Tangled up in the Blue
There’s no bridge to Daufuskie Island. The barrier island, the southernmost inhabited off the coast of South Carolina, has a long history of isolation from the mainland. Even today one might use the term inhabited loosely: Populated with four hundred full-time residents, it has no grocery store, no gas station, no police department in its eight square miles. Cars are few; around these parts, the wheels on the road belong to golf carts and bicycles. And amid this near-wilderness, in a former two-room schoolhouse, two women are reviving the Lowcountry’s storied indigo culture.
Leanne Coulter and Rhonda Davis operate Daufuskie Blues out of the Mary Fields School building, which sits just off the School Road on the southern half of the island. (Near all roads here are sandy-dirt ones, many of them plainly named for where they lead—School Road, Church Road, Beach Road.) Inside the white clapboard structure, the same where Lowcountry native son Pat Conroy taught for a year, an experience about which he would later pen the 1972 memoir The Water is Wide, hang its original chalkboards. In front of them, the work of Daufuskie Blues: scarves, shawls, and other garments, table runners, napkins, and dish towels in hues that span dusk blue to bright azure to inky midnight and everything in between, the shade a sign of just how long the fabric is bathed in dye. Each is a piece of art, though no two are alike. Designs are fashioned by carefully folding and twisting the fabric pre-dip, an exercise anyone who’s tie-dyed a t-shirt at summer camp would find familiar. Of course, indigo textiles as art is not historic; there were no splashy designs in the latter half of the 1700s when the plant was one of South Carolina’s primary plantation crops, the second-most valuable export behind rice. Grown on tracts of land across the Lowcountry—including on Daufuskie Island—it was harvested, fermented, and extracted via backbreaking labor and dried into a dye of the same name that would be shipped to England to feed its ravenous textile industry.
Embracing their role as accidental historians, Coulter and Davis detail indigo’s past for all those passing through the schoolhouse door. They wouldn’t have it any other way. Simply put, the story of indigo is the story of slavery. And it’s also the story of Daufuskie, this magical but complicated place they’ve chosen to call home. Drawn to the island’s intimate seclusion, Coulter made the move from Cincinnati in 2010, Davis from just outside of Memphis a year later. “Everything slows down when you’re here,” Davis says. “I remember the first time [my husband and I] spent a week, we were so de-stressed. When we hit the freeway in Memphis, I just thought, ‘This isn’t what I want.’” Shortly after relocating, a mutual acquaintance on the island introduced her to Coulter, knowing they’d be fast friends. “And she was so right on,” Coulter says.
Coulter has long been a hobby dyer. Several years ago, she starting experimenting with a vat of indigo on her front porch. Particular and, at times, downright finicky, indigo requires a mineral alkali and natural reducting agent in order to bond with fabrics. “I had played with other natural dyes, but I couldn’t figure out the indigo vat,” she sys. “The recipes, when you look at them, you go, ‘huh?’” Nevertheless, it kept her interested. And soon, she had Davis hooked too. “It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Coulter says. “Who are you going to find who wants to put their hands in indigo all day?” It wasn’t long before they discovered indigo growing on the island, and, after deciding to rent the former schoolhouse and move their business off their muggy, buggy front porches, found one of the best patches was right across School Road. It was a sign.
While the majority of Daufuskie Blues’ pieces are dyed with indigo powder they purchase, Coulter and Davis are also extracting dye from the island’s wild plants. They admit they’ll never be able to forage enough to rely on it exclusively—it takes some two hundred pounds of plant matter to produce just one pound of indigo—though, Davis laughs, she wouldn’t mind looking into starting an indigo farm. For now, their goal is to produce a vat or two of local indigo annually, which they’ll use to dye custom pieces. But it’s not just about production. Perhaps most significantly, they view their efforts as a way to connect to nature, to history, and to the cultures the dye has impacted over centuries.
Daufuskie Blues is open for visitors Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and groups of ten or more can set up private dyeing classes at the schoolhouse. While most of their sales are in-person, Coulter and Davis also ship to customers who contact them via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).