The Indigo Project cover

The Indigo Project

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For nearly 5,000 years, in almost every culture on earth, indigo plants of many species have been prized for the intensely beautiful blue pigment they impart. Japanese indigo, or Polygonum tinctorium, is a species of indigo that grows well as an annual crop in temperate North America, and it has captured the interest of our local Fibershed community.
After traveling in Southeast Asia a number of years ago, Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess was inspired to grow local forms of natural blue. She began at the garden scale, and after several years of small scale backyard projects, she was motivated to increase regional access to indigo year round.





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The Indigo Project

Long History

For nearly 5,000 years, in almost every culture on earth, indigo plants of many species have been prized for the intensely beautiful blue pigment they impart.

Japanese indigo, or Polygonum tinctorium, is a species of indigo that grows well as an annual crop in temperate North America, and it has captured the interest of our local Fibershed community.

After traveling in Southeast Asia a number of years ago, Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess was inspired to grow local forms of natural blue. She began at the garden scale, and after several years of small scale backyard projects, she was motivated to increase regional access to indigo year round.

Long History

For nearly 5,000 years, in almost every culture on earth, indigo plants of many species have been prized for the intensely beautiful blue pigment they impart.

Japanese indigo, or Polygonum tinctorium, is a species of indigo that grows well as an annual crop in temperate North America, and it has captured the interest of our local Fibershed community.

After traveling in Southeast Asia a number of years ago, Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess was inspired to grow local forms of natural blue. She began at the garden scale, and after several years of small scale backyard projects, she was motivated to increase regional access to indigo year round.

Long History

For nearly 5,000 years, in almost every culture on earth, indigo plants of many species have been prized for the intensely beautiful blue pigment they impart.

Japanese indigo, or Polygonum tinctorium, is a species of indigo that grows well as an annual crop in temperate North America, and it has captured the interest of our local Fibershed community.

After traveling in Southeast Asia a number of years ago, Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess was inspired to grow local forms of natural blue. She began at the garden scale, and after several years of small scale backyard projects, she was motivated to increase regional access to indigo year round.

Seedlings

Seedlings

Image by Craig Wilkinson

Expansion

Through researching the work of Indiana University professor Rowland Ricketts, it became clear that to make large-scale vats, the size of the crop would need to expand.

Rebecca’s project developed into a 6,000-plant agricultural endeavor, and in 2011 moved to a commercial farm in Lagunitas, California—a certified organic food farm. In 2012 and 2013 the project grew a bit larger, and with the support of Riverdog Farm, a certified organic food farm in California’s Capay Valley, enough indigo was grown to yield dried leaf for the production of sukumo—composted indigo leaves. Sukumo can be used to create deep shades of blue in the dye vat year round.

Planting

Planting

Image by Paige Green

Reality

This was the first indigo project of scale west of the Mississippi, and with the help of an incredible team of volunteers and kind-hearted souls—deep shades of local blue have become a reality for our community.

In 2014, indigo was grown at scale using biodynamic practices by Craig Wilkinson, who propagated and planted Japanese indigo seedlings on two farms in Sonoma County, California—DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg and Slow Creek Farm in Penngrove. Craig organized ten volunteer work days for seed propagation, field planting, harvesting and processing the dried leaves. The harvested leaves from his crop of 1,000 plants produced 100 pounds of dried leaf material in one year.

Harvesting

Harvesting

Image by Paige Green

Five Years

The fifth year of local, large-scale indigo farming is taking place in 2015.

Four farming operations are including this specialty crop in their integrated systems; all are organically grown and some biodynamic as well. For those interested in volunteering in the indigo fields during the 2015 season, contact Craig Wilkinson (cwilkinson2@earthlink.net) or Erin Axelrod (erinaxelrod@gmail.com).

The four sites and farm operators will harvest and process the indigo leaves together, and share in the responsibility for accumulating 440 pounds of dried leaf by the end of the season. With this critical mass of dried leaf, the group will have the enough material to compost for the creation of sukumo.

Drying Leaves

Drying Leaves

Image by Dustin Kahn

The Composting Process

Fibershed has the use of a specialized composting floor that was built at a workshop sponsored by the non-profit.

