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The History and Science of Natural Dyes and Indigo

Visual Art

The History and Science of Natural Dyes and Indigo

In-Person, Virtual

Kristy Bishop is a fiber artist with expertise in natural dyes, indigo, weaving, and textile surface design. She has been a partner with ECM since 2014. Living and working in Charleston, Kristy spends much of her time teaching fiber techniques to students in public schools, adult workshops, and summer camps. In addition to ECM, Kristy partners with the Charleston Museum, McClellanville Arts Council, and the Gibbes Museum to facilitate workshops. Kristy has also worked in Equatorial Guinea on the wildlife documentary Monkeys of Bioko, produced by Smithsonian channel. Beginning in 2020, Kristy Bishop is a Certified Teaching Artist through the South Carolina Arts Commission.

The science of indigo and its history in South Carolina and West Africa

Students will be introduced to indigo, a natural dye that yields a range of blues. Indigo is a dye that has been used all over the world and in South Carolina, has a history intertwined in colonial America and slavery. Similar to cotton and rice, it was a significant cash crop in South Carolina.
The science behind indigo truly can feel magical, especially when witnessing the color change before your eyes. Students will get to dye with indigo using a folded and clamp resist and experience the oxidation process of the dye while creating patterned fabric.
The days following will be focused on West African Adinkra traditions. Adinkra are symbols printed onto fabric in West Africa that have different meanings. Students will choose one to four symbols that represent themselves, friends, or family and paint a resist on fabric with traditional cassava paste. Once dry, students get to dip their resists into the indigo. They then scrape off the cassava revealing a white design where the paste was before. Students can present their artwork and share with the class.

Natural Dyes and the Scientific Theory

Students will learn about the science of natural dyes as well as color mixing. Natural dyes come from plant and animal sources as well as the fabrics we will be using. For nearly all of human history they were the only source of color for cloth until the 1850s. We will be using indigo for blue, cochineal and madder root for a cool and warm red, osage orange for yellow, onion skins for orange, and seasonal plants such as goldenrod or tickseed.
With natural dyes there are many variables that change the color of the fabric. The variables that we will use to change the color are dipping cloth in soda ash, citric acid, iron, and a chalk bath. Throughout the ELE students will partner up and create their own experiments with different fabrics and dyes. They will come up with a “question” and a hypothesis. The next step is performing the experiment in which they document their results on recipe cards. The students have a lot of freedom to discover new color combinations and will have at least 6 dye recipe cards.
The culmination of the weeklong experiments is each student will be able to dye a 12” x 12” piece of fabric. They will reference their cards and choose which color combination they would like to dye. Using a folding and clamping technique, students can create colorful patterns on their fabric.