Farmer-Grown Color

The Intersection of Agriculture, Economics, and Textiles

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ever wonder what makes your blue jeans blue? The answer is indigo dye—but it’s not as harmless as it sounds. Most dyes used today are synthetically derived from petroleum and coal tar, and their creation requires large amounts of energy, water, and chemicals. For each ton of fabric dyed, 200 tons of wastewater is produced. As the dyes break down in the water, toxic chemicals are released.

The international textile dye industry is no small business. Approximately 1.3 million tons of dyes and pigments are used each year, valued at around $23 billion. When such a large industry contributes to industrial wastewater, the impact is noticeable.

Sarah Bellos, a 2013 PERC enviropreneur, thought there had to be a way for the fashion industry to dye textiles without generating massive amounts of chemical-laden water. Hoping to provide the solution, she created Stony Creek Colors in 2012 on her farm in Tennessee. Her company aims to deliver reliable plant-based dyes to the global textile industry. The natural colorants are made from renewable sources such as leaves, roots, and wood—much of which can be grown or sourced in the southeastern United States.

As more and more global fashion brands “go green,” Stony Creek plans to be on the forefront of the natural colorant market as the leading provider of safer dyes. “I see bio-based textile colorants as an ideal vehicle to solve the environmental problems faced by fashion brands while creating a sustainable economic opportunity for farmers growing the specialty industrial crops,” says Bellos. The company is developing a complete agricultural supply chain in order to offer a consistent product usable in commercial equipment at a scale that major industrial players demand.

A PALETTE OF IDEAS

Bellos started her first business with her sister under the name ASK Apparel. The duo sold their screen-printed, naturally dyed goods at farmers markets, artisan fairs, and Whole Foods. At first, people asked how they were getting naturally dyed items; they explained that they created the dyes and dyed the products themselves. Soon, people asked if Bellos and her sister would dye things for them.

The company became Artisan Natural Dyeworks, providing dye services at a scale suitable for independent designers. While her sister preferred the craft work, Bellos thrived on the operations side of things. She began another company, Southern Hues, to supply naturally dyed fabric and products such as scarves and wraps.

As she grew these companies, Bellos dreamed of making a big impact on the textile dyeing industry as a whole. But something was standing in her way: she was having trouble achieving uniform colors from sampling to production. Bellos knew she couldn’t scale up until she could manufacture consistent colors. She was determined to solve that problem.

The time was ripe to create a company built around reliable natural dye extracts that were easy to use in industrial machinery. And why not get farmers on board to grow the raw material while she was at it? A company like this, she determined, would make natural colorants viable for global brands, making them less dependent on chemical dyes and creating an incentive for nearby farmers to grow specialty dye crops such as indigo and black walnut. As she began moving her bio-based dyes from a niche market to the mainstream, Stony Creek Colors emerged.

SETTING THE TONE

Stony Creek is conducting agronomic research, doing trials with brands in industrial dyehouses and improving its extraction and production processes. These efforts are laying the groundwork for Bellos’s plans to increase the local supply of dye crops and to sell products to big textile manufacturers. Stony Creek is already retailing small amounts of natural dye to artisans in the short term to generate income while the company sets up for the jump from farm-scale production to mechanized production and industrialized extraction.

Bellos knows that for natural dye extracts to be good enough to be used by big brands, several things need to happen. First, the colorants need to be made in a refined powder form. Producing dyes in this form makes them storable and allows them to be used in commercial equipment.

Second, the natural colorants need to be consistent over large batches and different periods of time. This is hard to accomplish, as many variables affect how much pigment each plant contains. Stony Creek has consequently invested in research and development to improve its extraction methods as well as to compensate for pigment variations to increase consistency.

Bellos says the new techniques “bring enough standardization into the process to allow us to offer a consistent, and thus scalable product without losing the bit of alchemy inherent in such a beautiful process as coaxing color from plants.”

FROM PLANT TO POWDER

Stony Creek’s colors come from a few plants that provide the majority of the materials necessary to create its colorants. The company uses indigo for making blue dye, madder for red, Osage orange for golden yellow, weld for bright yellow, black walnut for brown, and tannin sources such as sumac for gray.

Stony Creek harvests the leaves from some plants; from others they gather the roots or wood. Bellos and her team then extract the naturally occurring dye chemicals from the plants by soaking them in water or organic solvent. This produces a liquid dye, which undergoes a series of technical filtration, purification, and drying steps to create the final product: a powder dye. 

A VIBRANT FUTURE

So, what about the blue in your jeans? Bellos has big plans to produce it using less water and no chemicals. “We are especially excited about our indigo R&D, which will soon make an American-grown dye available for coloring American-made denim,” Bellos said.


After attending PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute in 2013, Bellos began the pilot phase of her indigo research project. She is currently processing 1,000 pounds of product and testing it with commercial equipment to ensure the dyes will work across major production lines. Her findings over several growing seasons will enable her to maximize consistency and grow the crop on a large scale down the road.

Bellos is currently growing and harvesting the indigo on her farm, and plans to increase indigo acreage in the southeast by contracting with farmers over the next several years. Stony Creek will then be the only company growing indigo on an industrial scale in the United States.

And, it seems, her timing is right. Stony Creek is positioned to capitalize on the greening of the industry. A group of major fashion brands recently committed to help lead their industry toward eliminating hazardous chemical discharge by 2020. Bellos will be waiting with her line of natural colorants when big brands start looking for synthetic dye alternatives.

Bellos may live on a farm in Tennessee, but don’t picture her rocking her time away on the porch. Talking to her for but a few minutes makes it clear that her wheels are constantly spinning, thinking about managing the different aspects of her business from the agricultural, to the technical, to the economic. Armed with Bellos’s passion and drive, Stony Creek Colors looks to be heading down a green path in more ways than one.

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Annie Ireland is the new Research and Outreach Associate at PERC. She recently graduated from Colorado College with a B. A. in Political Science, where she was honored to receive the Edith Bramhall Award for outstanding scholarship in the department. Annie got her feet wet at PERC when she attended the student colloquium and worked as an intern...
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