Episode 127: Historic Wild Indigo on Johns Island South Carolina with Leigh Magar
In this week’s episode, I’m speaking with Indigo Farmer, Textile Artist & Dressmaker Leigh Magar. Leigh’s textile design studio Madame Magar is inspired by art, nature, folkways, and history. Her studio embraces a seed to stitch design philosophy that explores the history, a rich yet tangled past of place; while living and working on a former indigo plantation in Charleston SC. The seed to stitch vision is inspired by Eliza Lucas Pinckney; who as a young girl in the 1740s planted Indigofera Suffruticosa and with the hard work and knowledge of the enslaved made indigo a huge South Carolina crop. The “seed to stitch “ project interweaves design and nature by growing Indigofera Suffruticosa and other dye plants and respectfully harvesting wild indigo, discovered on a walk in the studio woods; and other wild dye plants to use mindfully in the one of a kind collections. Dresses, accessories, and textile art(created from dress scrap cloth) are hand-dyed and hand-stitched. Comment below to keep the conversation going!
Weave Podcast Transcript
Episode 127 w/ Leigh Magar
Sarah Resnick: I’m Sarah Resnick.
LaChaun Moore: And I’m LaChaun Moore.
Sarah Resnick: And we are the hosts of the Weave Podcast, a project of the weaving yarn shop, GIST Yarn & Fiber.
LaChaun Moore: Hello. Hi, everyone. On this week’s episode, I’m speaking with indigo farmer, textile artist and dressmaker, Leigh Magar. Leigh’s textile design studio, Madame Magar, is inspired by art, nature, folkways, and history. Her studio embraces a seed to stitch design philosophy that explores the history and rich yet tangled past of place while living and working on a former indigo plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. Hello, Leigh. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you for joining us today.
Leigh Magar: Hi, LaChaun. Thank you so much for having me and being interested in my indigo story.
LaChaun Moore: Absolutely. Can you start out by introducing yourself to our listeners and talking about how you began your indigo journey?
Leigh Magar: Sure. My name is Leigh Magar and I have a textile art design studio called Madame Magar on Johns Island, South Carolina. It’s a sea island just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, where I make seasonal and limited, one-of-a-kind dresses, and from the dress scrap cloth, home goods and textile art that I dye with plants that I grow and gather from where I live on Johns Island.
LaChaun Moore: And what type of indigo do you grow?
Leigh Magar: Where I live on Johns Island, I moved there in 2015 and I started researching the history of where I live and began reading about the historical indigo in Charleston and on Johns Island in the 1700s, and so that opened my eyes to indigo, and I was awestruck and I began to read about all types of indigo all over the world, and I felt like it was in my path because of where I lived. I would have never started my indigo path if I didn’t live where I live. It’s all history inspired for me. And so, that’s how I started, and I began my indigo path by wanting to plant the historical indigo, and one of those varieties is the Indigofera suffruticosa, so I planted my first crop in 2015, and then after I planted that crop, I was walking in my woods and I discovered our native Indigofera Caroliniana in the woods. So, at that moment I felt like it was definitely meant to be, that it was sort of my calling to work with indigo, and my next life I call it because my previous life, 20 years I spent as a hat maker and milliner, and this was a turning point in my life. So, at that moment I really became inspired by nature and felt a calling to work with indigo and specifically the historical indigo of where I live, and that’s the whole premise of what I do, is utilizing what’s available and sort of going back into the root of it all and doing everything by hand, and everything with all natural ingredients, and everything very slow and with passion.
LaChaun Moore: That’s really beautiful. Can you go a bit more into depth about Johns Island and that discovery in the woods? I’m really interested in the history of the island and also what it was like when you encountered this wild indigo.
