An indigo revival in the South

Indigo suffruticosa is being revived by artisans and farmers, from Athens to Ossabaw and Sapelo islands, to the suburbs of Atlanta.

Donna Hardy first began cultivating a “dye” garden of plants that produce brilliant pigments, including indigo, in the 1990s.

Photograph by Kate van Cantfort

Indigo—that iconic hue that is synonymous with denim everywhere—was the most valued natural dye of the ancient world, and also made the fortunes of many plantation owners in the Lowcountry in the 1700s. Now, the variety once grown in the South, Indigo suffruticosa, is being revived by artisans and farmers, from Athens to Ossabaw and Sapelo islands, to the suburbs of Atlanta.

“Crops like indigo hold a mighty sway,” explains Keisha Cameron, of High Hog Farm in Grayson, where she grows indigo in her “fiber forest.” Cameron is part of a collective of Black women in the Atlanta area who are reclaiming the ancestral craft of cultivating indigo plants to be harvested, ground, and turned into dye. Most recently, she facilitated an indigo-dyeing workshop at the annual Black Farmers Urban Gardeners conference in Atlanta last fall. “In certain West African cultures, there was no word for ‘Black’. The people saw themselves as indigo, and indigo was of the earth,” she continues. “A lot of Black agrarian and returning-generation farmers feel a homecoming as we work with lost cultivars like indigo.”

Last June, I drove to Athens to participate in an indigo dye day with another powerhouse behind the southern revival, Donna Hardy of Sea Island Indigo. She spent time researching indigo in Charleston, and eventually moved there in 2013 and began growing the plants and holding workshops on Johns Island.

She soon learned that indigo was already growing wild—or had naturalized—on Georgia’s Ossabaw Island. From fall 2013 to the onset of the pandemic, she held dye workshops there alongside Elizabeth DuBose and Mark Frissell of the Ossabaw Island Foundation.

I arrived in Athens midday to a festoon of blue-hued items strung on clotheslines across Hardy’s front yard. About a dozen women were ringed around two large vats of indigo. There is something otherworldly about the pigment, says Hardy. “In Africa, it was thought that indigo was the color of the heavens, and that it would keep away evil. The famous haint blue you see on Southern houses is part of that tradition. We talk about ‘waking’ up the vat of indigo. Sometimes it just won’t wake up, it won’t work with you that day.”

Hardy creates the dye using traditional methods: Leaves are steeped in water in the sun until they ferment and the pigment begins to leach out. Then lime or another acid is added, causing the pigment to clump and fall to the bottom of the tank, leaving mud that is dried into a fine powder.

Indigo pigment must undergo a process before it can permanently attach to fiber. In the vat, and without oxygen, the liquid is a yellowish green. When the fiber is removed from the vat, the yellowish green turns to teal and then finally to blue as the indigo reacts to the oxygen in the air. Repeated dips layer the pigment onto the fabric until a deep cobalt hue is achieved. “I never get tired of seeing the indigo pigment change from golden to teal to deep blue,” says Cameron. “It’s magical.”

One might wonder: Why go to all the trouble when synthetic indigo has been available since 1897? “Natural indigo has many shades within it,” says Hardy. “It’s alive. It’s hyperlocal—it changes subtly with the soil where it is grown. There’s simply no comparison.”

This article appears in our August 2023 issue.