I’ve been friends with the magnificent Sarah and Ali Bellos for about four years, ever since I first interviewed them for Nashville Lifestyles about their efforts to promote artisan dye products here in Middle Tennessee. Time has passed since then, and they’ve turned a passion for plant-based natural dyestuffs – the indigo, madder, and weld of colonial America and beyond – into a going concern.
Their collaboration continues, but now the sisters have embraced different aspects of the business. Alesandra continues her work with Artisan Natural Dyeworks, also based here in Nashville. Sarah, meanwhile, took a slightly divergent path, and now she’s created Southern Hues – making use of locally grown organic dyes to not only produce gorgeous scarves and shawls, but to encourage a worldview that leads us away from the overwhelming use of harsh chemicals polluting our environment.
She’s more than put her money where her mouth is, buying a farm in the historic Bells Bend community and raising the dye crops herself – along with encouraging other young farmers, especially women, to join her in the endeavor.
In spite of the busy holiday season, Sarah took time to talk with me about what her commitment to natural dyes means to all of us, why it’s important on a larger scale, how it impacts our agricultural community at large, and the potential it offers for the fashion industry.
It’s been awhile since we talked business. Can you tell me a bit about the shifts you’ve made in the past year or so, and the goals you’ve created for yourself with Southern Hues? I’m so lucky to be able to have a dream job working at the intersection of fashion, farming, and business. At the end of last year, I took stock of what my life goals were and how I could build a business that could help me create the change I wanted to see in the world. While growing natural colorants has always been a part of my past businesses, I wanted to create a business model that would work on a larger scale, with a more measurable impact on local farmers.
Earlier this year, through mutual friends, I met two ladies, Sara Dailey and Meg Davis, both knowledgeable and experienced in the fashion industry. Having them on my team allows me to use my strengths to continue to build the natural colorant supply chain and still make sure we a beautiful product that people love to wear.
At the end of the day, having an incredible product that people don’t have to think twice about buying is the best way we can support our mission of bring sustainable, farmer grown color to the broader public. I still get to work regularly with my sister Ali at Artisan Natural Dyeworks to dye our products right here in Nashville.
Can natural dyes really be used the same way we use the chemical ones? I read a story recently about growing concern over the chemical dye industry – someone was specifically referencing the “plastic, chemical” smell that she noticed in cheap clothing from some big box outlets – clearly that underlines why we need to be concerned – but can we make it viable, in your opinion? This is such a great question! The skin is the largest organ on your body, so what you wear is actually absorbed into your body over time until the chemicals are fully leeched out of the fabric.
Most dyes are synthetically derived from non-renewable resources like petroleum or oil derivatives and come from China.
The global textile industry uses approximately 1.3 million tons of dyes, pigments and dye precursors, valued at around $23 billion each year. With more than 3,600 industrial dyes, the textile dyeing and finishing industry is a leading cause of industrial wastewater pollution, with effluents including toxic and heavy metals effluent.
To save costs, pollution-intensive industries such as dye manufacturing have relocated to emerging economies that prioritize economic development over environmental regulations. So, we end up with cheaper – and potentially more toxic – chemicals dyeing our clothing when they are made overseas, because those manufacturers do not have to live up to the same standards as in the U.S.
Chemicals that are banned in the U.S. and Europe are sold to U.S. consumers through our clothing and other textiles.
Replacing the toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and dyeing auxiliaries commonplace in the textile dye industry is possible through natural colorants. These plant- and earth-based dyes come from renewable sources, and many can be grown in the Southeastern U.S. So besides reducing the use of polluting chemical dyes that can also be harmful for the consumer, natural colorants support farm and forest communities here, improving our economy while being healthier for the consumer.
But, are natural colorants scalable to the level we’d need to make them a viable source? Previously, using natural colorants, a designer would have to seek out a craft-based business like Artisan Natural Dyeworks to hand-dye their piece goods or garments.
Dyehouses like this are few and far between, since it not so easy to find capability for chemistry, a love of craft, and a willingness for a sometimes intense amount of manual labor. Hiring a custom dyehouse is feasible for brands with a compelling artisan story behind them, but the reality is most of the clothing sold in the U.S. is not made by craftspeople.
So, to really change the textile industry and make it less dependent on chemical dyes, I begun to focus on developing colorant extracts that can be used in commercial textile dye equipment. This is no easy feat so our company has had to invest in research and development that allows us to create specific methods for analyzing and compensating for plant pigment variations in the extraction process.
This allows us to improve product consistency across raw material source conditions, whether farm or woodlot, so a textile manufacturer can be confident they can get a consistent color across dyelots when they use natural colorants. We are especially excited about our indigo research allowing a U.S. dye to once again color American-made denim. We are thrilled to be at the forefront of the sustainability transition in the fashion industry.
What are the principal plants you’re growing, and can you tell us a little about what needs to be done to process them? Our farmer-grown colors are focused on eight main plants, providing the majority of the materials that we need to create our natural colorants. We grow indigo (blue), madder (red), osage orange (golden yellow), weld (bright yellow), marigold (orange yellow), goldenrod (yellow), sumac (grey), and black walnut (brown).
