Waking Up Carolina Indigo

Indigo plants (Indigofera suffruticosa) grow abundantly in the fertile black sandy soil on the ancestral land of the Skaru’:re People on the Coastal Plains of the Carolinas.  The plant grows as a shrub with spreading branches between three and six feet tall. The leaves are slightly hairy and are separated into leaves opposite each other. The indigo dye comes from the leaves. The plants can also be grown as a cover for crops and as a fertilizer. The plants produce pea-like flowers in small clusters. A pea-like pod fruit is also produced from the plant.  Indigofera suffruticosa is native to the southern United States.

A Spiritual Journey Shared With Ancestors

Indigo is a medicine for indigenous people living on the coast and coastal plains of the Carolinas. The process of indigo dyeing has historically been and will continue to be taken away from us to glorify others. However, remember that for us the healing medicine is in the flower that the leaves produce in a dye vat. Traditionally, our people used every part of the indigo plant, just like the hemp plant. Indigenous and kidnapped West African people with ancient traditions of indigo should keep the medicine of indigo as scared. What others take let them take, because the medicine in NOT in the beauty of the dyed cloth — it’s in the images the indigo reveals on the cloth.

The ability to create cloth with images from resist binding in indigo is unique to people of color connected with the Carolinas. It’s born out of our 1300+ years of connection with indigo. That historical connection cannot be taken, stolen or reproduced by others. That’s our gift from the Creator through our land to us, so that we will always know who we are as a people.

Natural Indigo takes a considerable amount of effort to get leaves to yield color. The leaves have to be grown and harvested.  Color can be extracted from both fresh and dried leaves.  I prefer to use dried leaves because less leaves are needed.  It takes more fresh leaves to yield color than dried.  As I harvest fresh leaves, I bundle and dry them in a shed.  After the bundles have dried, I strip the leaves off the steams, collect the seeds and save the bear stems to use as fertilizer.

I learned traditional indigo dyeing from two great-grandmothers, Hattie Woodard Harris (Tuscarora) and Mary Burnette (Edisto Gullah) more than 50 years ago. Indigo Day was a big event in both Wilson County, North Carolina and Georgetown, South Carolina. It was always the official start to the Harvest Festival. Preparations would be made weeks in advance and cooking for the Indigo Feast took days.  In recent years I studied surface design including Shibori in the Textiles Department at East Carolina University with Christine Zoller and natural dyeing with visiting artist, Rebecca Cross.  In 2017 I completed a natural dye studio course at the Penland School of Crafts with Charllotte and Sophena Kwon of Maiwa.

Published by Carola Jones, Artist

Indigenous Artist, Writer, Designer | Internet Techie | Pow Wow Dancer | Lover of Dyeing Cloth Especially With Indigo, Madder & Marigold | 4th Generation Hand Embroidery & Sewing Enthusiastic | Working Traveler | NC Toisnot & Mattamuskeet Tuscarora & FL Seminole | Algonquin Gullah Mixed Blood

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