Leigh Magar: Yeah. Like I said, when I moved to Johns Island in 2015, I had always… I had never lived in the countryside, and so it’s eye opening for me, and it was so beautiful because where I live, not to brag, but just to give everyone a sense of the flora and fauna of where I live, it’s 500 acres of wild, untouched woods. Undeveloped woods, which is very rare. Where I live, Charleston is pretty mostly developed. So, I was so awestruck by nature and just the amount of plants that I’ve never, ever seen before, and it just was captivating and so inspiring for me. And so, that’s why I do what I do, is just because of the beauty of nature. I wanted to sort of share that with others in a way, in a creative way, and so then I began the exploration is what I call the indigo, and also gathering abundance. I don’t like to say the word needs, but abundant plants of where I live, respectfully, so yeah, it’s just about the sense of place for me and the history of place. And as I began to research that history, I started out reading about Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who as a 15 or 16-year-old girl brought indigo to South Carolina, and I really was inspired by her vision, that vision as a girl to bring indigo there. But then time passed and as I worked with the plant and worked in the field with indigo for many years, I began to see and I opened my eyes to the painful past of that history, and the truth that it wasn’t just Eliza. It was the enslaved who made indigo a huge cash crop in South Carolina. And I felt the desire to speak that truth and in order for me to work with indigo, I had to face that pain and speak that truth. And so, that’s another reason why I feel indigo is part of my path, a part of my calling, because of that reason, that I’m supposed to talk about the painful past and then move forward, and only then could I move forward, or we can move forward in South Carolina to a beautiful future.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah. I mean, that comes up in conversation a lot pertaining specifically to Indigofera suffruticosa. There has been an account of history that has praised Eliza a lot for her contributions and sort of glossed over the realities of the slave trade and the contributions of the enslaved people, whether it be indigo, or cotton, or any of the goods that really sort of propelled the American economic system in that era of time. And you know, you’re talking about bringing truth and finding ways to have the conversation. What would you say are some of the ways that you’ve been able to have that conversation or create dialog around the history in your work?
Leigh Magar: Well, I hope… Yeah, I hope that it’s in my work, because it is part of me and it’s part of South Carolina, like I did a project at the South Carolina State Museum. This was in I think 2016, 2017, and it was a yearlong project where I created the South Carolina state flag with indigo-dyed scrap, which was inspired by the indigo history, and also inspired by quilt making, which is part of our history too. So, I kind of intertwined both of those things together and I spent a year sewing it in the museum, and I would go there a few days a month to Columbia, South Carolina, to sew it. And it took a year, and it was just an amazing project because when people would walk through the museum and see me actually making the piece, that created dialog and a conversation, so that was my favorite part of the piece, to talk about the history. Because I felt like it really hadn’t been talked about it all then. This was years ago, and I just felt the desire to talk about the history and the truth, and people are really open when you start talking about sensitive issues. They become really open and I was really also amazed at the stories that they shared with me, their personal stories, so it was really, really beautiful. Really emotional and really beautiful, and I like to sort of intertwine those themes in my textile artwork, because it’s the whole story and it makes it true, and it makes it real.
LaChaun Moore: Absolutely. And one of the things that I did notice about your work that I think is really beautiful, that I’m interested in talking about, is your use of indigo scraps and swatches. One of the pieces in particular that I am interested in is the scrap silhouette installation that you did. Is that the same as the installation you’re talking about with the South Carolina flag? Or were those different art pieces? Leigh Magar: That was a different project. That was a piece that I created for the Charleston Museum, and that was also another… I call work in process pieces, where I actually sew the piece at the museum, or at the gallery, and like I said, I just really enjoy that process because I think it’s also important for people to see the amount of work, handwork that goes into these pieces. So, that was… The scrap silhouette was again scrap, which I like the idea of utilizing scrap, or utilizing waste, or utilizing what you have, and I get that from my grandma, who was really good at that. She was a farmer, and she grew a huge garden, and cooked and canned from her garden, and she used every bit of scrap that she had. So, that really resonates with me, and the quilt making I’ve just always been inspired by. I started collecting quilts in high school. For some reason I just always loved the way they looked, and I think it was because most of the times I feel like they were made with cloth scrap, and so anyway, I would get them for $3 or $5 apiece at the thrift stores. Those were the days, right?
