Aug 18, 2023
This Tiny Brand Is Revolutionizing One of Your Favorite Products
Every product is carefully selected by our editors. If you buy from a link, we may earn a commission. Behind the scenes with Stony Creek Colors, a Southern upstart using natural indigo to make your
Every product is carefully selected by our editors. If you buy from a link, we may earn a commission.
Behind the scenes with Stony Creek Colors, a Southern upstart using natural indigo to make your clothes, and the world, healthier and happier.
Less than 30 miles south of Miami, tropical farmlands grow strawberries, tomatoes, avocados, mangos, pineapples, coconuts and papayas around the suburban town of Homestead. Fresh fruit smoothies beckon at family-run farm stands every few hundred yards. But food isn't top of mind as I venture out under the hot Florida sun. I'm thinking about blue jeans.
As perhaps the most iconic denim product in history, the Levi’s 501, turns 150, I'm here to get a glimpse at a small but significant approach to sustainable style. Because these same fields also produce a wonderful alternative to the synthetic indigo used to color the jeans probably hanging in your closet right now.
Most cheap, mass-produced denim is full of formaldehyde. It’s the reason brand-new jeans carry that familiar funky scent and need to be washed before wearing. Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission says the levels used by big brands don’t pose a health risk, the chemical is easily absorbed by your lungs and a known carcinogen. Synthetic indigo is also held together by a substance called mordant, which is made of toxic metals like aluminum and chromium, and it may release phthalates that negatively impact reproductive hormones and can cause cancer.
“Synthetic dyes are horrible for the environment.”
“Synthetic dyes are horrible for the environment,” says Josh Peskowitz, operating partner at Untitled Group, a New York-based strategic investor in next-gen style, beauty and wellness brands. That’s because their production requires fossil fuels and harsh chemicals. The rivers around some denim mills run nearly black, shutting out sunlight, killing fish and affecting the ecosystems and the health of people in the immediate area. Respiratory problems, skin issues and some cancers in factory workers have been linked to exposure to these chemicals and the process.
Ready for a drop of hope in this blue ocean of despair? There’s a 6,000-year-old solution known as natural dye, and one plucky company is not only embracing it but innovating to make it better than ever.
Founded in 2012 by Long Island, New York, native Sarah Bellos, Stony Creek Colors is on a mission to create commercially scalable natural dyes to replace synthetic petroleum-based dyes through advancements in sustainable agriculture, crop development, and chemical and process engineering. And they’re starting with, yes, natural indigo.
“This is literally solving a problem the fashion industry has today — both water pollution from dyeing and use of hazardous chemistry — while potentially helping with an alternative crop for growers,” Bellos tells me when we meet up in Homestead. “The more I started learning about indigo, the more I felt like it was the perfect plant.”
Stony Creek Colors supplies natural indigo dye to a number of notable brands, including Wrangler, Lucky Brand, J. Crew, Patagonia and Levi’s. Last December — thanks in part to the development of a revolutionary plant-derived, pre-reduced indigo product called IndiGold — the company netted a $4.8 million round of funding coled by Levi Strauss & Co. and the growth equity firm Lewis & Clark AgriFood.
While it currently represents a small fraction of the dye used in clothing, natural indigo is on the rise. And I can't wait to learn all about it.
Headquartered in Springfield, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, Stony Creek Colors has primarily partnered with tobacco farmers in the country music capital, even taking over the region’s biggest tobacco-producing plant.
“It's been a declining crop, so when RJ Reynolds closed down the facility, they just gave it to the city,” Bellos recalls. “We were able to work with the County Economic Development Board to fix up the building, get up to codes and then, we took it over.”
Teaming up with tobacco farmers is surprisingly symbiotic, as indigo does a favor for the land it uses. “Tobacco pulls a lot of nutrients out of the soil, and it needs a lot of herbicides and fungicides,” explains Bellos, who studied agriculture, engineering and business at Cornell. “So a lot of those properties of indigo as a rotation crop are good for tobacco. The plant itself has a beneficial relationship with bacteria that can live within the root system of indigo plants, and they are able to convert nitrogen into a form that is available to plants.”
