Rowland Ricketts’ study and practice of traditional indigo dyeing initially in Japan and now in the United States shows his dedication and commitment to understanding and mastering the ancient process literally from the ground up. Indigo is the name given to an insoluble blue dye produced from plants that requires a slow process of composting, brewing and fermentation. The list of indigo-bearing plants includes the genera Indigofera, Polyganum, Baptisia, Isatis, Lonchocarpus and Mercurialis to name but a few. Despite this diversity the method of natural fermentation is common to all.
The preparation for blue cloth begins with the tilling of the earth and the nurturing of plants, followed by harvest, careful composting and then an alchemical and complex fermentation process to allow the indigo to become soluble and thus to be picked up by the fiber on immersion in the vat. Upon exposure to air the dye reacts with oxygen, turns blue and is once again insoluble.
I’ve long been fascinated by the magic of the natural brewed blues so when I came across the work of renowned Indigo dyers Rowland and Chinami Ricketts I was delighted. For a brief moment I toyed with the notion of dashing across the Pacific from Australia to Indiana, but common sense prevailed and so Rowland allowed himself to be interviewed by email.
India Flint for HAND/EYE: Tell me about your pursuit of blue, please. From your website it seems that you began with East Asian Studies and then worked with various Masters in Japan?
Rowland Ricketts: The path that led me to textiles was neither straight nor direct, but all of the diversions en route have been enriching. As an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University I was inspired by my architecture professor’s advice: experience and knowledge outside the field of art is essential for all artists. Instead of art, I chose to major in East Asian Studies, spending my junior year in Kyoto focused on my studies of Japanese language, history, religions, art, and architecture. Beyond any specific courses I took, my liberal arts education fostered in me a love of learning that I believe is central to all creative endeavors.
Just after graduation, wanting to learn more about Japan and to put my language skills to use, I took my first job as an English teacher at a large regional high school in Japan. After two years of teaching English, I was recruited to develop and implement an international education curriculum for 18 of the city’s schools. Experiences outside the classroom opened my eyes to Japan’s rich craft heritage. I found an abandoned farmhouse, fixed it up, moved in, and began gardening. My endeavors betrayed my suburban American background, warranting unlimited suggestions from my elderly neighbors who had grown up much closer to the land than I (obviously) had. I became fascinated by the rich traditions all around me that transformed local natural materials into humble buildings, tools, utensils, textiles, and even meals of profound beauty.
On a chance visit to the Folk Art Museum in Osaka I was dumbstruck by an exhibit of indigo textiles. Standing there surrounded by hundreds of textiles and the centuries of knowledge and experience those textiles contained, I knew I had found my calling. What followed was two years of training as an apprentice. The first year was spent on an indigo farm learning to farm and process the indigo plants into sukumo, the traditional dyestuff. The second year I worked with a sixth-generation indigo dyer studying the traditional natural method of vatting indigo and advanced shibori techniques. I supplemented my studies by working with a number of textile artists throughout Japan to gain a working knowledge of other plant-source dyes and various paste-resist techniques.
Chinami and I established a small farm and studio in rural Shimane, Japan where she pursued an apprenticeship with Yumie Aoto, a well known kasuri kimono weaver. We supported ourselves by farming and processing the indigo that we used to create functional dyed and woven works for a Japanese market. It was a great opportunity to get a few years of practice in farming and processing indigo under my belt before returning to the US.
IF: So far as I can ascertain naturally brewed/fermented indigo seems to be an ecologically sustainable natural dye; would you care to elaborate on this?
RR: Yes – It’s a fantastically beautiful process that, like many historical processes, produces no waste and is ecologically sustainable. We grow Polygonum tinctorium, an annual. The three basic aggregates of all indigo dyeing (both natural and synthetic) are: the indigo itself, an alkali (indigo’s not soluble in water), and reduction/oxidation. In our case the indigo comes from the Polygonum tinctorium we grow. The plants are harvested and dried, and the indigo-bearing leaves are separated from the stems. The stems are mulched or composted and returned to the indigo field to feed future indigo crops. The dried leaves are composted in a very controlled manner to make the dyestuff called sukumo in Japanese. That sukumo is fermented in wood-ash lye with limestone (alkali) and wheat-bran (fermentation aid) to make the dye bath/vat. The fermentation provides the third aggregate – reduction. The bacteria found in the composted leaves that cause the fermentation are aerobic, and they essentially eat the oxygen out of the vat, effectively reducing the indigo and making dyeing possible. The vat has a life span of a few months to a year or more depending on how much you’re dyeing, temperature, alkalinity, etc. When the vat is exhausted, it, too, is returned to the fields as it’s nothing that an organic farmer wouldn’t put on her fields – composted plant leaves, wood-ash, limestone, and wheat-bran. The wood-ash comes from the wood-burning stove we heat with as well as from our neighbor’s stoves. I also get ash from restaurants with wood-fired ovens. To them it is a waste product that because of its alkalinity is difficult to dispose of, so it’s a win-win situation. Essentially the only thing that really leaves the farming-dyeing loop is the color. We grow our indigo organically fertilizing with composted manure, fish & kelp emulsion, and a commercial organic fertilizer. It doesn’t seem to be bothered by any pests here in Indiana like it was in Japan – even the deer that wonder through our fields daily aren’t interested in eating it.
