Local Color

December 21, 2014


“…it can be healing,” – Sarah Dye

Like chefs painting a picture of their community by crafting dishes that use local ingredients, crafts people also are creating a sense of place by using locally-sourced materials in their work. Fiber artists in particular are making use of Indiana’s abundant natural resources and rich history in textiles to create pieces that are just as much a part of our state’s heritage as persimmon trees or limestone.

When Sarah Dye surveys the land around here home, she sees possibilities. She doesn’t see so much a field of goldenrod or a patch of madder, as rich golds and deep reds. In her hands, these raw materials turn into vibrant colors that weave their way into her textiles—in a way, painting a picture of her environment in wool. Through her natural dyeing, Sarah has gained a new outlook of the world.

“I just feel like it is so fascinating to go out into your own yard, practically anywhere—even if you are in the city—and find something that you can dye with,” Sarah says.

Rowland Ricketts, Assistant Professor of Textiles in the Indiana University Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, echoes this—dye can introduce many to the source of something everyone interacts with daily: color on cloth.

“It’s another way of connecting with and engaging with the environment around us in a time when a lot of us don’t grow up with those experiences,” Rowland says. Like visiting a farm to learn how one’s food is grown, finding where color comes from can be equally eye-opening. Rowland, a natural dyer himself, has led workshops in which students created color maps of their community by identifying native plants and the colors they produce.

“It’s fascinating when you start looking at the plants and what grows where, what’s growing in vacant lots versus undisturbed environments, versus the dump,” says Rowland. Instead of identifying a city or a neighborhood by a matrix of buildings or streets, it can be distinguished by its colors.

“You can use this to kind of create this color of a place through the plants that grow there,” Rowland continues. This is by no means a new idea. Historically, communities have embraced this kind of regionalism, interweaving the color of the landscape into their cultures. As trade routes became more established, exotic dye-stuffs could be imported, but a deep connection to local color persisted. Rowland and Sarah both relate to this.

Sarah says a lot of the traditional knowledge about where color comes from is being lost. For example, her customers are usually familiar with the plants she uses, but they are often amazed that they create such vibrant hues. She says when they find out that most of the plants and even some of the fiber itself is sourced locally, they light up.

For Sarah, there is something almost spiritual about converting the plants she harvests into pigments. The energy of that plant and of the season in which it is harvested go directly into piece she creates.

“To me, marigolds are the epitome of summer, sunshine, happiness, health, vibrancy… So weaving that into a garment and wearing it in the middle of winter when people often have the blues, it can be healing,” she says. This is a big part of why she works with fiber arts and natural dyes in the first place.

“…who was she, what was her story,” – Patricia Hale-Dorrell

Patricia Hale-Dorrell, a sock-maker from Loogootee, Indiana, is deeply connected to the history of her craft. In her work, she uses a sock-knitting machine from the turn of the 20th century. Invented during the Civil War, these machines gained popularity during World War I when women on the home front were asked to contribute to the war effort by making socks for soldiers. The specific sock machine Patricia uses is a P.T. Legare Limited, which came from a factory in Quebec. She says that she often wonders about the woman who once used this machine each day. She has come up with her own story based on historical cues.

“When I crank on it, I kind of meditate about who was she, what was her story,” Patricia says. The Midwest has a deep history of sock and textile production during wartime, and while her particular machine was not used in the United States, Patricia sees her work as a continuation of that tradition, keeping the torch of history alive.

“…it is about creating connections,” – Rowland Rickets

Rowland’s practice of indigo dyeing combines both the philosophies of material as place and of respect for a region’s textile history. Traveling and working in Japan in the late 1990s, he was introduced to the centuries-old tradition of farming, harvesting, composting, and dyeing with indigo. The historical magnitude of the practice struck him, as did the process of creating something from scratch.

Rowland explains that many plants grow around the world in many different climates possess the indigo molecule and can be used for dyeing. Since Japan’s indigo tradition developed in a temperate climate, Roland is able to continue the tradition he learned there here in Bloomington. He explains that a lot of what fuels his artwork is the opportunity to communicate with the natural world.

“A lot of it is about creating connections, and one of them is that connection to the immediate environment where we are living and we are growing these plants,” says Rowland. He admits that this is not the norm, as large manufacturers produce identical dyes synthetically. However, it is the process that makes the natural dyes special.

“Molecularly, indigo synthesized from petroleum and the indigo that I grow and make, molecularly are exactly the same, and yet they are worlds different when you think of the meaning of what they are as a color,” he says.

People connect to a combination of the materials and the stories behind them, and this seems to be at the root of why Rowland, Patricia, and Sarah all do what they do. When they create, they make deep connections to their materials and their surroundings. Each makes items that reflect where they were made and fit into the greater landscape of Southern Indiana be it in a gallery, in our stores, or at the Farmers’ Market.

Story and photos by Isaac Smith