LaChaun Moore: Yeah.
Leigh Magar: No longer. But anyways, so that piece I created with indigo-dyed scrap, and it was about 5 x 7, and I think it took me three to five full days of sewing on it, hand sewing, and that was a project for the Charleston Museum. This was… I think it was 2016. And it was a project where artists were invited to create their version of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, because there’s no known portrait of her, which is mysterious. Because a woman or a girl of that stature, they would always have multiple paintings of them, you know? So, that was actually my portrait of her in the beginning. It was a portrait of her, but I was kind of in a hurry to make the pattern and my husband, he’s an architect and artist, and he makes my patterns for the big pieces, and I said, “Let’s make it easy. Just put my face on it.” It was my face and at the time I had short hair, and so I made this big hair, and so I said, “That’s it. That’s it. I’m not gonna overthink it.” So, her portrait is so funny, if you think about the evolution of her portrait, and of how she was such an inspiration, how that portrait actually became me and my logo, you know what I mean? It kind of evolved into something historical and evolved into something new and true, you know? So, that’s been the whole… I guess path of my work, of years of my work from the beginning.
LaChaun Moore: And you mentioned earlier about growing and harvesting indigo. Can you talk about your process, starting from the land that you use and how you create your vat?
Leigh Magar: Yeah. You know, I never farmed ever, and I never, ever thought I would be a farmer, but I guess am an indigo farmer, a small scale. I guess I call my… I don’t call it indigo farm, I call it my indigo field, so it’s a pretty big indigo field. I have about 300, or I had about 300 Indigofera suffruticosa plants, and I just finished harvesting yesterday, and so after learning about Eliza and learning about the history, I decided to plant indigo, and at the time in 2015, indigo seeds were really… The suffruticosa seeds were really hard to find. I had a very hard time finding them. You could find the Japanese, but not the suffruticosa. So, finally I found them through a friend of a friend, an indigo artisan and dyer who’s a monk and a hermit, and he’s been growing Indigofera suffruticosa for almost 20 years. Yeah, so lucky I got… He said, “Sure.” He gave me tons of seed and not only that, he became a mentor for me to learn all things indigo. And so, that seed, I call it the holy seed, because it’s from a monk and a hermit, and so that started my growing of indigo, and I feel like… I don’t want to say… I want to talk a little bit. I don’t want to be negative, but I want to talk a little bit about how it’s not easy, just so people know the whole truth of what I do. It’s really hard. I struggle. Yeah, I struggle with it because it takes me from my work, from my studio, from my creativity, takes me really from everything in the summer months. I’m just out in that indigo field sweating, and with the mosquitos, and I don’t mean to complain, but it’s not easy. But I don’t regret doing it. I feel for me it’s worth it, because I have the land to do it and because I learn so much out there, you know what I mean? I learn not just from the indigo plants. I learn from the dragonflies, I learn from the birds, I learn from the snakes. It’s just you can’t learn anything like that unless you experience being out in the field for a summer, you know? It’s just a learning process that you have to experience, and I can’t explain it, it’s just amazing. So-
LaChaun Moore: Did you notice a difference in the behavior of snakes around your land with the indigo? Because I grow indigo, as well, and my neighbors were all telling me like, “Oh, it’s snake season. Be careful, be careful.” And I didn’t see a single snake all season, and I’ve heard that indigo helps ward off snakes, and so I’m wondering if you had that same experience on your farm.
