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Out of the Blue
Chinami and Rowland Ricketts are reviving time-tested traditional farming methods to recapture the art of indigo dyeing in America and turn textiles into vibrant works of art for the home.
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2014 crafts Winner
Chinami & Rowland Ricketts
Using historical, environmentally sustainable methods, they grow and process indigo and create distinctive heirloom textiles.
“There are so many quicker, simpler, and cheaper ways to produce something that looks like what we make,” says Rowland Ricketts. But the work that he and his wife and business partner, Chinami, produce at Ricketts Indigo resonates with the richness and integrity of a centuries-old tradition, free from petroleum-based dyes and chemical processes that are harmful to the earth. “It’s not just about the product but about the action of doing the work, and the connection we feel to the environment,” he says. So for the past six years, Rowland and Chinami have been growing and processing organic indigo, and dyeing with it using time-honored methods at their home in Bloomington, Indiana.
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The two artists met and fell in love 18 years ago as apprentices to an indigo dyer in Tokushima, Japan, a region known for its production of the dye. Chinami, who grew up there, left her office job to study indigo and traditional weaving because “I wanted a career that I wouldn’t have to retire from,” she says. Rowland discovered indigo while teaching English in Japan. “I found that I really liked working with my hands and creating things that worked with, not against, the environment,” he says. After several years toiling as apprentices, they decided to take what they had learned in Japan and reinterpret it on American soil. Although they started small, they have been slowly building a following and have attracted the attention of a few online shops specializing in artisanal goods. This summer they plan to expand their business by launching their own online shop, which will offer products that won’t be available elsewhere.
Every March they start growing indigo seeds (Polygonum tinctorium), beginning the nearly yearlong process of producing the dye. After the last frost, they plant the seedlings in fields. Then they harvest twice during the summer and let the harvested foliage dry in the sun. Since the dye is found only in the leaves, they separate those from the stems. They also let some indigo go to seed, which they will collect in the fall for the following year’s harvest. In addition to what they grow themselves in their own two fields, Rowland and Chinami are working with local farmers to expand production.
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When the growing season ends, they compost the dried leaves in a special shed that Rowland built at Indiana University, where he’s a professor of fine arts. Every week, he or Chinami turns the pile to help burn off the excess plant material and concentrate the color. The composted indigo is then fermented in a vat with wood-ash lye, limestone, and wheat bran. Eventually this concoction will become a living, breathing dye that lasts anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on how often it is used. “At first the smell becomes pungent; then a purple metallic film forms on the surface of the vat. It’s still days and days before we can start using it, but it’s coming to life,” says Rowland. It’s this beginning that they find most thrilling. “I get the same feeling the moment the vat springs to life as I do when we plant seeds,” he says. “It’s a moment full of potential, and that is incredibly exciting.” Since they don’t use any chemicals, they can simply toss the spent batch onto the fields to fertilize next year’s crop and begin the cycle anew.
Although Rowland and Chinami work closely together, they interpret the color in different ways. Chinami weaves dyed yarns into ikat, checked, or striped fabrics for traditional kimonos, obis (kimono sashes), and home textiles. Rowland designs bold, graphic pieces, including table runners and noren (door dividers), by dyeing cloth with “very simple geometric patterns,” he says. “Everything I try to do is to focus attention on the color itself.” He achieves different shades of blue with repeated dippings.
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A bag of dried indigo is ready to be composted.
"We found their passion and dedication to understanding a craft from the planting stage to the finished textiles truly inspiring.”
—Marcie McGoldrick, crafts judge
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Rowland uses a paste-resist method when dyeing his fabrics—mixing glutinous-rice flour, rice bran, salt, and water together, then applying the mixture to areas that he doesn’t want to absorb the dye.
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After removing the stencil, he is ready to dye.
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He then dips fabrics into the indigo vat.
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Rowland’s graphic table runners.
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Farm to Fabric
“Everything comes together at the loom,” says Chinami, who had this antique one sent from Japan.
More than anything, Chinami and Rowland love the connection to history—stretching back thousands of years, across many cultures—that they feel with each vat of indigo they produce. “People have been doing this for a long time,” says Rowland. “And all that knowledge is contained in the color. I find that really profound.”
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A selection of Chinami’s tools, including a wooden shuttle and a brass hook.
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