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History to dye for

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

In the mid-1700s, colonists in South Carolina were in love with the color blue. It was favored for everything from the satin worn in high society to common garments worn by farm laborers.

But it wasn't just the eye-appeal of the color that won its popularity. Blue was making a lot of South Carolinians very wealthy in those days, said Lee Brockington, a historian at Hobcaw Barony. She gave a lecture earlier this month on indigo, the plant-based blue dye that was once a major export of South Carolina.

"It put the colony on a map of the world," she said. "By 1775, South Carolina was exporting more than 1 million pounds of indigo a year, accounting for more than one-third of the colony's economy."

In 1765, Georgetown exported 42,909 pounds. Much of that indigo was grown on plantations along the Waccamaw River, and the Black River plantations of Williamsburg County, the district whose indigo was considered to be Carolina’s finest, Brockington said.

The colony had Eliza Lucas, later to become Eliza Pinckney, to thank for its financial success.

When she was only 16, her father, a lieutenant colonel in the British Army, left her in charge of three plantations, as well as an invalid mother and a toddler sister, Brockington said, quoting a recent article in "Early American Life" magazine.

Eliza, who had a passion for botany, needed to find a cash crop and turned her sights to indigo after receiving a packet of seeds her father sent. She lost her first two crops, but found success with the third.

She was aided in her work by a knowledgeable "negro from one of the French islands," Brockington said, quoting the same article.

The lecture at Hobcaw attracted about 25 people, including six upper elementary students from the Montessori School of Pawleys Island, and was followed by a workshop that allowed participants to get hands-on experience with the indigo dying process. That portion of the workshop was led by Karen Hall, an ethnobotanist and Clemson University professor.

Children and adults alike were fascinated to see white pieces of cloth go into small dye vats set up outside and emerge bright green instead of a deep blue.

The dye reacts to oxygen, and gradually changes color once the cloth is removed from the vat and exposed to the air.

"That's the magic of the chemistry," Hall said.

Participants were cautioned to dip the cloth carefully and not introduce oxygen into the vats.

South Carolina mostly grew indigo and extracted the dye for export to England.

"South Carolinians did dye indigo, but we don't have as much information about that as the extraction," Hall said.

The process for creating indigo dye is complex.

During extraction the plants are submerged underwater in a vat until a compound called leuco-white is formed. It is processed and lye is added to raise the pH levels of the water, then oxygen is added by beating the mixture, causing indigo to form. It becomes insoluble and drops to the bottom of the vat forming a mud-like substance.

The indigo becomes a powder and a reducing compound — historically urine from young boys — is added to make the dye.

Hall said she teaches about the plant and the chemistry of indigo, but also likes to focus on how past cultures have had to work through that process to use the dye, and the places, like South Carolina, where it occurred.

She said she especially likes to focus on how the knowledge of slaves brought to the colonies made indigo production possible there.

A second indigo workshop at Hobcaw will take place in the spring. While a date hasn’t been set, Brockington encourages anyone interested to call ahead and be added to a list of participants, as space is limited.

For information, call 546-4623.

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