This infrastructure remains available to new farmers to help support in the ‘value-addition’ of the indigo. We provide seeds and consulting on best management practices for the expansion of this new crop, and are helping to build the bridge between research and business development.

It requires approximately 5,000 plants to yield the 440 pounds of dried leaf required to create a hot enough compost pile. The thermophilic bacteria are heat loving, and thus require large quantities of leaf to generate temperatures that break down the cellulosic material, leaving the blue pigment behind in the concentrated form called sukumo, which requires 100 days of composting, with the pile turned every seven days.

Removing Stems

Removing Stems

Image by Craig Wilkinson

The Floor

Rowland Ricketts came to our West Marin fibershed in 2012 and generously supported our efforts to build a composting floor to make our sukumo.

The floor recipe consists of digging out the ground ten or so feet, then layering three sizes of aggregate rock (large, medium and small) to nine feet deep. The last foot of space is composed of rice hulls, sand, and tamped clay. This floor is the perfect breathable surface that allows you to gently water your compost pile in a way that keeps the leaf material from rotting.

Collecting Seeds

Collecting Seeds

Image By Dashielle Vawter

The Fermentation Process

Once the sukumo is completed, the fermentation of the indigo begins in the dye vat.

Part of the beauty of this process is making your own wood-ash lye from hardwood ash. Thesukumo is mixed with water and the lye, plus a small amount of hydrated lime and wheat bran. Over a 14- to 30-day process, this mixture slowly ferments, the oxygen is removed, and a copper-like film appears on the surface. The vat is kept healthy by maintaining an alkaline environment for the bacteria that you occasionally feed with boiled wheat bran, and by not dyeing too much fiber or fabric at one time.

Composting Dried Leaves

Composting Dried Leaves

Image by Dustin Kahn

Living Blue

The sukumo produced by Rebecca’s initial crops has been used for a number of projects.

Several years in the planning, Burgess has been spearheading the Grow Your Jeans Project, for which a quantity of Sally Fox’s color-grown cotton yarn has been dyed with indigo with the assistance of Dashielle Vawter. Three seasoned and skilled San Francisco-based talents will be weaving, pattern drafting and sewing, to make the locally grown jeans a reality. The jeans will be unveiled at an event this summer, which will be announced once details have been finalized.

Indigo Vat

Indigo Vat

Image by Maureen O’Malley

Community Dye Day

Kristine Vejar of A Verb for Keeping Warm in Oakland, California, acquired enough sukumo to start a vat in her store’s dye garden.

In 2013 she hosted a community dye day, and she continues to offer indigo-dyed yarn in her store.

In 2014, the Berkeley Art Museum presented The Possible, an interactive exhibit that included a natural dye lab, with an indigo vat using the sukumo. Tessa Watson of Ogaard was instrumental in making and tending the vat, which was utilized by a number of Bay Area artisans and teachers, with classes attended by visitors to the museum.

Dyed Yarn Drying

Dyed Yarn Drying

Image By Dashielle Vawter

Yarn

Molly de Vries has had a lifelong love of indigo, which began when she purchased a vintage indigo-dyed farmer’s kasuri kimono and pant set at the age of 16.

Molly’s store Ambatalia, in Mill Valley, California, is the location of her fermentation vat and indigo dyed goods.

Mary Pettis-Sarley produces a line of yarn called Twirl, made from the fiber of animals on her Napa Valley ranch, with some of the yarns dyed in her fermentation indigo vat, some dyed with the plants from her land, and some in the natural fiber colors. Her yarns can often be found at the Fibershed farmers’ market stands.

Yarn Spools

Yarn Spools

Image By Dashielle Vawter

Resources

If you wish to grow some indigo of your own, the fresh leaves can be processed in small quantities to produce the beloved blue pigment.

Seeds harvested from the indigo garden of Monica Paz-Soldan are sold on the Fibershed Marketplace website.

A recipe for indigo dyeing using fresh leaves can be found in Harvesting Color, by Rebecca Burgess, also for sale on the Fibershed Marketplace website.

Indigo Seeds

Indigo Seeds

More resources:

www.indigrowingblue.com