Each processing method is different depending on the color we want. Some plants, like indigo, must be processed immediately upon harvest. So, we have two-300 gallon tanks we bring out to the farms to do a fresh leaf extraction resulting in a storable indigo product.
For osage orange, also known as bow-dock, we typically store the logs from downed wood at our farm. When we need more extract we chip these logs and boil the chips into concentrated dye liquor. We are always on the look-out for osage trees a homeowner or arborist may be cutting down, many of our plants your readers may pass every day growing right along the highway.
Time of year, quality of the soil, amount of sunlight the plant receives, temperature and length of time of the extraction … there are so many variables that go into how much pigment a plant actually contains. Our goal is to bring enough standardization into the process to allow us to offer a consistent, and thus scalable, product, without losing the bit of alchemy that is inherent in such a beautiful process as coaxing color from plants.
You’re committed to sustainable agriculture. Most of us are familiar with the idea from our CSAs and farmers’ markets, in terms strictly related to foods. Tell me something about how we can be more sustainable with relation to our clothing and textiles? Being sustainable in your everyday life is easier than most think.
True sustainability is not about going out and buying new, greener things to replace your old. It’s about a shift in your consumption habits, to realize that saving, repurposing, and responsible consumerism can help make sure the next few generations have the same opportunities we have.
When it does come time to buy new things, it’s important for us to support the America businesses that produce their goods here. When you consider every material that their manufactures use and the ripple effect that domestic purchasing can have along a supply chain, it adds up to a lot of jobs.
Important labels I look for when choosing products are: Made in the USA; made with organic fibers; sweatshop free or fair trade; and FSC certified (for wood products).
The modal fiber used in our wraps, for example, is PEDC certified, a sustainable forest certification process. Modal fabric is great for bed sheets because it is so silky and soft. The U.S. milled cotton we have sourced for our Spring line is 100% certified organic cotton.
Once your readers know what to look for they will find lots of great sustainable options without having to sacrifice functionality or quality. I like to go to greenpages.org when I am looking for something I can’t find locally.
I’ve been out to the farm space you were using in Bells Bend a couple of summers ago. Are you still working there? Bells Bend, and the entire corridor from Bells Bend Park up to Beaman Park in Northwest Nashville, is one of the gems of the area.
The community out there has preserved what is an incredibly diverse landscape that is just perfect for the quality farming we need to be Nashville’s breadbasket and to support a healthy and active wider community.
I recently bought my own small farm in White’s Creek in Northern Davidson County, after farming in Bells Bend the past four years. I was so lucky to be able to hone my farming skills on other people’s land, but there is nothing better than checking on crops in your own backyard. I am now involved in helping make sure opportunities to get into agriculture exist for other young farmers.
Southern Hues states a commitment to helping both women and local farmers – that’s a big deal right now, especially as there seems to be a growing problem in our region with regard to big agriculture pushing out local farmers any way they can. How does what you’re doing specifically make a difference for local farmers who want to be able to live on what they make from their farms? Southern Hues’ tagline is “farmer grown color.” We believe natural colorants are a more sustainable industrial crop for small and medium size farmers in the South. We launched Southern Hues to show that natural colorants are beautiful and viable in textiles.
Just as in the local food economy, it takes more than just the farmer growing the crop, it takes an entire infrastructure – from processing to end products to markets and finally the retail consumer having a wide option of products with which support the farmer.
We support a diversified and sustainable agriculture system and believe people who want to farm should be able to make a living wage – because having more farms is great for our country. Agriculture done right protects groundwater, ecosystem habitat, sequesters carbon in the form of soil organic matter, keeps land around cities in “open space” that reduces flooding and keeps temperatures cooler.
Yet most farmers in America don’t make a living wage. Most farmers, even those with farms making over $250,000, still have a spouse that makes most of the household income from an off-farm job. Unless you inherit farmland there are extreme barriers for young people to getting into farming. But since the average age of an American farmer is 57, we truly need to think about ways as a society we can train and support the next generation of American farmers.
In addition to providing jobs and increasing food security, there are more economic incentives for promoting local farms. The local multiplier effect, for example, shows that money spent locally is more likely to get recirculated locally, helping increase our regions tax base and supporting your neighbors as well.
We have chosen to especially focus our sourcing on beginning and women farmers, because those groups often have the least access to land, capital, and resources which make it possible to earn a living on the farm.
We want to support small farmers who are doing it right, who are taking a chance to farm even when they are not rewarded in the marketplace, because that is what they are called to do. Our hope is that more designers will join our mission to provide naturally dyed garments and that our customers love our products as much as we do, in addition to the story behind them.
Natural dye plants have great potential as an alternative industrial crop to improve crop diversity, wildlife and beneficial insect habitats, and to minimize fertilizer and pesticide use on farms. The beauty and colors these plants produce can translate into increase revenue for the farmer, and therefore more money flowing back into rural economies.
