Garden Update #1 / by Handwerker Gallery

 Our very own indigo plants!

Our very own indigo plants!

Earlier this summer, artist Sarah Gotowka, gallery director Mara Baldwin, and I planted a few beds of flower at the Ithaca College Organic Garden, coordinated by Professor Anne Stork of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences. This is in preparation for the third show at the gallery this fall, for which Sarah will use the pigments for a natural dye workshop. You can check out her interesting practice work on her website here. Across four raised beds we planted cosmos, marigolds, coreopsis, purple sunflowers, indigo, and elderberries. These flowers are used in both traditional and contemporary dye making techniques. 

Educational programming will be planned this for fall in the gallery based around dye making activities, so stay posted.  It has been a little over a week since we planted the seeds (and seedlings) and they are looking great. With the help of plentiful Ithaca rainstorms all of the seeds have sprouted and are growing nicely (aside from a few nibbles from a groundhog friend). Every week I will provide a brief update to the garden as well as some information on one of the flowers and its history with dye making. This week I am going to talk about the history of natural indigo.


Natural Indigo is one of the oldest types of dye used for dyeing textiles. Its use can be traced all the way back to the Bronze Age to the Harappan Civilization (3300-1300 B.C.). This civilization was regionally centered out of what is now India and Pakistan. For centuries indigo was pressed into small cakes and traded with European civilizations. Both the Greek and Roman civilizations valued indigo in their cultures. The two civilizations originally believed indigo to be made up of mineral, but in the late 1200s after exploring Asia, Marco Polo realized that indigo was extracted from plants. As trade routes to China and the rest of Asia were discovered indigos prevalence grew in Europe. Indigo became know colloquially to Europeans as Blue Gold because of its high value and enduring qualities.

Today synthetic indigo dominates the market. It uses numerous harsh chemicals thats pollute  waterways. Additionally as the dye process becomes more streamlined more and more toxins are exposed to consumers who use synthetically dyed products. There has, however, been an increase in demand for natural indigo due to the environmental impacts of synthetic indigo. This process works through a fermentation process with natural ingredients such as ash water and lime. The waste water can safely be reintroduced to the soil where it can provide nutrients for plants and micro-organisms. For centuries this process has been used to dye fabrics, creating fashion staples such as blue jeans, I am excited to be a part of this process and see it come to fruition over the coming months.