As a so-called nitrogen-fixing plant, indigo doesn’t require excess nitrogen fertilizer or pesticides that are used for other crops. Unfortunately, Tennessee’s climate limits the growing period.
Florida promises an extended window, but it also comes down to how indigo fits into the farmers’ crop rotation. Stony Creek Colors doesn’t have its own land here, per se.
“We were and are still growing indigo as a transplant crop,” Bellos says. They bring seedlings grown in Tennessee in a controlled environment and partner with local farmers to plant them in the fertile fields around Homestead.
“A big reason we’re expanding [to Florida] was that we could be in these two seasons when they don't have a crop,” Bellos says. “It's very prime agricultural land in terms of productivity, but it's also really challenging to grow crops here in the summer because of all the insect pressure. It's so hot and rainy. That is a situation in which our plants could do very well.”
We drive by papaya trees before arriving at a sprawling field of indigo. The first thing I notice is the plants are very, very green and about two and a half feet tall, the biggest they will get because they are harvested before their salmon-colored flowers sprout. The blue color we recognize from indigo dye comes from the green leaves but it only becomes visible once they’ve been damaged. Bellos grabs a dried-out twig fallen from an indigo plant, pulls a fresh sprig from a live plant and puts them both in my hand.
The dried-out leaves are an ashy navy bluish, while the ones pulled directly from the live plant are green all over. As we chat with Stony Creek’s director of plant breeding, Dr. Terence (Terry) Molnar, in the dirt service road between fields, Bellos rubs the live leaves into her palm. It’s a quick way to hint at the fermentation process, as her palm quickly takes on a blue tint.
“Indigo serves as the base for every blue product on the market, no matter the hue or intensity of color,” Bellos says. That means food coloring for fruit snacks, blue Froot Loops, printer ink, cosmetics and so much more. Because blue is a primary color, indigo can figure into any color that isn’t red, yellow or orange. “There are not many blue sources in nature at all — whereas if you're looking for a plant-based yellow or red, there are actually tons.”
Making use of natural indigo requires a chemical reaction. Harvested leaves need to soak in water to allow an organic compound known as indican to release glucose to ferment and oxidize. It then needs to be mixed with an alkaline solution to remove the oxygen and reduce it. This process enables it to bond with fabric. Historically, this is an arduous process no matter what methods people use to get from leaves to dye — and a consistent color is difficult to achieve.
Once referred to as “blue gold,” indigo was a valuable trading commodity before the 17th century, yet it dates back much further. While India is the most well-known and earliest large-scale producer of indigo, Asian cultures used it as dye for centuries, particularly with silks, as did ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, Egypt and West Africa. In 2016, archaeologists from George Washington University identified indigo in a piece of fabric found in the northern Peruvian prehistoric settlement site of Huaca Prieta. Dating back at least 6,000 years, it represents the oldest known use of indigo dye.
Historically, Europeans used woad, a yellow-flowered plant that could also produce blue dye, because indigo couldn’t grow there and had to be imported from India. Once the English colonized North America, they tried and failed to grow indigo throughout the northeastern colonies.
In the 1730s, a 16-year-old botanist and daughter of the lieutenant governor of Antigua, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, took charge of her father’s three South Carolina plantations. After years of experimentation, she successfully grew enough indigo to begin producing dye. Pinckney — and the plantations’ enslaved peoples — is largely credited with indigo becoming as big a cash crop as rice in the southeastern United States.
By the late 1870s, German chemist Adolf Baeyer had developed a way to make synthetic indigo, but it was insufficient for large-scale use. Then in 1890, a broken thermometer helped Swiss-German chemist Karl Heumann realize mercury could be the catalyst for scalable synthesis in Zurich. At the time, there was little to no awareness of the dangers of the synthetic indigo’s harsh chemical makeup, which included benzene, cyanide and formaldehyde — and, in the name of progress, its popularity quickly grew.
I can’t remember the last time I personally bought a brand-new pair of denim. I’ve purchased ones that are new to me, but it’s been years since I’ve had jeans that didn’t have a life before ours together. As a six-foot-tall woman, seeking new brands for my feminine figure and 35-plus inseam is a type of torture I have simply given up on.
