Woven Roots Fiber Story: A Dream of Indigo: Growing Natural Plant Dyes in South Central Kentucky

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by Sam Hamlin, Appalachian Transition Fellow

Aired: October 25, 2017

In late August, CFA Appalachian Transition Fellow, Sam Hamlin, travelled to the Edmonton, Kentucky to visit Hill and Hollow Farm, where one family is growing natural dyes and a whole lot more. Nestled in the rolling hills of south central Kentucky, Hill and Hollow Farm is home to dozens of sheep, acres of organically-grown vegetables, a small plot of Japanese indigo and the farm’s dedicated owners, Robin Verson, her husband Paul Bela, and their lovely children.

When we pulled up to the farmhouse, Robin, who is wearing a beautifully-colored, naturally-dyed deep blue indigo shirt, warmly welcomes us with a big smile and stories of her most recent natural dyeing workshop on harvesting indigo leaves to make a natural textile dye.

Years before moving to Kentucky, Robin and Paul dreamed of owning and operating their own organic vegetable farm. Robin fell in love with farming in her twenties by accident. She came to agriculture by-way of her passion for local, organic food and healthy food access. She started volunteering on a farm outside of Chicago as part of a work-share program in a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). During her first weekend on the farm, she met her two great loves: organic farming and her husband Paul, who was also volunteering on the farm. In the late 1990s, she and Paul went on the search for affordable land. They settled on a 60-acre plot in Edmonton, Kentucky, just two hours northeast of Nashville and one hour west of Somerset.

Robin and Paul now operate Hill and Hollow Farm, which has found its primary success as a certified organic vegetable farm, operated through a CSA model. Each season, about fifty families sign up for CSA shares, which Robin delivers weekly to the farmers’ market in Nashville.

In addition to growing organic vegetables, Paul and Robin have a flock of several dozen Jacob and Dorset sheep. Robin jokes that though the sheep won’t listen to her, Paul is the true shepherd of the family; the sheep dutifully follow his every command. Robin and Paul sheer their own sheep and get their wool processed through a few different mills in the region. They sell yarn, roving, sheepskins, and a select number of hand-woven and knitted items through their Etsy page and at the Nashville Farmers’ Market.

Once again by accident, Robin discovered her love for fiber and natural dyes. In 2006, Paul was offered sheep as a payment for a fencing repair job. Paul and Robin have a good amount of pasture on their land, so it made sense to invest in livestock. After they obtained other sheep by chance from a friend, word got out that they accepted sheep and their flock grew substantially, as did Robin’s love for natural dyes. Robin laughed as she told us the story: “Once people realized that we’d accept sheep, it seemed like it went on and on from there. So that’s how the fiber started. And once you have wool, you want to turn it colors, inevitably.”

In 2007, friends of Robin’s from Nashville came up to Edmonton to do a natural dye workshop at the farm. At the time, Robin was not growing any plants to use for dyes, though, they did use walnuts harvested from the farm to create brown hues. Robin explained how fun and exciting the workshop was and that next year she decided to see what plants she could grow for color. She tried working with Hopi sunflowers, marigolds, and Japanese indigo. The deep blue color created by the indigo blew Robin away, so she decided to focus on raising and perfecting her Japanese indigo crop.

Indigo has been harvested as used as a source for natural dye across the globe for thousands of years. The earliest known Peruvian indigo-dyed fabric dates back to over 6,000 years ago.[1] Often harvested by hand, artisans can make vats of indigo dye by combining fresh indigo leaves with water. Indigo is known to be one of the most practical and environmentally-friendly dyes, given that unlike most others, it does not require a mordant. A mordant is an a chemical added to a dye mixture to ensure that natural fibers will hold the color in a lasting way. Indigo makes dyeing without a mordant possible, which not only means that less chemicals are used in the process of dyeing, but also that artisans require less equipment to create vibrant colors.[2]

Robin harvests all of her indigo by hand during the peak harvesting season in August. Just up the road from her farm she runs a natural dyeing studio, where she dyes her own yarns and holds natural dyeing workshops. To make indigo dye, she mixes fresh indigo leaves with cold water to make a vat. She directly dips cloth and yarn into the vat; cloth and yarn made from animal fibers, such as wool and alpaca, take up color best. The longer the cloth or yarn stays in the vat, the deeper blue is the color. In addition to indigo, Robin also uses wild-harvested goldenrod, which grows abundantly right next to her dye studio, to create a vibrant yellow dye. While she creates vibrant yellow goldenrod yarns and deep blue indigo yarns individually, she also creates a green yarn through a process called overdyeing. Yarn that is overdyed is first dipped in an indigo vat and then dipped again in a goldernrod vat, creating a beautiful mossy green color.

Robin sells skeins of naturally dyed yarn processed from her own sheep, as well as yarn made from a sheep and alpaca blend. On Hill and Hollow Farm’s Etsy page, fiber enthusiasts can find Jacob’s sheep roving and yarn, Dorset sheep yarn that is naturally dyed with indigo and native goldenrod, lamb skins (available seasonally), and hand-knitted and woven items created from fiber that came straight from Robin and Paul’s farm. For more information about Hill and Hollow Farms, visit their website at www.hillandhollowfarm.com, and find them on facebook and Etsy.

[1] 6,000-year-old fabric reveals Peruvians were dyeing textiles with indigo long before Egyptians. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-oldest-indigo-dye-20160915-snap-story.html

[2] Indigo. http://www.fibershed.com/programs/fiber-systems-research/indigo/