I read an article a few years back about scientists who were genetically engineering mollusks to produce indigo. The main thrust of the article was how great it was to have found a source of natural, sustainable indigo. My point is that you don’t always need to look forward to new technologies. Sometimes sustainable, local solutions can be found by looking backwards into the past.
IF: From my wanderings through the web I understand you have been experimenting with growing indigo in America? Is there a plan to grow a commercially viable crop of Polyganum tinctorium ?
RR: This was our first year of growing indigo on the scale we did in Japan here in the US. (We’ve moved a lot since returning to the US in 2003 and hadn’t been settled in one place for long enough to grow indigo.) It was a small start, but it is one of my long-term goals to grow indigo and produce the dyestuff commercially here in the US. There is potential in the farming of indigo commercially, but like Japan, it is small, and the market for the dye would be mostly artists & artisans producing high-end textiles by hand. It’s just too expensive to produce and therefore wouldn’t feed the general textile industry’s addiction to cheap materials and even cheaper 2nd & 3rd world labor (sorry, my political views are surfacing...) Yet unlike Japan, the general US population has little to no understanding of textiles and therefore isn’t generally supportive of textile artists. At the moment, however, I’m much more interested in using the process of indigo farming as a participatory art and education project and working on a small scale.
IF: I believe that the cultivation of indigo [Baptisia tinctoria] was practiced in the southern states [Georgia?] in the early days of settlement - do you see possibilities for indigo on a wider scale or would your interest continue more along the line of art textiles?
RR: Baptisia tinctoria is a native, but I’m unsure as to it’s indigo content. There’s much written on it by dyers, but from my own experiences, much of this is hearsay – especially when indigo’s involved – so I tend to take it all with a grain of salt. That said, southern plantations imported indigoferas and had some success, but I think they failed for two reasons – slavery’s just plain wrong, and they were attempting to grow a tropical indigo-bearing plant in a temperate region.
This last point is especially important because when you look at indigo around the world, I divide it into two basic groups – temperate and tropical. Temperate indigo includes Japan’s Polygonum tinctorium and Europe’s woad [Isatis tinctoria]. Both of these were harvested, dried, and composted. The dyestuff is inherently more impure, but at the same time it contains a ton more bacteria that make natural fermentation much easier in their colder climates. Tropical indigo is by far mostly indigo precipitate. It is harvested, steeped in water to dissolve the leaves and indigo, and then lime is added and the mixture beaten to oxidize the indigo that adheres to the lime and precipitates out. The top water is skimmed off and you’re left with a blue sludge that is mostly indigo. Its purity is its downfall in a cold climate, however, because it doesn’t contain the bacteria necessary for fermentation. I have studied both these processes in Japan and Okinawa, and was amazed by how simply the indigo vats fermented in Okinawa – from ambient bacteria? When I tried this in back in temperate Japan I could never get it to work... So while as a means of producing the dyestuff, the tropical method is much quicker (3-4 days from harvest vs. 3 months of labor intensive harvesting & drying followed by 3-4 months of composting), it doesn’t produce a dye that is a natural fit for my country’s temperate climate. At the same time, I value the time that this process takes. I believe that we should ‘waste’ more time on things like this. Our modern time-saving devices may have given us more time, but what are we doing with it?
For more information about Rowland and Chinami Rickett's work, visit www.rickettsindigo.com.
For more from botanical alchemist and HAND/EYE correspondent India Flint, visit her website at www.indiaflint.com, and read her blog, prophet-of-bloom.blogspot.com.
Rowland and Chinami Ricketts' homegrown indigo may turn rural America blue