Hi George. Can you begin by telling us a bit about your incredible indigo farm in Guernsey?
Bailiwick Blue farm, is located in Gélé Vinery, on the west coast of Guernsey, within an old Guernsey Frampton commercial greenhouse, built in the 1960s. The term “vinery” is a colloquialism stemming from the commercial Guernsey grape and tomato growing industry.
Bailiwick Blue has been in residence since 2017. It was originally a small project just to grow, make and dye with indigo for personal use, sharing the space with other creatives. In 2019, Gélé Vinery became home to Bailiwick Blue and many Persicaria Tinctoria (Japanese Indigo) plants.
The dye plant varieties have increased over the years. Indigo grows in half of the working footprint. Madder, marigold, dyer’s chamomile, coreopsis, scabiosa, sulphur cosmos and Hopi sunflowers are also part of the Bailiwick Blue growing arena.
Many natural dyers grow indigo on a small scale, but what’s it been like to scale up?
Up scaling was a major learning curve. Tending soil needs, raising seedlings and planting indigo was the easy part – and propelled with excitement.
What I didn’t consider was the environment had therefore changed. I made great efforts to amend the soil and it almost worked too well. Three foot bushes became a thing of the past as I had five foot bushes of indigo instead – all way out of proportion, and I wasn’t prepared to process the large volume of plants. To anyone considering upscaling, make sure you have the space organised and the equipment necessary for soaking and aerating etc.
Have you had any surprises along the way?
Variegated indigo plants: white and green and still baring pigment.
Also, being adopted by the most vocal and demanding siamese cat.
Above: varigated indigo – the white leaves still produce blue pigment!
With our climate in the UK, would you recommend growing “under cover” if we have the possibility for this? Does it encourage better growth?
Yes, most definitely to both. While indigo grows adequately outdoors in the UK, like most plants, warmer surroundings encourage faster growth. Tended in the right way, a healthier plant will give greater output; in the case of indigo this means more foliage.
Persicaria tinctoria is a lover of water and is known to grow on river banks in the humidity of Asian summers. Growing under cover therefore controls this element by holding humidity in. Leaves have microscopic “mouths” called stomata which absorb carbon and moisture, and this is why folia feeding is important for just about all plants.
If you grow under cover, you need to consider that it’s harder work in some respects due to the heat. Hats, SPF and hydration are required and it is best to avoid working during the most intense hours of heat.
Are you growing any new dye plants this year?
Every year I promise myself that I’ll maintain the current balance of indigo to other dye plants and blooms. Somehow I get whipped up in the excitement of colour, so with a deep breath I admit to the following inclusions to 2022 growing arena: woad, indigoferra, early sunrise coreopsis and hollyhocks.
I’m pushing for greater volume of sulphur cosmos and weld. The latter is not looking good outdoors or inside. Weld is finicky, at best, I’ve discovered. Woad, as a first timer, looks as though maturity has been reached in just 6 weeks. It is huge, grown outdoors, and loves being drenched by heavy dews every morning, and basks under nets in high sun during the day.
How did you first become interested in indigo and natural dyes in general?
My relationship with indigo began in the ‘90s when working in London for Jane and Patrick Gottelier – founders of the brand “Artwork”. Jane, a knitwear designer, revived British fishing village knitting patterns with an indigo-dyed cotton knitwear collection under the label “Geo Trowark”. The same patterns can be found in a book on ‘Ravelry’ today.
My love of indigo deepened whilst living in Japan, particularly upon discovering the “Blue and White” shop in Tokyo, owned by author, Amy Sylvester Katoh. The store is an absolute inspiration to all things blue and white, preloved and new. The traditional Japanese patterns (stitched and printed) play out over homewares, clothing, cloth such as “tenagui” and “furoshiki” wrapping cloths. At that time I was a freelance window dresser; my main client was Anglobal Co. Ltd. the parent company of Margaret Howell, UK, Ltd. In my spare time I’d adapted the traditional Japanese shopping baskets which sold at Amy’s store, alongside a collection of blue and white “Ikkanbari” homeware. Ikkanbari is the practice of mending broken baskets with “washi” or paper in English and “nori” rice paste. Using Awagami mulberry paper, “unryoshi”, I’d paint traditional patterns in indigo paint and later clear varnish to protect the surface.
In 2014 while living in CA I partnered with a friend wanting to create meaningful accessories for a website we’d created. I discovered natural dyer Sasha Duerr and also came across your book Botanical Colour at your Fingertips. Both sparked an epiphany of ideas to use natural dyes for scarves and wraps, understanding the necessity for reducing the pile of waste garments and a need for everything to be compostable. Indigo was the most obvious choice of colour.
After returning to Guernsey in 2016 and following a telephone conversation with Kathy Hattori founder of Botanical Colors, regarding purchasing and shipping indigo, Kathy literally seeded the idea of growing Persicaria tinctoria in the Bailiwick. By purchasing cotton mull from Maiwa and pigment from Botanical Colors, my indigo dye pilgrimage began.
Above: Bailiwick Blue indigo pigment
What are your dreams and plans for Bailiwick Blue?
The dream is to turn the location into a learning centre where people near and far can visit to teach and study natural colour dyeing techniques. Alongside this would be a foundation in growing botanical dyes, set in our beautiful island landscape. We (I’m imagining by that point I shan’t be working solo) would continue to provide natural dyes to individuals and dye houses and importantly acquire a much needed seed license – but not this year!
It’s summer now and you’re deep into indigo growing and extraction. What does a typical day look like for you at the moment?
During the early spring the focus is soil, sowing seed, potting up then planting out. From May, it’s all about harvesting. With blades in hand I’m at the vinery between 6:00 and 6:30. “Fresh is best”, as they say. I’m cutting and weighing until 9:30, to beat the heat and maintain pigment levels.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about you or your work?
Working with nature is a journey – one to be embraced. When I set out to control my environment, I quickly learnt it is not to be tethered; one is never finished. It’s a lesson of learning to go with the flow. It is excitement and with gratitude over each harvest, whether it’s food or the wafting aroma of the warm sweet lueco (indigo in it’s precaptured state or white indigo) that sustains my journey, coupled with a deft sense of satisfaction packing honey-scented dried blooms for customers, knowing this is my part of the creative process. Plants offer us so much: food, colour, healing. I’m a strong believer nature provides us with exactly what we need.
I will be forever grateful to Brittany Boles for creating the Facebook page called Indigo Pigment Extraction Methods, which is a must for indigo dyers and growers. Solid connections and information can be found there. It’s a great place for indigo blue minds.
Thanks for the fascinating chat, George!
To find out more:
- Order dye seeds here.
- Visit Bailiwick Blue website for more info on indigo.
- Order indigo pigment (more will be available later in the year) and dried dye flowers.
- Join the Bailiwick Blue mailing list to hear about new releases and upcoming workshops.