Did you read the blog Curiosity (posted November 16, 2016)? Here is the story of the inspirational folk piece for Gary Graham’s coat we spoke of, the Ann Carll Coverlet, Blazing Star and Snowballs.
The coverlet is indigo-dyed wool and natural cotton from 1810 and in itself a piece for conversation. A coverlet is a bedspread that is designed to cover the top of the bed and is typically less than floor length; where a quilt is made from sewn together fabric pieces, a coverlet is made from scratch. This particular coverlet was woven on a loom for and owned by Ann Carll in 1810; her name and March 31, 1810 is woven into the pattern (and can be seen in the circled areas in the photo below). This double-layered cloth was constructed one row at a time and, as part of the process, the pattern was woven in.
A coverlet, such as this one, could act as a status symbol for early Americans, especially when the name of the owner was included in the design. The techniques used to produce these coverlets were adapted from the weaving techniques used to make carpets. In 19th-century America, these coverlets were produced by immigrants from Western Europe skilled in the complicated techniques of fancy weaving. Though the technological concerns of production and the socio-economic implications of the coverlet itself is intriguing (there is a whole museum dedicated to the American coverlet in Bedford, Pennsylvania called The National Museum of the American Coverlet), there is more to be considered.
The production of textiles in industral 19th-century America was both a producer and user of invention and technology. The cotton gin, the sewing machine and subsequent enhancements, the power loom (powered by a line shaft connected to a power source), and the the rise of water- or steam-powered mills helped to transform the nation’s overall economy from agricultural to manufacturing. Cities grew, along with all their particular needs, as people moved to work in the mills and a society became increasingly involved in the discoveries of science, technology, engineering, and math.
The coverlet woven from indigo-dyed wool and natural cotton is not only conversational seed for addressing the art of its pattern or an isolated discussion about the art and technology of its production. It also involves the agriculture, chemistry, and application of the indigo dye. During this time the coverlet was most likely dyed with imported indigo. Though indigenous North American species exist, the use of true indigo, Indigofera tinctoria, proved to yield deeper blues. A species of plant most likely originating in India, Indigofera tinctoria has been introduced worldwide making a definite claim to that origin difficult. Traces of dye from this plant have been tracked as far back 2300 BC, found on an Egyptian mummy.
Today, the dye that makes blue jeans blue is synthesized on an industrial scale. First synthesized by Adolf von Baeyer in 1878 (he was awarded the the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1905, “in recognition of his services in the advancement of organic chemistry and the chemical industry, through his work on organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds”), it was not until 1897 that a commercially-economical process was developed. Today it is estimated that the global usage of indigo is around 60,000 tons. However, in the 19th century, indigo was extracted from the leaves of the plant.
In the same year that synthesized indigo became commercially feasible, it has been estimated that 19,000 tons of indigo were produced from plants. The extraction of indigo from leaves is a multi-stepped process and actually involves converting indican (the actual substance found in the leaves and precursor of indigo) into the dye or indigotin, a process that essentially has remained the same for thousands of years – imagine the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa were all using this technology.
When ready for harvesting, freshly-cut plants are placed in a fermentation vessel, steeping in warm water of the proper pH. With the addition of an enzyme, the waxy coating of the leaves is removed, releasing the indican. In this solution, indican breaks down into indoxyl, glucose, and carbon dioxide.
Transferred to a second vessel, oxygen is added to the indoxyl-rich solution, most commonly done by frothing the solution. The oxidation process causes two indoxyl molecules to join, making water-insoluble indigotin or indigo pigment, which settles to the bottom of the vessel.
The liquid is siphoned away, and the settled pigment is transferred to a third vessel. Here it is heated to stop the fermentation process, filtered, and dried, producing the blue dye powder. When used for dying, the powdered pigment is mixed with an alkaline solution, reducing (removing the oxygen) indigotin into leuco-indigotin, which is water-soluble and capable of coloring items dipped into the solution.
Though synthesized indigo is available, many still prefer the natural extracted dye for its ability to impart subtle hues or shades as the extracted pigment may also contain varying amounts indirubin (red), indigo brown, indigo gluten, and mineral matter, the latter two perhaps contributing to dye uptake.
So, there you go, the adventure presented to you, an adventure of uncovering facts that in turn fuels our curiosity to discover more. A story about the amazing technique and technology that combined to create early american folk art, technologies and art that were inspired by and an influence to invention and society. Stand once more at the east wall and see what you can discover.
Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art is on display through December 31, 2016.