In the long ago and far away when High God left the earth, he went to live in the sky. The sky was close to earth in those days, so close it rested on the hills and mountains and sagged into the valleys.. . . The sky did more for man in those days than to shade him and to house the spirits. Bits of sky could be eaten. This was different from other foods. Rice and palm oil fill the belly. Sky fills the heart.. . . It was dangerous business, this eating of cloud. One had to come to cloud-food pure in thought and body. Even so, one could become cloud-drunk, sweetly drunk and unknowing. This is what happened to Asi, the seeress of Foya Kamara.
Asi came to the banks of the stream that flows past the town. She came with her girl child tied on her back under a pure white lappa of country cloth. Asi walked calmly, her head high and straight as she neared the altar because one does not rush with unseemly haste to a sacred place.. . . After she had spread her lappa on the earth and made a cushion of leaves under it to soften the place for her child, she walked without clothes to the bank of the stream.. . . One could look down into the deep pools and see the beautiful blue color of the sky lying there in the sacred wetness.
Asi had eyes and heart that were hungry for color.. . . "Perhaps," thought Asi, "if I eat enough sky, the blue will come to my skin from within me. With luck, my hair will be thunder-blue." . . . Asi shuddered then because she knew that a seeress must not beg anything for herself at the holy pools; one must ask only for the entire people of the village.. . .Fear shook her body as she carried water for the rice.. . ."I will eat some sky now to make my heart lie down and be still," Asi told herself. Reaching up, she broke off a strip of sky as long as a plantain leaf and began to feed her lonely heart. With the first swallow of sky, beautiful thoughts filled Asi.. . . She saw that her baby was asleep on the white lappa. Asi was free to eat just one more bit of sky while the rice cooked. (Esther Warner Dendel, Blue Goes For Down: How indigo dye came to Liberia-a folk tale)Asi pays a high price for her longing for blue. Drunk from sky-eating, she falls asleep; her sacred offering burns and as punishment, her baby dies and wets the white lappa, which turns blue at that spot. As Asi cries and covers herself in ashes of mourning, the water spirit tells her that the blue spot comes from the leaves Asi laid down for her baby's comfort. In order for the blue to stay, it must be mixed with urine, salt and ashes. This, the spirit explains, is why the baby's spirit had to leave her body; without the salt of Asi's tears and the ashes of mourning, blue could not stay on the earth. Water spirit sends Asi away with the secret of blue, telling her that it is a sacred duty to guard the indigo. Only women too old to bear children should handle the indigo pots. (EWD, in Natural Plant Dyeing, Blue Goes For Down, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, l973)
The mystery of who first discovered how to release that rich, deep blue from the green leaves of the Indigofera tintoria plant is lost to us, but we know that indigo is one of the oldest dye plants. It was used in ancient India, Greece, Rome and Africa, in Japan, Britain and Peru and can be tracked back to Mesopotamia in 7 BCE. The mystery of indigo deepens because, not only must the colour be released through fermentation of the leaves with oxygen kept out of the vat, the colour develops upon exposure to air. Dip your fibre or fabric into the clear blue-green liquid and the colour changes magically from greeny yellow to a rich blue. Darker blues require repeated dips.
I set up my indigo vat last night. Most modern dyers use indigo in powered form; my vat is made from a partially pre-reduced indigo powder which requires fewer, less harsh chemicals. After mixing the liquid, the colour in the vat is a dark blue, which should change into a clear mixture as the vat sits overnight. That coppery blue shine in the centre of the vat is the "flower," or "bloom," concentrated indigo which is scooped from the vat and set aside during dyeing, then added back to the vat to keep it working:
This morning, the vat has a full flower on it, but it's a deeper blue than I had hoped. I'll check it again once the day has warmed; indigo works better with some heat. If the dye liquid hasn't shifted to a clear green, I'll add more chemicals and do a test dip. I will be patient, for as Asi knew, "One does not rush with unseemly haste to a sacred place."
High God, after having let women have the secret of blue for their clothes, pulled the sky up higher where no one could reach up to break off a piece for food. People look on the blue of fine cloth and have less need of a near sky, even though in their hearts they will always remain lonely for God. (EWD, Blue Goes For Down)