February 01, 2019
So, I want to start off the year with one of my favorite topics: indigo. My love of indigo goes deep. It all began as my first job was working at Oshkosh B’gosh as a denim designer. I got to quickly understand the roots, heritage, and art of denim. It was only fitting that the first person I met upon moving to Nashville was Sarah Bellos of Stony Creek Colors.
Stony Creek was founded in 2012 with a mission to change the way apparel products were dyed. A vast majority of goods are dyed using synthetic, petroleum-based dyes and if you’ll notice not a lot of that is done stateside where there can be stricter regulations. She had encountered this problem when she set out with her sister to offer a line that would include bio-based dyes. Then quickly came to the conclusion that there were not scalable sources for this as much of natural dyeing is done by hand especially indigo. The processes were never translated to a format that could be done for large quantities instead that was where synthetic versions came in to play. Efficient, cheaper, more consistent…oo and not to mention filled with toxins.
Sarah decided to take on this massive challenge. Similar to me she felt farmers were at the heart of it all. Since then they have been innovating, growing, partnering and researching their way through it all. It took me a bit, but I finally got Sarah out of her lab to take a few moments to share with us more about herself and the journey.
Can you share with us a little about your younger self and what you envisioned in a career? Was being involved in the fashion realm ever in the cards?
Sarah Bellos: My college-age self-thought I would be working in environmental policy in Washington DC. Fashion was definitely not on my radar!
What was your main goal when you began Stony Creek Colors and how has that evolved? Was sustainability always on your mind?
Sarah: At Stony Creek Colors our goal has always been to take what is good about synthetic dyes (consistency, vibrancy, and scalability) and leaving out what’s harmful (toxins, industrial pollutants, and nonrenewable carbon sources). We have always believed that natural dyes should play a larger role in textile manufacturing but it would take some new innovations in both supply chain management and technology to get them there.
The business model has definitely evolved. When I first started the business, I thought we would launch a full-color palette. It has taken a long time to just get natural indigo production scaled up! But this is only beginning: R&D and partnerships are already underway into our next colors and sources.
Currently, what type of indigo is being grown?
Sarah: We grow the Persicaria tinctoria indigo (in the buckwheat family) and two varieties of Tropical indigo, Indigofera tinctoria and Indigofera suffruticosa.
Do you see indigo farms expanding beyond Tennessee and is it a crop that is easy to manage?
Sarah: There are some cool hyperlocal indigo projects happening in California and Indiana. For our business model, we would definitely want to keep production in the Southeast US where the crop can be grown successfully without needing supplemental irrigation. Believe it or not, we don’t require our farmers to irrigate the crop.
Have there been any struggles in growing indigo or creating a truly natural dye that seems impossible to manage sustainably?
Sarah: Every season we encounter some new struggle! Seriously there have been a lot of challenges from seeds and germination to just the general management challenges of trying to scale up a new alternative crop and a processing facility at the same time.
We have an awesome team that wakes up every day to work on the solutions that will allow us to scale up across our entire value chain, from seed to greenhouse to farmers to factory.
How long does it take to create dye from farm to finished product?
Sarah: Our processing method creates indigo from plant leaves in a single factory day. But growing the crop is a several months endeavor.
In working with natural dyes, it seems it’s hard to manage consistency, cost and time due to the handmade nature. Would you say these are some of the reasons that no one has tackled it in a scalable way? Are there other issues?
Sarah: There are two different problems. One is the consistency of the extracts used. The other is the way the dyes are applied. When dyes are applied by hand by an artisan it can lead to longer turnaround times, differences in output/consistency and higher labor costs.
At Stony Creek, we knew that if we could solve for #1 and create consistent and scalable extracts that could be used in machine dyeing, then the industrial users (like denim mills and dye houses) could solve for #2. Natural dyes for textiles can be extracted under controlled and replicable conditions, just like other natural products.
I think one of the reasons no one had scaled up this type of business in the US before is there was a perception other countries were already serving the market and solving the problem. Coming from within the industry though I knew that most natural dyers in the US had no idea where their dyes were coming from and there was a lot of adulteration of what we thought was natural. I wanted to create something transparent and traceable in addition to solving for the consistency problem.
What’s coming up for Stony Creek, are there any new partnerships or other natural dyes that will be in the works?
Sarah: Of course, we are continuing our awesome collaborations with denim brands using our natural indigo. So many great launches recently from brands like Patagonia, Lucky Brand and Wrangler have us really excited about the adoption of natural indigo by the denim industry.
Next, on the horizon, we are launching a knit fabric project and would love to hear from brands that want to collaborate on the rest of the color wheel to make this happen!
If you had one wish or goal what would you like to see happen in the industry?
Sarah: I would like to see GOTS or Bluesign add a plant-based dye certification. Right now, there are “GOTS certified” producers claiming to sell natural dyes which are really just synthetic, petroleum-based dyes. I think until a shared labeling scheme exists it will be hard for customers to know that they are getting.
If you could use a time machine to go back 15 years what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Sarah: Get your hands dirty. Learn as much as you can, keep growing and don’t worry about what you “should” be doing at a certain time in your life.
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind?
Sarah: I have an 8-month-old baby who is so adorable that it is really a dream to hang out with him. I like to get in quality time after work without interrupting his bedtime routine too much!
All of our dye problems haven’t been solved yet, but I’m excited to know someone is working hard on these challenges and maybe someday we will see this as more of the norm. Also, Stony Creek Colors sells their dyes, you can check that out here.
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