In Tennessee and Toronto, two companies are combining colour and social good to create plant-based dyes that are both vibrantly hued and environmentally friendly.
As a textile dyer for interior designers and fashion brands, Sarah Bellos loved the look of plant-based dyes, especially indigo. The alternatives – synthetic dyes – are manufactured using toxic chemicals, many of which are banned in the United States, so most production happens in developing countries; the last American synthetic indigo factory closed in 2002. But despite the relatively minimal impact of plant-based dyes on the environment, Bellos’ clients avoided them for several reasons, including spotty availability and a reputation for being difficult to work with using existing equipment. As a result, a designer’s best efforts to source organic cotton pillows, for example, can be undermined by a dyeing process using chrome or some other chemical.
Armed with a degree in natural resources management, Bellos launched Stony Creek Colors in 2012 to prove that bio-based indigo can be an integral part of cleaner manufacturing. Today, from its Tennessee head office, the company is working toward replacing 6,000 hectares of the state’s tobacco crops with indigo plants.
The company is also developing new colours derived from agricultural crops and waste-stream materials, with the goal of producing a complete colour wheel of domestically sourced dye. Indigo, however, remains its flagship product (showing up around the world in denim made by Citizens of Humanity, Gustin and 3×1), and Stony Creek is on track to displace more than one per cent of synthetic indigo production worldwide by 2020.
The same urge to combine colour and social good inspired artist and creative director Jason Logan to start the Toronto Ink Company in 2013. Logan began making his own inks, distilling pigments from plants he found on city streets – including black walnut, sumac and buckthorn – into vibrant greens, blues and magentas. For feedback on his product, he sent samples to 100 artists and designers, including David Shrigley and Shary Boyle. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Foregoing the consistency (and the chemicals) associated with archival inks, Logan produces colours that come alive on the page, reacting to each other in unexpected ways. His simple mix of pigment, water and binder has also returned ink to its alchemical origins. “Putting your hands into a vat of indigo dye is a form of re-enchantment,” he says. “It feels like magic.”