Leigh Magar: Yeah. I heard that also, but it’s not true where I live, because I definitely see snakes, but at the beginning I was so afraid of snakes, and that was another thing too, because I wasn’t used to seeing them, you know? I never lived in the country. So, that was one of my fears that I had to face. I had to face that fear of snakes and that was a lesson, and a learning experience, and I would have never experienced that if I wasn’t in that indigo field. But yeah, I’ve had… It’s so funny. At the beginning of this season, I had a really big black snake, which you know, black snakes are good. They’re the good ones and they keep the bad snakes away, and in the beginning I was really scared of it, and I was like, “Please go away. Please go away.” And then by the middle of the season I became really good friends with it, and we would respect our boundaries or spaces. And then, because we have moles, and that’s the number one reason I wanted that snake, because the moles are just awful, you know? They can really damage the root system of the indigo. So, anyway, so I embrace the snake, and then the lawnmower came, and you wouldn’t believe it, ran over the snake.
LaChaun Moore: Oh, no! Leigh Magar: It was so tragic. I was so sad. I was like, “I can’t believe this. This is awful.” And then I had a mole problem, so then last week I was out in the indigo field and I saw another snake, and I’m not sure exactly what kind it is. I think it’s a garter snake. I never seen those before out there, but it’s been out there and it’s funny, because it’s just hanging out. It’s very mellow. So, I’m embracing it because of the moles, you know? It’s one of those things where you have to just get used to it, you know?
LaChaun Moore: Yeah, and I identify with everything that you’re saying. You know, while we have these beautiful colors and these beautiful fibers that we’re able to produce, there is a very, very real reality of getting out in that field every day, and the sweat, the back pains, the bugs, and then the lizards, the snakes, the… You know, just so many things crawling around. Similar to me when I first started, I think it took me a lot of adjusting to getting used to that, even just living in the country, and dealing with so many things crawling around, and so yeah, I absolutely understand where you’re coming from with that.
Leigh Magar: Yeah. It’s another world. It’s a whole different culture is what I call it. And you have to respect them, because it’s their home, you know? When I first moved out there I was terrified of everything. Yeah. And then I realized it’s their home, you have to be gentle, you have to respect them. So, now when I walk, I have a… I call it my snake stick. It’s like a walking stick with a bell, and so that, they hear the bell and they run away, you know? So, it works. It works pretty good. So, I recommend a snake stick with a bell.
LaChaun Moore: Good advice. Thank you for that. I’ll definitely have to look into that, especially for those trips into the woods. Leigh Magar: Because you have to have a lot of courage to go into the woods. I didn’t realize it at the beginning, but you see things you don’t want to see.
LaChaun Moore: You do. You absolutely do. You absolutely do. And are there any other new projects that you’re working on? Do you have any particular plans with this indigo that you recently harvested?
Leigh Magar: Yeah. This whole season… I have an indigo farm exchange project, where I have one volunteer who helps me, and in the process we do a learn-work exchange, and so this whole summer me and her, we’ve been making dried leaf indigo patties is what I call them. Instead of the indigo balls, I decided to make like flatter and smaller, because it’s so humid where I live, and it’s so hard for those big balls to dry, so we’ve been making dried indigo patties with the leaves all summer.
LaChaun Moore: Wow.
Leigh Magar: Yeah. I’m so, so excited about this process, which Aboubakar Fofana, he was the inspiration, and he guided me in this process, and it’s a fermentation indigo dye process, and I’ve been studying, researching this for years, and I’m just so happy to finally be doing that process, because it’s the oldest indigo vat process, and it’s just really simple, and special, and I feel like that’s where I am now with my work. I want to really simplify it and make it easy, because it has been… It’s been a little hard learning at my age, like learning all of this information, especially the chemistry has been really a struggle. So, now I’m just so excited by simplifying it, and the fermentation process is really amazing, because it’s akin to cooking, akin to making a stew, your own stew, so you can… It’s a slower process, so to me it’s a lot like cooking. I love it.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. And I’m also really curious, how are you separating the leaves from the branches?
Leigh Magar: We’re handpicking those leaves.
LaChaun Moore: Oh, man! Wow! That’s a lot of work.
