foundation to develop indigo as one of the colony’s most profitable cash crops. Its production was dependent on slaves for the arduous task of harvesting and extracting the deep blue dye. It transformed South Carolina’s economy before the Revolutionary War and became the colony’s second-leading export behind rice from the mid-to-late 1700s. After the war, England turned to India for its indigo, production dropped off and plantation owners turned their efforts toward growing cotton, creating a 230-year gap in the creation of indigo.
The revival of indigo in South Carolina received a big boost with the release in 2017 of Natasha Boyd’s book, The Indigo Girl. The book tells the story of Pinckney, who was responsible for developing indigo into a significant cash crop.
This historic connection inspires Caroline and her husband, and today they are at the forefront of reviving indigo through their company, CHI Design Indigo. “There is magic in this plant that reconnects us to the land and each other,” says David. “Educating people about the plant’s connection to the past is the cornerstone of our business. We host events and workshops aimed at educating people about the rich history surrounding indigo and teach them how to plant, grow, harvest and process it.”
The Harpers are not alone in their enthusiasm for indigo. David is on the board of the Charleston-based International Center for Indigo Culture, a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and create a new farm-to-fabric economy and culture based on the indigo plant and its dye. They provide education in the history, science and art of indigo to people of all ages and represent a growing network of farmers, natural dyers and textile artists with a passion for creating a new indigo culture.
“I want people to know about the heart of the Lowcountry through this experience,” adds David.
Today, Caroline and David Harper continue to explore the past while embracing the future through innovative ideas, techniques and methodology. Their focus is on outdoor Farm to Fabric workshops, happening this fall (October 10 and November 1) on Edisto Island, Green Pond and Newberry, South Carolina. For more information, visit chidesignindigo.com.
Pat Branning is a cookbook author living in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her first cookbook, Shrimp, Collards and Grits, started with a spiral-bound edition sold at St. Helena’s Episcopal Church bazaar in 2009. Since then, Branning has published several coffee table books and two more editions of Shrimp, Collards and Grits. Her latest volume, Southern Traditions, is now available across the South, and Volume IV, Southern Roots, will be out in late fall or early 2021.