We are all hungry for beautiful and useful products that connect us to a purpose and to planet. By supporting Southern Hues, our customers know they are supporting a supply chain that provides women and beginning farmers with a living wage for growing crops that make their farms more sustainable while improving the ecological and economic resilience of our landscape.
Let’s talk about the fashion aspect. I know you’re working with several big name regional designers, including Alabama Chanin and Jeff Garner of Prophetik. What are you doing for them specifically, and are there other design projects you want us to know about? During my time working with Artisan Natural Dyeworks, one of the most incredible parts was getting to see the amazing couture and ready to wear garments produced after we dyed the fabric for the designers. I am really inspired and love the handicraft of the entire Alabama Chanin line, including the way founder Natalie Chanin has published her patterns to allow more people access to their designs. Ali has been doing dyework for an emerging brand out of Cincinnati, Brush Factory. I absolutely love their Villager bags, which are hand dyed with natural dyes and sewn in Cincy!
What do you do to make sustainably dyed garments appeal to a wider fashion-conscious public? “Communication and Style.” That’s our goal. Spreading the word about our products allows us to highlight that great brands can be fashionable and sustainable. When a customer orders a wrap they are not only receiving a great addition to a wardrobe, but supporting our network of farmers, artisans and an entire community behind the products. It’s a grassroots effort that takes time to spread, but we are excited to share what we have. Our customers are supporting not only our small business, but a local farmer, a domestic manufacturer, a natural dye artisan, and beyond. It’s a unique and giving cycle that we are thrilled to be a part of.
Your scarves and wraps are truly beautiful. What do you want readers to know about them before they order? (Besides the obvious “makes a perfect gift for the holiday season?) Natural dyes have a vibrancy that is truly distinct from synthetic dyes. Natural dyes are rarely ever one single color but rather a synergy of several different colorants found together in the same plant.
The madder root dye, for example, contains not only red but also oranges, purples and brown. This is just unduplicatable with synthetic dyes, which contain usually a single coloring molecule, for example the synthetic form of alizarin –a red dye. This complex composition of a variety of colorants gives natural dyes their unparallel beauty. The colors are nuanced and rich in a way that the singularity of a synthetic cannot approximate.
Besides the colors, we are excited about the versatility of our scarves and wraps. Our products are elegant yet easy. They can be classic or funky depending on how you style it. Our scarves and wraps can all be worn in so many different ways and for a variety of occasions making them a beautiful wardrobe addition.
Can you talk us through the dye process for one of your scarves, so people understand just what goes into the piece they’re purchasing? Prior to the dyeing step we clean the fabric in a process called “scouring” to open the fibers to be most receptive to the dyes. The dyeing step depends on the type of dye.
Vat dyes, for example the natural dye indigo, must be in a reduced state to bind with the fabric. We create a natural fermentation vat which allows us to dye the blue of indigo without chemical reducing agents common in the denim dyeing industry.
Many natural dyes are mordant dyes. Mordants are an auxiliary compound comprised of chemicals, tannins or metallic salts that increases adherence of dye to fabric. They are used to fix a dye to the fibers, improve the take up quality of the fabric and help improve color and light fastness, and perhaps modify color.
Dyes like marigold or madder typically require a mordant to achieve brighter and lightfast colors. Most natural dyers use mordants such as Alum, a metallic salt, iron, or tannic acid, typically derived from plant sources such as oak galls, sumac, or myrobalan. The heavy metal ions which can be highly toxic such as chromium and tin or even copper are not used by any of the natural dyers I know. However, they are used in industrial synthetic dyeing and do urgently need to be replaced with a non-toxic option.
From your own line, what do you wear most? The Tammy in Indigo Shibori. I love it just with jeans and a tee, it is so soft and silky I don’t ever want to take it off. Shibori is a Japanese method of dyeing cloth with a pattern by binding it prior to dyeing. Each one is just a little bit different and people are always asking about it.
Nashville neighborhood: Whites Creek and Bells Bend
Dinner: City House
Lunch: SloCo, I am obsessed with this concept!
Cocktail: Gin martini, extra dirty
On Your Kindle: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz
TiVOing: Talk of the Nation? I guess I’m now officially one of those people that just hear about TV shows from NPR.
Listening to: Hurray for the Riff Raff, an amazing band from New Orleans. But I have been playing a lot of my favorite Christmas tune – Jim Croce’s “It Doesn’t Have to be that Way”
Jeans: Imogene + Willie Slim
Want for Christmas: A .308 rifle
Dessert: Chocolate covered espresso beans
Signature scent: Acqua di Parma lavanda tonica … but they discontinued it so now I have to covet my last bottle.
Cooking: Always! Herbs and veggies from my garden, lots of legumes, meat from Porter Road Butcher and cheese from the Bloomy Rind
Current passion: Turning my four acre plot of land into a sustainable homestead. My real goal doing it at my own farm is to create new markets for sustainable agricultural products. I want to expand the U.S. market for environmentally friendly dyes while creating new and diversified sources of income for U.S. farm and forestry communities. The overall goal and passion behind that specific goal is to sustain the land and the people making a living from it through innovative industrial solutions and products.