South Carolina Artist Caroline Harper Is Creating Beautiful Products With Indigo
From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the deep blue sea, Southerners are captivated by this color. In 2014, South Carolina artist Caroline Harper was too. "I had this dream to visit Japan and learn a technique called shibori, which is like tie-dye," says Harper, who lives in Columbia. "That landed me on a silk and indigo farm outside Tokyo. From then on, I was hooked on fabric design—mostly on indigo."
Coincidentally, the natural dyes had a long history in her adopted home state (Harper is originally from France). First introduced here in the late 1600s, indigo was once one of South Carolina's biggest cash crops. It also relied heavily on the labor of enslaved workers. "I wanted to bring the natural back to dyeing," says Harper, "but I also hoped to raise awareness about the plant's history in the South."
Today, she is one of the few artists reviving the state's indigo crop, which lost attention after the introduction of synthetic dyes in the 19th century. Following historic practices for growing and extracting dyes (a labor-intensive process that involves wet fermentation to release the blue hues from the unassumingly green leaves), she produces natural pigments from the same plant varieties brought to the Lowcountry centuries ago. And with that, she creates magic. Harper's artwork ranges from elegant scarves dyed in the traditional shibori method to natural-fiber baskets spun with ribbons of indigo. She also dabbles outside the realm of fabrics with molded clay dishes and jewelry that are saturated in that hue.
True to her intentions, education is a large part of her business model too. For the past few years, Harper has hosted Farm to Fabric workshops, teaching aspiring dyers her process, along with a lesson in the crop's painful past and what she sees as its hopeful future. "People are always mesmerized by the fact that a simple green leaf can produce such beautiful blues," she says.
In addition to hosting workshops at her South Carolina indigo farms, Harper now offers a kit packed with everything that you'll need to create your own naturally dyed art. Find the DIY Indigo Kit ($28) at chidesignindigo.com.