Mood Indigo: Praxis Fiber Studio cultivates natural dye and sustainability

It’s a sunny October afternoon in north Collinwood. On a vacant lot along 156th Street, Praxis Fiber Studio director Jessica Pinsky, gardening partners David Wells and Lu Little, and a crew of volunteers are working in a field where a building once stood. It’s harvest time. The foliage that grew in rows here has been cut and is spread out on blue tarps and plastic mesh. It’s been there for a couple of days, drying just enough that the leaves are brittle. The workers are barefoot and stomping on the foliage, reminiscent of grape stomping, breaking the blue-green leaves off their stems. The crushed leaves are the prize. The product here is not wine, but indigo—the natural dye that gave the original blue jeans their color.

This lot is owned by the Cleveland Land Bank, but Pinsky says the nonprofit organization she runs wants to buy it. They’ll put it to good use. Praxis would keep growing the annual crop, for their own use in fiber art-making and in classes. Eventually she would hope to sell the dye. This is the second year the organization has grown a crop of indigo here, and over time, with the removal of weeds and old brick, and with the addition of compost, the soil has improved. That has value.

Pinsky says Praxis has taken up indigo farming partly as an educational venture. She wants people to know commercial dyes are both toxic and ubiquitous. Almost all the clothing in the consumer market is made with commercial chemical dyes in a process that contaminates waste water, much of which is dumped without treatment in parts of the world that lack environmental regulation. In part because of the volume used in the clothing and textile industry, it is one of the world’s worst pollutants of rivers, streams, and groundwater. Praxis, the small, fiber arts nonprofit in North Collinwood, has taken up the fight in its own way, and that is how it fits into the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion Waterways cohort.

Earlier this year, Praxis used last year’s indigo crop to conduct community-level, natural dyeing workshops during Collinwood’s monthly Walk All Over Waterloo and other events. The hands-on workshops yielded 1,400 towel-sized panels of blue fabric. The panels were then stitched together in sixty-foot banners designed by artists—Tony Williams (Cleveland), Rowland Ricketts (Bloomington, Indiana), and Eduardo Portillo and Mariá Eugenia Dávila (Venezuela). The banners were suspended from the Detroit-Superior Bridge during celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the last fire on the Cuyahoga River. If you happened to paddle the Cuyahoga near Downtown in mid-June, or if you attended the PechaKucha Waterways session at the Jacobs Pavilion, you could not have missed their gargantuan scale. One banner, designed by Tony Williams, looked like the Jolly Green Giant’s blue jeans, hung out to dry. Pinsky hopes all three banners will go on permanent display, perhaps at an airport in South Carolina, which she says is where indigo first came to the US, on slave ships. But the impact of the Praxis Creative Fusion project doesn’t end with the enormous banners.

In addition to supporting that aspect of the project, the grant has also enabled Praxis to look ahead in a way that eventually could help the organization become more sustainable. And in the small nonprofit world—especially for Pinsky and other founders who have dedicated their lives to a mission—that is a major deal. “How does a nonprofit like this sustain itself, really?” Pinsky asks rhetorically. “And I don’t want to just sustain: I want reasonable salaries for my staff.”

And she thinks locally-grown, natural indigo dye could become a revenue stream that helps the organization get to that point. To research the market, she cold-called clothing companies that use natural dye to see where they get their indigo. She then asked if they would buy from her if she produced it. She also called companies that already sell natural dye and found that all the ones she called are getting it from overseas. She hasn’t been able to find anyone offering natural, domestically-grown indigo dye for commercial sale.

There’s a sense in which bringing a product to market is all about scale. In 2018, the first year Praxis grew indigo, Pinsky says they had about 100 pounds of the leaf to work with, and so they had to extract the dye in an inefficient way, boiling and straining it repeatedly, using hot plates. There’s a much more efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable method, but it requires at least 400 pounds of leaf. If you have that much, you can extract the dye by composting. It’s done in a carefully controlled process, carried out over 100 days. To keep it clean and gather the dye, the composting is done on a specially designed floor, built up with layers of gravel, rice hulls, and ultimately compacted clay. Composting happens as the leaves decompose, generating heat. The Creative Fusion grant enabled Praxis to build one of those composting floors in a garage adjacent to its studio on Waterloo Road.

The harvest day in October put them well over the 400-pound threshold this year. To produce dye for commercial sale in a way that would significantly add to Praxis’s bottom line would require much more than that. So she’s partnered with the Cleveland Seed Bank, learning first how to save seeds from one year’s indigo crop to plant in the following year. They’re also talking about acres of land.

Even beyond that, Pinsky has bigger ideas.

“I dream of Cleveland-made denim,” she says. “The whole vision would be to rebuild a local clothing industry in an environmentally sustainable way.”

That idea requires that multiple dreams come true, of course. Fiber suppliers, processors, natural dye producers, clothing designers and makers all would need to coordinate supply with demand, competing in a market that in recent decades has embraced “fast fashion.” In its stead, they will have to win consumers over to a locally-based, sustainable vision of “slow fashion,” making the same kind of appeal as slow food. Those products would be more expensive, but more durable, too, and more connected to the region and the local economy.

For now, 400 pounds of indigo processed in part by volunteers with bare feet and headed to a new composting floor means significant progress.