Our newest indigo story of April is from Iris Sullivan who is an Oregon-based textile artist and grower. I hope you enjoy the introduction part of her story as well as her indigo journey in the Pacific Northwest region.
My first meeting with natural indigo happened while attending the University of Oregon.
Because I had learned to weave as a child, I ended up with a work study job as a teaching
assistant in the weaving department, even though I was studying biology at the time. The magic of indigo transported me, and contributed to the choice to reorient my studies away from biology, towards fiber arts, finishing with a BFA focused on natural dyes.
Soon after graduation, my husband Joe and I relocated to Astoria, Oregon so that I could teach at Clatsop Community College. I taught weaving, dyeing, and book arts there for 8 years. We have two sons, now in college, whom we homeschooled.
In 2005 I traveled to Laos to visit indigo dyers and weavers, with my mentor Michelle
Wipplinger. This experience, being with the Laotian weavers and dyers, was incredibly
impactful. The genuine sharing and connection across barriers of language and culture that
happened gives me hope for the world to this day. As an artist my goal is to create installation spaces that help people connect more deeply to themselves, and to the natural world. I often include indigo in my work, as I believe natural indigo contributes to the mending of our hearts, and has the capacity to bring us together across our differences.
Starting to grow indigo was a watershed event. I met Persicaria tinctoria through Brittany Boles, when she gifted some plants to our mutual friend Kestrel Gates in 2017. Britt and I hit it off, and started our joint venture, Indigofest, in 2018 as a community gathering to celebrate and learn with this marvelous plant. (We are happy to be hosting the retreat again for 2022 after a 2 year pandemic hiatus.)
In addition to Indigofest I teach workshops on natural dye and indigo regionally, and
occasionally in other parts of country. There is so much mystery and beauty in the process of
working with indigo, that as a dyer, the vat, and the indigo plant itself, will continue to be my
teachers for the rest of my life.
1. Location & Environment
All photos were submitted by Iris Sullivan
Dream Bird Studio is tucked into a forest of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, red alder, and
maple trees on a north facing hillside overlooking the Columbia River estuary in Astoria,
Oregon. The USDA growing zone designation for the North Oregon Coast is 8B. This is a
temperate rainforest, receiving over 2 meters of rain each year. The historic temperature range
is cool and mild year round, 40-65 °F, (4-18 °C) with only occasional freezing temperatures, and rarely hot. The Coast Range mountains hug the Pacific Ocean, gathering moisture. Forests here have been extensively cut over the last 100 years. Intact old growth forests are now rare sacred places of wonder and deep beauty.
2. Indigo plants & practices
I first began growing Persicaria tinctoria indigo in 2017. That first year we tried fresh leaf dyeing, and fermented the leaves, going straight to a vat using fructose and lime. In 2018 I purchased seeds and planted indigo at our house, gave away some starts to neighbors, and began growing additional plants off site at a friend’s farm.
The growing site at our place is a deck on the south side of our woodland house. It receives about 5 hours of direct sun during summer months. There is enough room for about 100 plants in large pots. I have noticed a wide assortment of native pollinators hanging out with the indigo. A few of my kind neighbors also grow dye plants for me in their sunnier gardens. These plants grown close to home are what I tend use for fresh leaf processing, and sharing with classes.
Farmer John Huelman, a friend who grows three to four 50’ rows of Persicaria plants for me, lives in Knappa, Oregon, 12 miles further inland. His site receives full sun, and is about 10 ℉ warmer in the summer. The plants get somewhat larger on the farm, and also seem to have a
higher pigment yield, which I assume relates to his more optimal site. These plants get turned into pigment, using the water extraction method.
For pigment extraction the first few years I used multiple buckets, and garbage cans, and now use an 85 gallon stock tank. I have found that aerating in the stock tank with a good sized stick is a more pleasant experience for me than either the paint stirrer drill attachment, or the immersion blender I used prior.
I have dried some leaves each year, enjoying it as tea. Last year I dried 15 pounds (7 kg) of leaves, and participated in an online small scale sukumo making class, with Debra Ketchum Jircik. The class was guided by the book The Way of Indigo by her teacher, Takayuki Ishii. I am very much looking forward to making my first sukumo style vat later this spring with the results. Drying even at this scale is challenging due to the high humidity here on the coast.
