“Daufuskie Blues”, the indigo artisans

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Leanne Coulter and Rhonda Davis have hit the Daufuskie artisan scene with their new endeavor, Daufuskie Blues. These ladies use organic indigo to create eye-catching dye patterns on scarves, cloths, and other fabrics. Indigo is culturally significant to this area of the South, and Daufuskie Blues is honored to be carrying on the tradition with this unique and tricky dye.

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a selection of Daufuskie Blues’ indigo-dyed fabrics

Before the synthetic age in the late 1800s, using the indigo flower was the only way to obtain blue dye.  Interestingly, the first successful cultivation of indigo in America was done by a 16-year-old girl named Eliza Lucas.  After her success, indigo quickly became one of the colonies’ largest exports.  Indigo was economically important because blue dyes were so rare, and it represented a status of wealth. Civilizations were shaped by their choice and ability to produce indigo dye, and South Carolina was no exception.

Rhonda and Leanne started Daufuskie Blues after taking an Organic Indigo Vat workshop together.  “We spent the next two years on our front porch. We’ve had an indigo vat going almost consistently ever since we took that class two years ago,” explains Leanne.

The “Blues girls” create an indigo vat by combining organic indigo powder with a fructose source, such as bananas, honey, henna, or any non-acidic fruit. Indigo itself is non-soluble in water, so you must break it down in the reduction vat. Leanne compares the vat to a kiln, in which you need to remove oxygen for the process to occur.

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the indigo vat

Once the dye is prepared, you can simply dip a material in the vat and pull it out. Interestingly, the color starts off as a light green. Only when it oxidizes with the air does it change to the indigo blue color. “It’s magical. It’s just so magical,” says Leanne. By adding folds, twists, or stitching, the Blues girls create a variety of interesting patterns of color in their fabric. Lately Rhonda has been experimenting with nautical shapes, such as turtles or starfish.

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When applied to fabric, the indigo dye is initially a light-green color.

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Rhonda Davis uses stitching to create nautical shapes

Why do the Blues girls love working with indigo? “Indigo is so different from any other natural dye,” says Rhonda, “…The culture, the history, the mystique surrounding it, the amazing way it physically works, and the process of maintaining the vat of dye”. Indigo vats must be given attention; it needs stirred daily and requires to be fed fructose to keep the dye active. “I mean, it’s like you’re caring for a little living thing, you know?”

Leanne is also drawn to the unique qualities of indigo and appreciates the complicated process it takes to create the dye. “Other dyes are so easy to use. You either cut the plant, get the root or whatever the dye material is, cook it up, strain it, and that’s your dye product.” Not so the case for indigo! The traditional way to extract the indica (dye property of the plant) is to place the indigo in a large vat of water, beat the indigo many times to allow the sediment to come out, drain the water, and repeat the process over again. “And that’s the process that was used in South Carolina,” adds Rhonda.

As Rhonda mentions, mystique and lure surround the indigo vat. Many believe that the vat must be kept “happy”, which means keeping it away from certain people. This includes pregnant or menstruating women, people who are depressed or suffering, unpredictable children, etc.

While indigo is the Blues girls’ staple dye, they have been expanding and experimenting with other natural dyes.  Can you guess what creates this natural pink dye that the ladies use?

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The answer might surprise you: it’s a bug!  Cochineal is an insect native to South America, Mexico, and Arizona.  The insect is crushed and dehydrated into a powder, which the Blues girls then use to create the dye.

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Daufuskie Blues is currently located in the historic Maryfield School.   Future plans including growing their own indigo to harvest their own dye, and providing education to visitors about the dye extraction process.  Stop by to learn more!