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Rowland Ricketts Grows Organic Indigo Using Ancient Japanese Method

A dye that lives

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At a time when the term “social distancing” has become a global mantra, it might seem odd to talk about shrinking distances.

But that’s what artist Rowland Ricketts has long been obsessed with.

Not between himself and those he meets in public—six feet apart suits him just fine, thank you—but between himself and the product he uses to make his art: organic indigo.

This ecological philosophy—of shrinking the distance between the final product and the production of it—has been the guiding principle behind Ricketts’ work. Which is why he plants, harvests, composts, and ferments his own indigo using a centuries-old Japanese method, while his wife, Chimani, hand-weaves narrow-width yardage for kimonos and obi using historical kasuri (ikat) techniques.

Each exquisite artefact this Indiana couple manufactures and sells on their website—whether it’s a giant room partition (noren), a table runner, a scarf, or a tiny keychain—has months of painstaking labor behind it. Each carries the Japanese name for the beautiful design it bears—sazanami (small wave) for a rippled runner, and hoshi (star) for a star-scattered one. At the heart of their work is a deep love and respect for the historical process of growing and making indigo.

Trained in indigo farming and dyeing in Japan, Ricketts teaches at the School of Art, Architecture & Design at Indiana University. His work has been exhibited at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

But how did a Midwesterner like Ricketts, raised in Vermont, end up growing his own indigo using ancient Japanese techniques?

“I am Ai, We are Ai – Returning Indigo,” Rowland Ricketts’ installation at the Omiya Shrine at Tokushima, Japan.

One could say it started in high school when he spent a summer in Japan as an exchange student. But as Ricketts tells it, his moment of epiphany came many years later when he found himself back in Japan after having graduated in East Asian studies.

He was teaching English at a public school in Gojo, and doing a lot of photography on the side, but still unsure what he wanted to do for a career. Then, one day, he moved into a 140-year-old farmhouse whose sink had a hole that led to a trough that emptied into a stream. He realized with horror that all the water from the house—including his photography water, which was full of chemicals—was polluting the stream.

“That experience opened my eyes to the impact of how, while we make beautiful things, we are also directly destroying the environment. And the reason we can do that is because, in the so-called First World, we have put a great distance between ourselves and the way we make things. And that allows us to make all kinds of horribly catastrophic things. Distance creates a blindness.”

“The malls are full of beautiful things behind which you will find stories of labor abuses and environmental destruction. Moving into this old farmhouse and discovering our impact on the environment was really eye-opening. I stopped doing photography immediately and started looking for something else to do.”

As luck would have it, Ricketts met some elderly mountain folks who worked with natural dyes and grew their own food. “That opened my eyes to the world of plants,” he said.

“Those folks didn’t work with indigo but told me about it and said it was an incredibly long process. They also told me about an exhibition by a famous indigo artist, Motohiko Katano, in Osaka. So I went to Osaka, walked into the exhibition, and knew right then that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

Ricketts stayed on in Japan for three years studying and apprenticing with two families who taught him how to grow and process indigo. It was during his apprenticeship in Tokushima (the center of indigo cultivation in Japan) that he met his wife.

“Chimani was also an apprentice there, but she realized that she didn’t like the dyeing but liked weaving. After our apprenticeship, we travelled to China, Laos, and India to see as many dyeing and weaving traditions as we could. Then she really wanted to study weaving, so we both went to Shimane, where she learnt the ikat weaving technique. While there, we set up a small farming studio. I was growing indigo and processing it and dyeing things.”

The couple moved to the United States and now live in Indiana with their three sons. They have a small indigo farm where Ricketts “shrinks the distance” between himself and indigo by growing a new crop every year.

From seed to cloth: A long journey

Making indigo from seed to cloth is a long, painstaking process that involves many steps and takes a whole year.

In early spring, seeds are planted in a seedling bed. In May, the seedlings are transplanted and nurtured in the field. The ideal time to harvest is when the plants are about thigh high and have set large, healthy leaves, and the stems are still standing upright.

After harvesting, the dye-bearing leaves are dried and separated from the stems. These dry indigo leaves are mixed with water and composted for a hundred days to make the traditional Japanese indigo dye-stuff known as sukumo. The sukumo is then fermented in wood-ash lye to create a natural indigo vat.

Left: A bag of indigo dye. Right: Indigo-dyed yarn will be used to create textiles and artefacts.

Sound long and troublesome? It is. And that’s what’s so attractive and meaningful to Ricketts.

“It’s really not indigo, but the process of indigo that interests me,” he says. “That process is the framework I work within. In this culture, bigger, faster, cheaper is considered good. I could go out and purchase supposedly ‘natural’ indigo dye made in a completely industrial, petroleum-derived way for a couple hundred dollars. Yet I spend a year growing those plants, harvesting the leaves, composting them and making dye. No way I can do it for a few hundred dollars. Etsy has bazillions of indigo things. I have no desire to compete with industry. My whole interest is in the process. And shrinking the distance between the product and me.”

This is borne out by the fact that the Ricketts’ website has detailed, step-by-step guidelines on how to make the dye so that others can learn from him and try growing their own organic indigo.

Left: Chinami Ricketts weaves traditional narrow-width yardage for kimonos and obi using historical kasuri (ikat) techniques. Right: Ricketts works with natural dyes and ancient Japanese historical processes to create contemporary textiles.

Although many products sold online claim to be dyed with “natural indigo,” Ricketts is wary of these claims. “What does natural mean? Natural is an unregulated word. There’s been testing done on this natural indigo, and none of it is plant-based. Plus it’s the result of economic exploitation by poor workers in parts of India and Bangladesh. But you have people buying these products and saying, Oh look, it’s natural.”

“I use my work as a platform to talk about these issues. My Japanese teacher taught me that there is a real living vitality to the way a plant is grown that you can bring forth, and it’s not exploitative.”

Hearteningly, there is a discerning audience out there that supports the Ricketts’ philosophy and are willing to pay premium prices for their exquisite table runners, handkerchiefs, scarves, curtains, and keychains. The Ricketts don’t know who their buyers are—they get orders from all over the U.S. And the orders keep coming. Indigo blue may be the predominant colour on their website, but two tiny words in red stand out under most items: Sold Out.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 102

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