Ossabaw indigo, my true blue

Savannah Morning News

Nov. 15, 2015

What is it about vowels? They’re just so darn cheerful. Go, be, see, do. Vowels, especially long vowels, are the glue, But what about the color blue? For years (before I discovered red), blue was my favorite color. Now I read the Incas believed blue to be the color of divine knowledge and the higher mind, indigo blue in particular. Go Blue (as we Wolverines from the University of Michigan might say to a stranger wearing blue and gold). In the Middle Ages indigo blue was so valuable if a non-royal was caught wearing this color he or she could be imprisoned.

Arise all non-royals! Your time has come! You too can wear blue and not be tossed in the brink! Better yet you can wear indigo blue. Even better than that you can dunk your stained white t-shirts, faded button-down shirts, dingy old napkins (or a brand new all white Eileen Fisher dress) into a vat of liquid indigo (and then a special fixative) and give your clothes a second and/or more spiritual life.

All by yourself – at the next Ossabaw Island Foundation indigo dyeing workshop, which they hold periodically, with the incomparable Donna Hardy, founder of Sea Island Indigo in Athens, Ga. Donna has been experimenting, researching and growing this plant for eons. It’s her passion. She even has an indigo leaf stem tattooed on her arm.

I resisted the workshop for a long time. I grow the plant (right now it’s about 10 feet tall). I fuss over the plant. (It’s a self-seeder and I always forget to snag the seeds in the fall so come late May I start to worry: will it come back?) I love to point out the plant’s miniature banana-like seedpod and then its pea-like leaf, which gives me a chance to say it’s a legume (long “u”).

But dyeing? Too artsy-craftsy (I never even tie-dyed anything back in the hippy-dippy days). Too complicated (so what’s the mordant again?). Finally, it’s too messy (full disclosure: the outside of your hands, the creases in your knuckles, your cuticles, your fingernails and any part of the clothes you’re wearing will carry the color for days, maybe weeks. But hey, it’s a stain, right?) But that’s why the accessible and knowledgeable Donna Hardy is there, on the island, to lead you through the steps. Seriously, it should be against the law to have this much fun, on a barrier island, yet. You can’t just say, OK, I have to go home now. It’s days like this that make me wonder why we never did things like this in art class in school. Or even in biology. It’s magical. It’s scientific. It’s historic.

In the process you can make fun of what is normally a taboo subject. You can laugh about dying. Oops, make that dyeing. Maybe it’s because so many good people seem to be, well, dying, that I find myself laughing inappropriately when I hear Donna, our leader, say, “Are you through dyeing?” or “It’s a good day to dye.” Or when someone asks, “Can you make a living dyeing?” or, finally, directly from the mouth of Savannah photographer par excellence Robert Cooper, who was on the island with the rest of us mad hatters, when he said, “I’m here to shoot you dyeing.”

How this strain of indigo from Central and South American got to Ossabaw in the first place is a mystery, “probably on a ship from the 1500’s, by accident or not,” Donna said. Maybe from a bird. Maybe in the cuff of someone’s pants. Maybe Marco Polo, who moved seeds and other goods back and forth between continents, had something to do with it. But seeds are full of mystery. Just this week we read about efforts of a seed saving organization to squirrel away and save seeds from war-ravaged Syria, where archeological sites, cities, human beings – and seeds – are being destroyed right and left.

Quite possibly this strain of Ossabaw indigo – initially discovered on the island by the curious and observant late/great Jim Bitler, who lived and worked on the island – is the same that the Picts, an ancient eighth-century tribal people from Scotland, or the warriors in the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart, smeared on their faces when they went into battle, although I prefer to think of indigo as a dye for fabric.

Donna postulates the seed has been around for 270 years, long enough to move from an annual to a perennial that reseeds itself. Whatever. It’s a survivor. Like Sandy West, about to turn 103 years old. Like Ossabaw.



Seamstress saves memories, pants

Savannah Morning News

Sun., Nov. 8, 2015


It’s a matter of trust, leaving your cherished trousers at a dry cleaners place for mending or an embroidered shirt that’s hung in your closet long before some of your friends were born or maybe your best-loved dress, the only one that fits just right. It’s a little embarrassing when what you’ve brought in for repair is ragged, frayed and shoddy, something no one in his or her right mind would pick up at a second-hand store. But you do it anyway.

“They’re my favorite pants,” I allow to Yvonne Bryant, pointing to a split in a seam just where you don’t want a split.

“Everyone has something that’s their favorite,” she answers just as polite as she could be.

The next time I brought some jeans, all faded and softened up, perfectly fitted to my not-so-perfect torso, also decades old, as comfortable as your number one pillow, but so soft they had no choice but to split in the thigh.

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I can fix these.”

Yvonne works her magic in the old Central of Georgia Hospital building on Bull and Washington streets, the one with the beautiful white pillars that houses The Learning Center for Senior Citizens, Meals on Wheels and counselors and consultants of all stripes. Yvonne’s room is down one of those beautiful terrazzo halls from the Savannah Widow’s Society.

Everyone needs an Yvonne Bryant in their life, someone who can work magic with the needle or in her case the iconic and epic Singer sewing machine (she has six), someone who understand eccentricities.

“Some folks don’t want to give away sheets,” she said, the soft purple tape measure draped around her neck, her eyes on the tat-tat-tat needle and bobbin going up and down, her long, perfectly manicured fingernails slipping in and out as she feeds the shirt in front of her through the machine. “You’d be surprised. They’ll get a queen-size bed but they still want their king size sheets with a seam straight down the middle.”

Then there are the panties women bring in, sometimes 10 at a time, she said, nylon and cotton alike, asking her to put new elastic in the waist.

For men it’s coordinating the neck with the body of the shirt. They want her to take in the sides to accommodate someone with a large neck size. Then there’s the client who brought in a long piece of black fur. He wants Yvonne to sew buttons on it followed by hooks on the collar of a coat so he can attach it when it gets cold (or when he wants to do some stylin’).

A lot of her work (no surprise) has to do with weight: more letting out than taking in. Either way women’s clothes are a little trickier to navigate than men’s but women don’t request work on a shirt collar that needs to be turned inside out or ask her to move the top button closer to the edge so they don’t choke.

Still, the bugaboo is always the zipper. That’s one of the hardest tasks of all. That’s what separates a good seamstress from a not so good one. That’s the test Yvonne gives when she’s considering a new hire (which she doesn’t do anymore; she prefers to work alone, just her and her soaps, “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” for company).

“I give them a zipper to take out and put back in. I used to sew clothes so I know: taking them apart and putting them back together is not easy,” said Yvonne who at 63 can still thread a needle even though she has upgraded her glasses a few times.

Not that Yvonne ever wanted to be seamstress. She didn’t. She took sewing in school. She didn’t like it at all.

“But I had a great teacher, Louise Phillips, when I was working at Best Cleaners. It was my first job. I was 23, 24. She’d give me something to do and come back and check on me. When she left to start her own business I became head seamstress. I stayed there 10 years. When she said she was going to sell the business and did I want to buy it I said yes, I’ll give it a try.”

That was 27 years ago.

“Unfortunately she passed in July this year. I was out of town and didn’t know.”

Then she paused. That made her sad.

Yvonne has no plans to stop working.

“I like what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m going to work as long as I can.”

That’s good news for the rest of us.