Leigh Magar: I know. I know. Every morning, we get out in the field early and then harvest the stems, and then handpick each leaf. I mean, I’m not a perfectionist, so I get some stems in there and some flowers and some seeds. But anyways, so right now… Yesterday was the last day of harvesting for this season, so I’m getting ready to weigh all of those dried leaf indigo patties, so I’ll see how much we have and how much of a vat we can make from the whole season of doing that method. I’m a little afraid to weigh them, because I’m like, “I know it’s not a lot of indigo.” You know what I mean? But that’s part of it. It’s the process. It’s not about the quantity, you know? To me, it’s about the quality of it, so…
LaChaun Moore: Yes. And for those listening who might not understand what I mean by a lot of work, Indigofera suffruticosa is very different from Indigo Persicaria, which is a much larger, longer leaf, which would be easier to pick and then make the balls. Suffruticosa has very, very, very tiny leaves, that are about an inch maybe or less than an inch, and they’re not wide either, and so individually picking them when there’s probably… I mean, hundreds, maybe a hundred leaves per plant, and she also just said she has 300 plants, so that’s a lot of picking of indigo. So, just a little reference for those listening, but yeah, it’s amazing that you’ve also found a way to create the indigo balls. I’ve seen a lot of people make them with Persicaria tinctoria, and also I think Aboubakar, I think he grows an indigo A. I think there’s an A in the variety that he uses, because it’s native to Mali. But yeah, the leaves are much bigger, and so I’ve been very curious of that method and also the Japanese method of fermentation, so I’m very excited to hear about what you come up with in your experiment.
Leigh Magar: Well, listen. If you ever want to learn, you can come next season. Hopefully, we can gather again next season and you can come and help!
LaChaun Moore: Let’s plan a workday. I will absolutely come out. Leigh Magar: Yeah. I actually am gonna plan, because depending on what happens in the future, no one knows, but I am planning some harvest workshops for next season. Very small classes. So, if anybody’s interested, they could email me or get in touch with me about that to get on the waiting list.
LaChaun Moore: Yeah, so that was actually my next question, was where can people go on the internet and social media to find your work and to follow you or to reach out to you?
Leigh Magar: I sell dresses at ShopWorthwhile.com. I am slowly finishing up autumn dresses now. Hopefully soon now that the indigo’s done, I’m getting back to that. And I sell accessories and textile art at the Gibbes Museum shop, and you can follow my work on Instagram, which is @MadameMagar, and I have a website called MadameMagar.com, so you can see the work there.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. So, before you go, we have one question that we ask everyone that joins the podcast, and that is do you have any advice or words of wisdom to share with weavers and textile enthusiasts?
Leigh Magar: Yeah. I feel like to really step back, especially this season. I’ve learned to really step back and breathe and take everything really slow, because there’s a lot involved in what we do. You know, it’s a lot of handwork and a lot of things play into the creative part of the work, so I feel like reading as much as possible for me and workshops. I know it’s hard now, but I know there are some virtual workshops. Workshops are really, really important, and for me travel was so vital. I know it’s hard to do now, but we will be able to get back to that in the future, so I urge people to really travel. I mean, that’s the most amazing way to learn all these ancient techniques. Go to India. Go to Japan. And see these amazing crafts, these creative ways people make simple but amazing art and craft. I think that’s really the most important thing for me is travel, and I’m so, so grateful for my trips that I’ve made over the past few years to India and Japan, and I can’t wait to go back.
LaChaun Moore: Amazing. Thank you so much for joining the podcast and for sharing your story. I’m really excited to share with our listeners.
Leigh Magar: Thank you so much for your interest.
LaChaun Moore: That’s a wrap. If you’re interested in supporting Leigh’s work, you can find links in the show notes at www.GISTYarn.com/Episode-127. In next week’s episode, I’m speaking with Torrey Beckham. Torrey is a Brooklyn-based Texas native interdisciplinary artist who uses weaving, plants, and many other creative mediums as a means of creating a space for Black and queer folk to see themselves reflected in the work emanating from the textures. Thank you for tuning into this week’s episode. I’m really, really excited to bring you all next week’s episode. Until next time, happy weaving.