Chi Design Indigo: Growing a Business from the Ground Up

After 25 years working as a graphic designer in the corporate world, Caroline Harper was ready for a change. She wanted something more artistic, more tactile. She started working at an art gallery, where shibori designs kept catching her eye with their beguiling designs and “magical” blue hues. Shibori is a Japanese cloth tie-dyeing art that uses indigo dyes and specific types of folding, twisting and binding techniques. Harper decided it was what she wanted to do.

So in 2014, she traveled to a town outside Tokyo, Japan, for a two-week course in shibori design and technique. Afterwards, back in the States, she ordered some indigo online and began creating designs on items that she sewed herself. She started selling her t-shirts and scarves and tea towels in local boutiques and online.

The indigo Harper ordered online was made in India; she couldn’t order it locally, because it’s no longer grown in the United States. So Harper did what anyone else in her situation would have done (eye roll). She decided to grow it herself.

Fast forward to spring 2018 and Chi Design Indigo is in its third year of planting and harvesting indigo and making its own dye. “There’s no literature on this,” says Harper. “We’ve had to learn as we go.” The first year’s pigment yield was low. “We had fewer plants and didn’t know what we were doing.” But last year was a different story; for the first time, Harper did not need to purchase any dye.

Indigo production is labor-intensive. This is how it works: Harper, along with her husband, David, plant indigo seeds in dozens of little pots in their back yard. (Last year the seeds produced about 800 plants.) From there, the Harpers transport the plants to fields in South Carolina’s lowcountry (for non-South Carolinians, that’s the lower southeastern part of the state, closer to the coast). This year, they’re moving to a field in the Charleston area — closer to the site where the crop was historically grown in this country, more than 200 years ago (more on that later).

Indigo grows tall, like corn, with leaves extending out about two feet around. There are two harvests per year, one at the end of August, the second a month later. At each, the plant is cut in half, and stems and leaves are bound together and soaked in steepers, where they are left for 24 hours to ferment.

The next day, “it’s all alive,” says Harper. “The water is bubbling, neon green and purple.” Leaves are removed, and lime is added to the remaining liquid, which is then paddled with oars to add oxygen, a process that changes the color from neon green to brown to deep green to blue.

Over the next several days, the blue pigment falls to the bottom, says Harper, after which she siphons off the water, presses the remaining sediment —“like a thick mud” — through colanders, and wraps grapefruit-sized balls of it in Osnaburg linen, which she hangs to dry. Voila! Indigo. Ready for the mortar and pestle whenever needed.

There’s been some trial and error in their three years making indigo, in figuring out, for example, how much lime to use (too much will turn the indigo grey, too little, and it won’t adhere to the fabric), but each year she’s gotten better at it. This year, Chi Design will be experimenting with a new and more sustainable dyeing method that involves drying the leaves immediately after harvest without soaking them. “It’s completely waterless, so it’s much better for the environment,” she says.

Harper and her husband are members of the International Center for Indigo Culture (ICIC), a small group of artisans devoted to reviving indigo production in this country. It’s a bit of an uphill battle, because there’s a stigma attached to indigo: its production in this country, in the mid to late 18th century, was done entirely by slaves. Indigo was a cash crop — South Carolina’s second-largest export, after rice — and many plantation owners became wealthy on the backbreaking work of indigo slave labor.

That’s a stigma the ICIC wants to address, by keeping its history alive while also allowing its production to carve a brighter path. Harper envisions a modern era of production bringing a new type of tourism to Charleston — indigo dyeing workshops, field visits, festivals. The organization is planning its first event for later this year. It’s time for indigo to turn over a new leaf. Says Harper: “We want to bring light into darkness.”

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected]

Editor's Note: Chi Design Indigo is one of Apparel Magazine's 2018 Innovator Award winners. You can read about the other 27 winners here.

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