Artisan Producers

Indigo and Other Natural Dyes

The human arc is and always has been towards the creative. As soon as we sort out food and shelter, human society inevitably turns to art. Whether it is the narrative of cave paintings, the painstaking patterns of basketry, or the fine metal work of ancient weapons — humans have always sought to uplift, alter, and adorn even the most mundane everyday items.

Our clothing is certainly no exception. Indigo, the blue dye made from leaves, is among the oldest and most widespread element that humans have used to alter and adorn ourselves over the centuries. Made in a humble manner through a rudimentary composting process, indigo produces a variety of blue hues that allow us to change rough linen from its native wheat color to a translucent hue. Of course, it also makes our blue jeans blue.

Sonoma County is blessed for many reasons, among them a climate friendly to the Japanese indigo known as Polygonum tinctorium, which grows beautifully here. With support from our Fibershed, four local farms have undertaken the work of growing indigo in area fields. Close to SHED’s downtown Healdsburg location, DaVero Farm and Winery lends some of its Demeter-certified Biodynamic acreage to cotton farmer Craig Wilkinson, who is growing indigo on an ever-increasing scale. Craig runs Quantum Culture, a venture devoted to returning cotton to a more natural state. It’s only natural he would want to grow the leaves to dye it, too.

We host Craig and co-presenter Rebecca Burgess — an author and educator who is an expert on natural dyes — in our Grange on Thursday, May 28, at 5pm for a discussion of indigo’s role in human civilization, its uses and best practices, and ways to grow and alter your own fabrics.

Plan to return to our Grange on Sunday, May 31, for a workshop on other plants that can lend color to our lives. Chelsea Heffner of the WildCraft Studio School leads an afternoon exploration of California native plants that yield a rich and surprising palette when properly handled.

Certainly, there is a back-to-the-land ken to learning these processes, but fine artists are increasingly interested in the intersection between natural dyes, indigenous textiles, and the uplift of museum-quality production. Learning how to grow, harvest, and utilize the plants that humans have used during the course of our species’ span on Earth gives the modern-day crafter a rare connection to the ancients. Plus, it’s fun!

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