Indigo, where have you been all my life?!
Repeated delays to our ticketed sunrise flight to Charleston this past Saturday for the wrap of the two-day, first-ever Sea Island Indigo retreat meant we went well into an afternoon arrival. But it was perfect timing, as friend and travel companion Kee (of Loup Charmant, one of the retreat sponsors) and I finally turned onto the gravelly dirt road of Ravenel, South Carolina’s Rebellion Farm on the outskirts of the Holy City around 4 p.m.
The threatening skies of forecasted thunder showers began to clear and the smoky smell of roasting Ossabow Island hog wafted across the blue, blue, blue of clothes, fabrics and yarn drying everywhere as we drove up to the make-shift dye shed. The incomparable hue decorated nearly every corner of the outdoors, dripping off lines, draped across chairs, topping trunks of cars and farm equipment.
We were more than ready to meet the makers, hungry for the heritage food farm dinner marking the finale of the retreat, which had been organized by Sea Island Indigo‘s Donna Hardy and Seattle-based Botanical Colors‘ Kathy Hattori, and eager to walk the fields of specially-grown indigo crucial to this workshop. As indigo grower and master dyer, Donna had been tending this retreat’s crop for over three months; she is almost single-handedly revitalizing indigo as an indigenous commercial crop of the Carolinas, having re-discovered the same strain from that agricultural staple dating 250 years ago, back when Eliza Lucas Pinckney first brought the seed to the Lowcountry. While this crop wasn’t from that seed, it’s an amazing thing she’s doing.
Twenty Indigo workshop participants had picked leaves from Donna’s crop earlier, then crushed them into fresh leaf dye vats, which were then used on fabrics from their swag bags, including organic cotton donated by Loup Charmant, as well as clothes they brought, bought or were wearing. Seattle-based dye-master Kathy instructed workshop goers in the intricate methods of Shibori dyeing techniques the second day, while rag quilting techniques were taught by The Gullah Lady aka Sharon Cooper-Murray on the first.
The farm dinner meal boasted a heritage-based menu created and cooked by renowned Gullah Chef BJ Dennis. His sweet corn bread, stewed okra, pickled cukes, sweet corn and butter beans, chicken bog and pork hash rounded out the Ossabow hog offering donated by Holy City Hogs and roasted all day by foodie Jeff Allen, founder of Rebellion Farm, who not only rents out to Donna for small crop yields of cotton, okra and Carolina Golden Rice, as well as the indigo, but also raises hogs with care and compassion on another part of the grounds.
The meal paired respected southern food intellectuals — like University of South Carolina professor, author and historian David Shields, Charleston-based food writer Allston McCrady and former food critic turned farmer Jeff — with the film-maker Laura Kissel and her documentary Cotton Road, enthusiastic fiber fans (many of whom had traveled from as far away as Colombia and California), and Carolina-born, New York-based designer and indigo-afficionado Kee. As for myself, my interest stemmed from a desire to learn more about indigo and meet the amazing ladies involved, but I’d jump at any chance to return to my Lowcountry roots. During the communal meal we touched upon dyeing, while dining on and dishing Southern foodie lore, surrounded by an evening that was blue and beautiful, bearing all the traditions of southern hospitality at its best. We learned of David’s recent involvement in a sorghum syrup boil (and got to taste some of his newly created sweet stuff), the state of sugar cane growth itself, the financial needs of the Sapelo Island inhabitants, and, of course, the blue star of the night — indigo.
A twilight tour of the fields yielded a kind of call-and-response between the guys and gals regarding the source of the discovery of indigo’s blue (uric acid releases the blue tint from the leafs, so “who-peed-where-first” was just one highlight of our highly intellectual discussion). As if that wasn’t enough, there was a ridiculous rainbow before an equally ridiculously gorgeous mango/indigo sunset, South Carolina weather forecasters be damned.
Kee inspecting a cotton plant.
After a spirited response to the issues of cotton production and clothing manufacturing raised in Cotton Road and with the evening’s l’heure blue receding into a dark, streetlight-less murky night, Kee and I gave our grateful thanks and gracious goodbyes, then wound toward the marshes of Folly Creek, full of southern food and sustainable stories, plus an enviable education of the little green leaf that dyes things a blue shade sumptuous enough to rival any coastal Carolina sea or sky. Lucky for us, it was only as we pulled into the drive of our final destination that evening that big splats of Southern rain started. You know how you always hear “Y’all come back now!” in the south? Well, we definitely did and definitely will.