IU textiles professor Rowland Ricketts wins Martha Stewart American Made award

When Martha Stewart honors your work, it’s a good thing.

Rowland Ricketts, assistant professor of textiles in the Hope School of Fine Arts at Indiana University, is one of 10 winners in the 2014 Martha Stewart American Made program.

Rowland Ricketts dyeing cloth

Rowland Ricketts dips runners into natural indigo dye at his studio in IU’s McCalla School. Photos by Karen Land.

The artist runs Ricketts Indigo along with his wife, Chinami, who is a weaver. Together they organically grow and process the indigo used to dye their textiles.

“There is a resurgent interest in indigo, but a lot of people are just buying the dye,” he said. “Growing the dye and being involved with it at this level is probably one of the reasons we got this recognition.”

Now in its third year, American Made celebrates entrepreneurs who handcraft goods in the categories of food, crafts, style and design. More than 3,000 entrants were judged on the appearance, workmanship and innovation of their products. Community engagement and the use of local materials also were considered.

“Here we are in Bloomington, kind of plugging away at this thing that we really believe in, and it’s nice to have the affirmation that people at that level see it and recognize it,” Ricketts said.

A serious summit

Ricketts Indigo and the other American Made winners each received $10,000 and the chance to be featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine and its website, as well as on its Sirius XM radio show. They also received a trip to a November meetup and summit in New York City, where their work was featured.

“It was incredible,” Ricketts said. “They were very generous hosts. The food was wonderful and, as you would expect, every detail was considered.”

Book of swatches

Swatches in a daily log book track the strength of the indigo dye in Rowland Ricketts’ studio.

It also was a serious business gathering.

“There was a lot of shop talk about running a studio and making things work. People were talking about really believing in what you do and pursuing that whole-heartedly,” he said.

The winners received tours of the Martha Stewart headquarters, where Ricketts found the staff to be sincere and enthusiastic. He said the visitors were “blown away” by the work environment. “They’re really doing things and believing in the things they do. In their culture, they want the things they make to be attainable, and they want to share them with people. That’s part of the ethos there.

“It’s a great idea, and it’s a great way of working.”

Natural progression

Ricketts first became interested in natural dyes in rural Japan, where he lived and worked for a decade.

At the time he was teaching photography in an area with little wastewater treatment. He later learned that his darkroom chemicals were directly entering the surrounding land. “It really opened my eyes to the impact of making — or as we say here at IU, creative activity — on the environment,” he said.

Ricketts stopped doing photography and adopted a “greener” art form: textiles. He soon secured an apprenticeship in indigo farming and dyeing and later set up his own farm and studio. He even met his wife through indigo, when they both apprenticed with the same dyer in Japan.

Indigo plants bloom in the summer. IU file photo.

The indigo flowers are not blue. IU file photo.

“When I came back to the States, I wanted to bring something back with me that was more than a souvenir, something more meaningful,” he said.

And that something was indigo.

Now his life is intertwined with the life cycle of the plants.

“This is the time of year for gathering seeds,” he said. “Normally over the winter we would be composting, and that lasts for about 100 days. In the spring, we start the growing cycle over again. We plant seeds in late March and in early to mid May transplant those outdoors.

“In July and August, we harvest and dry the indigo and winnow the leaves from the stems. In fall and winter, we compost the harvest to concentrate the dye.”

This year, an unseasonably cold autumn posed a challenge. The Ricketts “frantically” gathered indigo seeds just days before the first snow fell.

The early fall also posed a challenge to visiting crews from Martha Stewart Living. In mid-October, a video crew came to Bloomington to shoot for two days. The following week, an editor and photographer were here for an article that will appear in a summer issue of the magazine.

“They wanted to come while there still were leaves on the trees and the indigo was still alive,” Ricketts said. “They shot four days before that freeze, just in the nick of time.”

In the studio

Winter also is a time for dyeing. On a brisk morning, Ricketts was in his studio early, trying out a new textile design.

He removed the cover on a vat of indigo dye with this warning: “It has a certain smell.”

Rubber gloves dyed blue

Rubber gloves in the Ricketts studio take on shades of indigo.

The pungent aroma was anything but chemical; it was earthy, like rotting plants.

Ricketts remains committed to working with natural materials. “If I won’t eat it, I try not to use it in the studio,” he said.

He uses powdered lime, like that in corn tortillas, to bring the indigo dye bath to its proper pH balance. And he uses rice paste as a resist to create simple patterns on his dyed cloth.

“I avoid any imagery whatsoever,” he said. “I use really simple shapes to focus attention on the dye itself.”

Indigo can create many different solid shades of blue, but Ricketts is drawn to gradations.

“I like the gradation because it’s a metaphor for the entire process,” he said. “You build up the color slowly over time, through successive immersions in the dye. That is very much like indigo itself. From the time you plant the seeds, you’re accumulating all this time in the process.”

Putting down roots

From 2010 to 2014, Ricketts organized the community art project IndiGrowing Blue at IU’s Hilltop Garden and Nature Center. The project allowed people to fully experience natural dyeing by helping plant, harvest, winnow and process indigo. Later, participants could transfer what they had grown onto tangible items by using a community vat of the rich, blue dye.


Composted indigo is the base of the dye. IU file photo.

Ricketts recently wrapped up the program because his new indigo harvester requires flat land. Instead, he and colleague Carissa Carman are growing other natural dyes at Hilltop that can be harvested and used by their IU textiles students.

“I’ve always designed and dyed textiles as part of my studio practice,” he said.  That’s one way of getting this dye into the lives of people, through things that they can use.”

Still, Ricketts has other ambitions. “I’m really interested right now in trying to get more people growing indigo here in the community, so it is not just this visual thing, not just ‘Oh that’s indigo, that’s beautiful.’ Instead they’re actually doing this, doing this work.

“I really love this stuff, so being able to share it with other people is really important.”

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