Sacred to some, stylish to others, indigo is more than a timeless hue loved across the world: it’s a storied crop with Lowcountry roots that run as deep and rich as pluff mud. Artist, designer and teacher Leigh Magar has built a life—and a brand—around telling the tale of indigo.
“Before I moved to Charleston, I had a hat business for twenty years,” says Magar, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “Then one day, out of the blue, I sold [my business] to Barneys New York, and my husband and I relocated to a secluded 500-acre property in Johns Island. It was life-changing.”
Magar recalls walking in the woods, awestruck by the bounty of flora and fauna around her, and having an epiphany: she wanted to work with native plants in a creative way. “From there, I began to research the history of Johns Island and the significance of crops like rice, indigo, and cotton. I became fascinated by South Carolina’s indigo legacy—and how, in the 1700s, a sixteen-year-old girl named Eliza Lucas Pinckney had the vision to nurture indigo into the industry it is today,” reflects Magar. “Everyone praises her legacy, and I’m always drawn to women artists’ and entrepreneurs’ stories. But the more I learned, I realized that I wanted to speak the whole truth about this plant, and it was the enslaved [who played the critical role]. It was their painstaking hard work and knowledge that really made South Carolina indigo a success.”
Magar, who soon realized the land she lived on was once an indigo plantation, felt called to grow indigo herself—and quickly realized she couldn’t just pop into a garden supply store to get started. “At the time, it was really hard to source seeds, but I eventually tracked some down, first through a monk, and then a hermit who has been working with the plant for twenty years—he gladly shared his knowledge. I know, my story sounds made-up. Like a fairy tale,” laughs Magar. “But it’s the truth, and it’s been a dream. I planted the seeds, and the first season I had ten-foot-tall indigo. It was a huge success. I’ve been growing it ever since—once you start, it’s really hard to stop. When you garden, you develop a relationship with those plants. It’s a lot of work, but it gets in your blood.”
Indigo Art from Seed-to-Stitch
Through her seed-to-stitch shop, Madame Magar, the celebrated artisan sells one-of-a-kind, hand-dyed indigo pieces that include textile art, dresses, home goods and accessories. And at Madame Magar’s Blue School on her indigo farm, she teaches hands-on workshops that share the craft of using native plants—like foraged loquat, hickory, wild fennel, and goldenrod—to create dyes that are natural and non-toxic. This field-to-fiber philosophy is at the heart of all Magar does.
“It’s all about going slow, doing things very intentionally—it takes me a very long time [to create a single piece]. It’s all hand-sewn and hand-dyed,” reveals Magar. “One of the reasons I love this work so much, I think, is because I grew up in Spartanburg, where I watched my grandparents nurture a large garden. I loved helping preserve and cook with ingredients harvested by hand.” Magar is also working on a series of booklets on indigo, inspired by the historic community cookbooks that were small, handwritten, and often filled with drawings, meant to pass down knowledge.
Outside of her upcoming art exhibits and pop-up shops, Magar is focused on her thriving workshops in Johns Island. “I’m most excited to finally be teaching. I’ve been working with the plant for so long, traveling around the world to study indigo . . . it’s been amazing to share the process of working with these plants, to see how much people love it,” smiles Magar, “and it’s very important for people to do what you love. Yes, it can be hard, but if you just stick with it, everything works out in the end.”
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
for the indigo artist’s upcoming art exhibit, Interwoven, the Art of Indigo and Silver. The exhibit will include a series of textile art installations, as well as a pop-up shop featuring new handmade home goods and accessories.
Aiken Center for the Arts, 122 Laurens St SW, Aiken. March 30th–May 3rd, 2023, aikencenterforthearts.org
For more indigo, follow Leigh Magar on Instagram @madamemagar & @madamemagarsblueschool
Photography by Caroline Knopf.