My current rotation includes a pair of men’s Wrangler dark-wash cowboy-cut denim, Gap men’s easy fit from the ’90s and a gray women’s slim-fit Levi’s 512. In my opinion, furniture, jackets and denim are typically better bought secondhand, anyway.
But nothing I own traces back to the French town of Nimes in the 17th century — where the indigo-dyed textile denim first appeared — or even to the Bay Area in 1873, when jeans as we know them today were born.
On May 20 of that year, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis secured their patent for what has become the modern-day blue jean. Davis, a tailor, and Strauss, a wholesale fabric supplier in San Francisco, created the pants as workwear, making natural indigo-dyed clothing for those outside of the upper classes. Before long, the 501 was sowing the seeds of a fashion revolution.
Copper rivets were early functional additions designed to lessen the likelihood of ripped pockets for laborers toiling in the pants. Innovations like doubled-up orange stitching for better reinforcement and belt loops came later, and zippers replaced some button flies by the mid-1950s. Around that time, people began wearing jeans for style rather than work.
By 2010, natural indigo accounted for less than one percent of dyes.
“Guys were coming back from World War II in motorcycle clubs, greasers — these were the guys that were wearing jeans,” notes Peskowitz, a former Bloomingdales fashion director and men’s magazine style editor. “That was very cool. That's what James Dean wore. That's what Marlon Brando wore. They're the ones who really popularized [them], in my mind.”
By 1922, all of Levi’s denim was produced by Cone Mills, which used synthetic indigo dye on their fabrics. Later known as White Oak Cone Mills, it was the largest producer of selvedge denim in the U.S. for decades. (Then the global wholesale price of denim dropped by 27 percent in the mid-2010s, and the business shut down in 2017.)
As synthetically dyed denim production increased, the necessary machinery changed. Levi’s completely cut the use of its shuttle looms, selling most of them to producers in Japan, who hadn't yet relied on synthetic indigo — the main reason the country became known for quality selvedge denim in the ’90s, Peskowitz says. In 1999, Levi’s started to reincorporate natural indigo with its first Levi’s Red collection — and in smaller collections from then to now.
By 2010, owing in part to inconsistencies when used on a large scale, natural indigo accounted for less than one percent of dyes. Meanwhile, the global production of synthetic indigo hit 180 million pounds.
Prior to starting Stony Creek Colors, Bellos and her sister had a four-acre farm and a small dye house, where she experienced the consistency issue firsthand.
“I had an interior design customer that had chosen a certain swatch we dyed on maybe twenty yards of hemp silk,” she remembers. “Then going into a production order — which is not huge volumes as it's for high-end interiors — was one thousand yards. The color was completely different. [But] it wasn't because of the scaleup. It wasn't because of the equipment. When we sampled with the new supply from the next year’s crop, it was just completely different.”
Most natural extracts are not standardized batch to batch, largely because no one has really tried. “The technology exists and the dyes can work within it, but the dyes are not at a consistent stage to work with,” says Bellos. “That's the missing thing — an actual concerted investment in changing the way the plants are grown and processed.” Which is, of course, exactly what SCC is doing.
A decade ago, I lived in Miami, renting a house in a neighborhood called El Portal. The place is a bird sanctuary. Since then, as Miami’s midtown and Design District have expanded, friends tell me, housing prices have skyrocketed and the area has changed.
But at the time, there was an overgrown mango tree in my neighbor’s front yard and peacocks roaming up and down people’s driveways like pigeons along the curbs in Manhattan. I’d occasionally take the long Saturday drive down to Homestead, to Knaus Berry Farms for fresh fruit smoothies and their infamous cinnamon buns or to the Fruit & Spice Park, where Bellos hosted an offsite SCC meeting in 2020, part of a prelude to moving operations down South.
As we head from the fields to the Homestead headquarters and post-harvest processing facility, which the team lovingly calls The Shed, Bellos pulls over, jumps out of the car and grabs a big fruit that has fallen from a tree (outside of someone’s fence, of course). In a sign of her endless curiosity, she asks Terry what the native roadside fruit is. (For the record, it was a young coconut, which traveled home with her to Nashville so her sons could see it.)