I usually store pigment wet so that it is in a good state for creating vats, or printing with. I have been experimenting with both minimizing the lime I use for extraction, and washing the pigment with vinegar to remove lime in an attempt to increase the purity of the pigment. Some pigment is used for other art processes, including paints, inks, paste paper, and to color handmade soap.
Over the years I have used several types of vats. While our boys were little we even made a sig vat using their urine with indigo pigment from India. (Very smelly while in use, but now that my boys are grown, I treasure the things dyed in it.) My favorite vat for work in the studio is the fermentation vat, usually made with madder.
3. Culture & Story of the region
Dream Bird Studio is in Clatsop County, Oregon, in the Alderbrook neighborhood of Astoria, overlooking the Columbia River estuary. These are the traditional lands of the Clatsop and Chinook peoples. There is no known historic use of indigo in this region by original peoples.
My ancestry is mostly Irish, with a sprinkling of Scottish and French. I grew up in rural Michigan, and learned many farmwife skills from my relatives before setting out into the world.
I have been entranced with nature, color and string from a young age. One of my earliest memories is burying tiny bottles filled with colored water as gifts to the trees in our yard. An aunt began teaching me to weave at age seven, and the rhythm of the loom has been present throughout my life. The first experience with natural dyes came with my mother, who taught me to dye with black walnuts, which she used to dye the basketry materials she worked with.
While at university I studied weaving and dyeing under Barbara Setsu Pickett, who brought traditions from her Japanese heritage to our studies, and inspired a deep appreciation for Japanese textile to my practice as an artist.
I continue to seek knowledge about the dyeing practices of my own ancestors. This effort is somewhat hampered by a lack of documentation, as Irish dyeing traditions were very disrupted by colonialism. Woad, the indigo bearing plant of my lineage, is considered a noxious invasive plant in the state of Oregon, and illegal to grow. Growing Persicaria tinctoria, as a stand-in for woad, allows me to dye with home grown pigment. This process aligns both blue worlds for me - of my teacher’s ancestors, and my own. I like to imagine the ancestors smiling as they watch the hand work of artisans today.
More About this place:
The word Clatsop comes from the Chinook word, łät’cαp, meaning "place of dried salmon,” and was originally the name for a single village. The Clatsop and Chinook people, though currently denied federal recognition, continue to reside here, and to organize for recognition.
Early contact with European sailing ships in the late 1700’s brought disease ahead of western settlement, and caused enormous loss of life for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest who had lived and worked here for many thousands of years.
The history of this place in the last 200 years has many dark stories. The expedition led by Lewis & Clark in 1805 was soon followed by more people eager to exploit the land. Astoria was established by 1811, making it the oldest western settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. The emphasis on resource extraction has often been twined with violence in the region.
Waves of white settlers came here to clear the ancient forests and fish for salmon in the Columbia River. There were also migrations of Chinese and Indian Sikh workers. Both of these groups faced significant hostility from white owners and workers of the canneries and mills. Conditions for all workers were generally dangerous, and there was frequent violence against any workers who tried to organize. Finnish Socialists in particular did have some success in forming worker owned cooperatives for both fisheries and lumber workers in order to improve conditions. (These early activists provided an inspiration for the 10 year grassroots effort which successfully prevented the building of a Liquified Natural Gas export facility at the mouth of the Columbia in the mid 2000’s. (https://www.columbiariverkeeper.org/news/2016/4/ victory-oregon-lng-withdraws)
In the early twentieth century there was widespread corruption, and a brief though notable KKK presence, which was focused against Catholics, the Finnish Socialists, and immigrants.
There were several massive fires in Astoria around that time, which in combination with over cutting forests and over fishing, largely ended the boom days. The resulting decades of economic depression for the area were only relieved in recent years. The population in 2022 is still roughly 2/3rds what it was prior to the 1922 fire, which burned the entire business district and many homes. The 1922 fire has been linked to activities of the KKK, and may have led to their fall from favor.
In the last 25 years Astoria has undergone significant changes, including gentrification and an influx of new residents. Its economic base has largely switched away from resource extraction, and towards a tourist economy.
Dream Bird Studio: https://www.dreambirdstudio.com
On our Interactive online map: https://viewer.mapme.com/indigoshademap/location/8d4f5d17-0ea4-455a-b87f-aecf9296a490