Indigo and the Lowcountry: From plants to your pants


 What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Indigo’? A color? Probably so. It is a color but it is named after the Indigo plant that produces the blue dye that was at one time used to dye cotton for denim and other materials.

 The Indigo plant is deeply rooted in South Carolina history as it was commercially grown from 1747 to 1800 but its use in general goes back as far as the 1600s. Indigo was just behind rice in export value and was the fifth most valuable commodity exported by Britain’s mainland colonies.

 

 The cycle of planting, processing, and marketing indigo began in March, when the fields were prepared for sowing. Planting began in early April, with a first harvest in July and often a second harvest in August or September. After cutting, the plant was carried to the processing site, a work area generally shaded by a thatched roof. Specialized equipment included three graduated vats set next to each other, in which the plants would be converted to dye. The conversion involved soaking the plants in the first vat, beating the indigo-soaked water in the second vat until thickened grains formed, then draining away that water into the third vat. The thickened mud that settled to the bottom of the second vat was the indigo paste, which was dried, cut into squares, packed in barrels, and shipped to market during the winter months. Slaves were responsible for most of South Carolina’s indigo production. Field slaves planted, weeded, and harvested the crop, and skilled “indigo slaves” worked to convert the plant to dye. Slaves who understood the art of processing the dye had greater value, as an entire year’s product depended on the talents of the indigo maker.

 

 Indigo was eventually replaced by cotton in the late 1700s as Britain turned to India for importing Indigo. Indigo was produced and used locally throughout the 19th century but was taken off the list of South Carolina imports by 1802.

 

 At times, during the production process, the Indigo dye would seep from the makeshift vats and run into the creeks that the production facilities were usually set up beside. This would sometimes cause the salt marshes to turn a hue of deep blue. So if you ever find yourself wondering where we got the name 'Indigo Marsh' from, well there you go!