Source: herald times online
Wearing a straw hat and rubber boots, Rowland Ricketts harvested a crop of indigo plants at the corner of 10th Street and Pete Ellis Drive. The gentle hum of his harvester's engine was drowned out by the roars of cars and trucks passing through the busy intersection.
"This has been a challenging year," Ricketts said last week about growing indigo at the farm. Some time ago, the top soil was removed, making it more difficult to grow plants, which are usually hip-high when they are harvested. The tallest plants Ricketts was harvesting came to his mid-thigh, some to below his knee.
Ricketts used a Honda GX 120 harvester that he positioned along the rows so the plants would be pulled out of the soil, lifted upward and then deposited on the right side of the machine. Occasionally, Ricketts would stop the harvester to tie a bundle of the plants with a rope and drop the bundle onto the tilled soil to the side of the harvester.
Although it's the first year Ricketts has harvested indigo at the IU Campus Farm at the Hinkle-Garton Farmstead, he's been growing indigo plants in the Bloomington area for the past 12 years since becoming an associate professor at Indiana University. He teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in art and textiles.
Most indigo dye is made using a synthetic, petroleum based compound that has the same molecular structure as indigo from plants, Ricketts said. Even so, he enjoys growing, harvesting and educating others about indigo plants. The dye he creates from the plants is mainly used for textile art Ricketts and IU students use.
"Indigo is so beloved in work wear around the world," Ricketts explained, adding that because indigo is not water soluble it doesn't wash out of fabrics. The indigo actually coats the fibers, thus strengthening them and making the fabric better as hard-functioning work wear.
To demonstrate how the blue dye is formed, Ricketts plucks a few indigo leaves and crushes them in the palm of his hand. Rubbing the leaves into a mash of green liquid and pulp, he has his son, Anen, pour a little water over his hands to wash away the green chlorophyll. What's left is a stain on his palm and pulp that's yellow-brown in color. As he tosses the pulp away, the palm of his hand starts to turn blue, as the indigo reacts to oxygen in the air.
"It seems very magical to me, still," Ricketts said, looking at his hand.
Back at the field, Ricketts uses a sickle knife to cut the last stalks of indigo. Then he and his 13-year-old son load the bundles into the back of their 1968 GMC Custom Camper pickup truck.
Taking a break, with sweat bees buzzing near his head, Ricketts surveyed the field. "Indigo is still the number one dye stuff in the world." He explains that growing indigo plants for dye is not sustainable and it takes a lot of land and effort.
"It's not a simple equation per se," he said. "It takes so much land out of food cultivation. ... The real problem is our overconsumption. What is truly sustainable?"
For Ricketts, he conserves water used in the dying process by using that same water, which he collects in rain barrels at his house, to water his garden.
Growing indigo introduces students to using plants to create dyes. Some IU students, Ricketts said, have never planted a seed into the earth. So growing indigo, mallow root (for red dye), goldenrod and weld (both for yellow dye) provide natural colors for textile students.
Before creating a vat of indigo, Ricketts has to let the plants dry. He does this by spreading the plants on plastic tarps in the front yard of his property along Mount Gilead Road. The drying process takes a little more than a day. When the leaves are completely dry, he winnows the bluish leaves from the red-brown stems. Then he stomps on the leaves to begin breaking them down.
The leaves are moistened with water, composted for 100 days on a special clay-surfaced floor. The leaves resemble composted dirt when ready for dyeing. About 60 pounds of composted indigo leaves — called sukumo in Japanese — are placed in a 90-gallon vat in Rickett's studio next to his house. Ricketts mixes it with wood ash lye, a few cups of masonry lime and a few cups of wheat bran. The bran feeds the bacteria that naturally occur in the composted indigo, aiding the fermentation that chemically reduces the indigo so it can be used as a dye.
This is the first indigo harvest of the year for Ricketts. It's possible to get three harvests a year, but there's a problem for Ricketts: "The challenge for me is school starts," he said.
Even after the harvest, creating indigo dye is a slow process. It takes a year before the dye is ready and even then the dye might confuse newcomers to the process: When a strip of fabric is lowered into the vat, what appears on the fabric rising from the liquid isn't blue but more yellow.
"It's not actually blue," Ricketts said of the dye. "It's a yellowish color. It will magically, before your eyes, turn blue."
That's the magic of oxidation and indigo.
More on indigo
Rowland Ricketts grows indigo plants at both the IU Campus Farm at Hinkle-Garton Farmstead and at Hilltop Garden and Nature Center at Indiana University. As part of Hilltop's educational programs, indigo dyeing is part of its family gardening program. There is also an indigo dyeing activity as part of the center's summer Junior Master Gardener Program, WonderCamp field trip and Boys and Girls Club Camp Rock field trip.
Indigo is just one of the crops planted this year at the IU Campus Farm. Other plants include tomatoes, peppers, spring mix, spinach, kale, beets, cucumbers, zucchini, winter squash, basil, cilantro, parsley and a few varieties of flowers. There are also blueberry bushes and paw paws that have been planted.