Upon arrival, Bellos and I set up a dye vat using an IndiGold dye kit, SCC’s direct-to-consumer product. Funded on Kickstarter, the world’s first pre-reduced indigo promises to be the game changer that makes commercial-level natural indigo dying more feasible. Applying present-day genetic and agricultural technologies to the long-overlooked natural indigo has enabled Stony Creek Colors to rival not only the cost effectiveness of the synthetic approach but also the human effort and product consistency — while creating a substantially safer dye product and process.
While we’re waiting for our pre-reduced indigo sediment to settle to the bottom of the vat, Terry meets us with mango-and-strawberry smoothies, a delicious treat to sip while pondering the future of naturally dyed denim.
“The good news is the way natural indigo looks, the way it wears, is just so infinitely superior to synthetic indigo,” Peskowitz says. “Hopefully Stony Creek will be able to turn it into a more mass-market product, and people don't get lung cancer and fish don't die because of it.”
Levi’s, for one, shares that hope.
"Can we do industrially scaled indigo from nature instead of from synthetic chemistry?"
“A lot of people dabble in natural dyes and it's a fun, crafty, cottage industry kind of feel,” says Paul Dillinger, Levi’s head of global product innovation. “What Sarah's technology represents is a real opportunity to scale and reconsider the whole industrial indigo paradigm.”
Simultaneously realistic and optimistic, Dillinger positions Levi’s efforts as a series of adjustments to address challenges the massive brand faces as it seeks to become more earth-friendly. Toward that end, indigo is steadily making its way into the Levi’s lineup — most notably as part of the WellThread assortment. It’s a long way from the late 1800s, when most if not all of Levi’s jeans were dyed with natural indigo, but it’s a start.
“We recognize that anything can be done sustainably, but doing it a million times sustainably is a little bit harder,” he says. “So, you ask the question: ‘Seriously, can we do industrially scaled indigo from nature instead of from synthetic chemistry?’ That's the journey we're on with Sarah.”
With the introduction of IndiGold, Dillinger sees that journey accelerating.
“It's sort of really technical wonky, indigo nerd stuff, but the pre-reduced liquid form really does get us past some of the operational complexity,” he says. “It gets into a place where it's just a really easy plug-and-play alternative."
Bellos and I get our items ready to dip in the mixture of fructose sugar, pickling lime and pre-reduced indigo that is IndiGold. It’s incredible to consider the kit with which we’re making Pinterest-friendly T-shirts is what Levi’s is putting its money behind for a long-term, large-scale solution to higher-integrity products produced more ethically. Traditional indigo dyeing requires 24 hours until the dye vat is ready; without needing the reduction phase, Indigold takes just 15 minutes of prep and 15 minutes of dyeing. We let our tees marinate for three five-minute rounds, and they’re done.
“Some brands are trying to remove hazardous chemicals,” Bellos says. “Some don't care as much about that, but they might really care about the carbon and climate-change issues. These aren’t the only reasons to go for a plant-based chemical, but ultimately, it’s about how we support the brands that want to do that work or tell that story in a way that's true.”
That sensibility provides hope, but it also requires patience given the massive scope of the denim industry, which sells some 1.25 billion pairs of jeans per year.
“There's no fast track,” Dillinger says. “As excited as we are about the work we're doing with Sarah, we were really protective of being allowed to work at a small scale for a while. You have to try to plant a little seed to help them grow.”
Behold just a few eye-popping items dyed using Stony Creek Colors-produced indigo.
A functional classic gets the Stony Creek Colors treatment. Abrasion-resistant, unlined and designed as workwear, this staple is Fair Trade Certified sewn and just waiting to be broken in by you.
Each Imogene + Willie top is hand distressed and dyed with natural indigo before being set out in the sun to create a one-of-a-kind perfectly faded 100 percent cotton tee.
Low environmental impact and high style, these jeans check all the boxes. Clean, relaxed cut. Organic cotton. And, most importantly, dyed with natural indigo so they’re ready to be worn for years to come.
A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today