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We've Got the Blues!

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Indigo dye
Indigo, a plant-based dye used in the 1800's

The ancient Greeks may have recognized that "the skies of Attica are always clear" (a saying that anyone learning ancient Ionian is taught to recite), but that did not necessarily equate with a recognition that the skies were also, "always blue". Homer described the Aegean Sea as "wine-dark" - but did not have a word for blue, even though it was everywhere.

Did language limit perception to mere tonal gradations, or vice-versa?

The Egyptians had a clearer handle on the color, in a large part because they had figured out how to make blue pigment and used it in ceramic art; so much so that the Romans dubbed it "Egyptian Blue" (There is an interesting exhibit on color in art, "Chromatopia" , at the Lyman Allen Museum through March, where you can see examples of it.)

It really wasn't until the Age of Reason that man started trying to thoroughly examine, distinguish, and name colors. This grew out of a general need to look at the world scientifically.

In the 1730's Carl Linnaeus created a classification system for the natural world by hierarchy. His extensive classification of plants is used in botany to this day. Linnaeus wanted to do the same with minerals, but did not have the requisite background.

Abraham Gottlob Werner was from a family of miners and took up the challenge of classifying minerals. Color was one of their most obvious identifying features, and so Werner began the classification of color as a tool for describing minerals. Eventually his work was taken up by other naturalists who realized that to identify any kind of natural specimen in the field would require a uniform color guide. In other words, color itself needed to be classified.

Using Linnaeus' basic kingdoms - animal, vegetable and mineral - colors were codified. Thus by the mid 1800's Indigo blue was pinpointed as the specific blue visible on the feather of the blue cuckoo shrike, the petals of Bavarian gentian, and the mineral azurite.



This kind of critical examination - the very exercise of naming - expanded man's ability to distinguish color: growing from the simplistic tonal variations noticed by the ancient Greeks to a range of hundreds of hues of each color noted by scientists during the Age of Reason - informing the dawn of the Industrial Age.

It was then that North Stonington became famous for its mastery of the blues.

In the first half of the 1800's pure silk, flax and wool were grown locally, and cotton was shipped in from the South. They were spun in private homes in town, then the yarn was brought to a dye house to be given color.

The Stephan Main Homestead with the Horace Babcock Dye House, rear left, famous for its Indigo

North Stonington dye houses had figured out how to make multiple variations of the color blue by using indigo as a base, in varied dye recipes that were well-guarded secrets. The Horace Babcock Dye House (now owned by the Historical Society) could produce nine different variations of blue yarn, making it a destination for weavers and shop owners from around the area. They also made orange from madder and red from cochineal, and every other color required, but it was their mastery of blue that made the town famous.

And mastering Indigo was no easy task.

The indigo dye that was used was a plant-based vat dye. According to Paul Zelanski in his book "Color", "vat dyes respond within the fiber after it has been subjected to a certain treatment, such as being exposed to air and sunlight or an acid solution. Indigo turns fibers blue as it is exposed to the air. Successive dipping and exposure will gradually deepen the color."

Lori Dziedzic is an indigo grower and dyer at Fiber + Mud farm in Pachaug. She likens an indigo vat to a living being: happiest when used on a daily basis and in need of rest periods. To make the actual dyes, the indigo plants are soaked until they ferment. The liquid is drained off and whipped until oxygen converts the liquid to indigo dye which settles to the bottom. (Lori's Indigo creations can be found at her Fiber+ Mud website and at the Stonington Farmer's Market.)

In the 1800's local weavers would take the dyed and dried yarn and weave it into prescribed patterns, dictated by the local shops, who would then sell the finished cloth.

Plaids were a desirable pattern because any fluctuation in a single color disappeared in the intricacy of the pattern. Even today in our mechanized, computerized world, if you buy yarn, you must buy each color from the same dye lot or you risk having a noticeable color shift in the final piece you are making.

The plaids that were made locally had specific written-out instructions ( on display at the Homestead during our Second Saturday Open House 11 - 2pm). They feature our North Stonington blues with contrasting orange and white highlights. We are fortunate to have had North Stonington weaver, Madeline Jeffrey, reproduce for our Dye House exhibit, samples of each pattern used by 19th century store owner Dudley Wheeler.

Indigo dyed plaids were a North Stonington Specialty
Reproduction of North Stonington plaid, by Madeline Jeffrey.

In her research on the woven plaids and the some 300 weavers that made them, Madeline found and described the following: There was an 1837 local weaver named Mary Wilcox, who wove one of the plaids over and over again in lengths of 124 yards, 26 inches wide, for something they called "shirting". Dudley Wheeler's business paid her 3 cents per yard - good money in those days- and supplied her with the weaving fibers: in this case # 16 cotton -as fine as sewing thread - in 2 shades of blue, orange and white."

Writing from her own experience in reproducing the plaids, Jeffrey adds, "How did Mary Wilcox do it? She needed good eyesight, glasses for all the counting and double counting. She needed really good light at all times. She needed to be warm in winter and cool in summer. She needed nourishment for energy to keep that beater swinging. She needed good soap and warm water to wash the indigo blueness and madder red/orange from her fingers, hands and weaving clothes. She needed to know how to work alone and steadily and keep her work - row by row - the same, the same, the same!

This literal "cottage industry" - individuals working at spinning wheels and looms in their own homes for a middle man/store keeper - was the beginning of the Industrial Age.

It is the focus of our Dye House collection at the Stephen Main Homestead.

1 Wyassup Road North Stonington CT

Next Second Saturday Open House January 14th 11am-2pm!


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