The Charleston Museum presents an original exhibition, Indigo: Natural Blue Dye in the Lowcountry, in its Historic Textiles Gallery. Using examples of indigo-dyed textiles from the Museum’s rich collections, this focused mini-exhibit reinforces the important role of indigo in South Carolina history, the efforts of Lowcountry native Eliza Lucas Pinckney in its cultivation, and the unique dyeing procedures used to make things “blue.” Ranging from the 18th to 20th centuries, clothing and household goods on display, representing examples of vatted indigo dyeing, “china blue” printing and blue “penciling,” reveal indigo’s vast complexities and allure.
Before the advent of synthetic dyes in 1856, yarn and fabrics were dyed with natural dyestuffs. Indigo, because of its range of blue color and resistance to fading, was easily the most popular natural blue dye for centuries. A leguminous plant, it did not thrive in Europe, and obtaining quality, affordable indigo was a challenge for Europeans and their colonists. That changed when Eliza Lucas Pinckney, daughter of a wealthy Lowcountry South Carolina plantation owner, successfully propagated the plant. Carrying out her absent father’s instructions and with the benefit of an enslaved labor force, she succeeded in making this area a prime cultivator of indigo and it became second only to rice in export value in South Carolina. While its production dropped off after the American Revolution, indigo had already woven itself into South Carolina culture and today holds the honor of the State Color and prominence in the state flag.