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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Naturally Dyed-in-the-Wool Company

Air Date: Week of

The first company to produce all-natural fabric dyes that contain no heavy metals is operating in Colorado. Kelly Griffin from Colorado Public Radio has this profile.


CURWOOD: We hardly every think about it, but the clothes we wear are often the cause of some toxic waste. The dyes that give us the bright and consistent designer colors that we enjoy are often synthesized from some pretty harsh chemicals, and those chemicals can be tough on the environment. Conventional wisdom holds that natural dyes used by our ancestors, extracted from things like the indigo plant, can't produce consistent and lasting colors. But a small Colorado company is challenging that notion. Kelly Griffin of Colorado Public Radio has this report.

GRIFFIN: When Sally Gurley learned that a fellow rug weaver was suffering dizzy spells and muscle spasms, she was convinced it stemmed from working with synthetic dyes, which she knew contained harsh chemicals. Gurley, who dyed wool for her own rugs, decided to switch to natural dyes. She thought it would be easy to make them.

S. GURLEY: I thought you went out and found this wonderful book like a great cookbook of recipes of natural dyes. Well, when I started looking through the books for natural dyes, they use copper, tin, chrome, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, iron. They use them like salt and pepper. So I threw away the books and started just with raw materials.

GRIFFIN: What began as tinkering turned into Allegro Natural Dyes, the first company to offer a non-toxic process for commercial dyeing. Gurley runs Allegro with her husband Kent.

K. GURLEY: This is a drum of cochineal. They're little, we get them in a dehydrated state. And if we take a couple of these, just 2 little bitty insects, and crush them up and put them in a cup of warm water, and you will rather immediately see them giving off their red color. And if you let that sit there and soak for 15, 20 minutes, it'll turn the color of cranberry juice.

GRIFFIN: The cochineal is a bug that lives on cactuses in Peru. Other natural sources of color include matterroot for oranges, osage for yellows and the indigo plant for blues and purples.

(A shredder motor runs)

GRIFFIN: This old document shredder is used to grind the bugs and plants to a find dust, which is the base for concentrated extracts that can be combined to create 100 colors on cotton, linen, and silk, and more than 200 colors on wool. The dyeing room looks like a makeshift laundromat: front-loading washing machines swirling T-shirts in a vivid, deep pink dye along side a vat where the concentrated materials are mixed with water.

K. GURLEY: This is a 250-gallon steam jacketed kettle, and basically it's just a big old beanpot.

GRIFFIN: There's a fair amount of duct tape holding equipment together at Allegro, but this shoestring operation has attracted serious attention. For example, a major linen company will introduce a line of towels this spring colored with Allegro's dyes. And 2 west coast companies are on track to dye 1.5 million pounds of T-shirts this year. But many in the textile industry say the promise of natural dyes is overstated. Sue Wagner is Research Director at Ciba Textile Products, which produces synthetic dyes in North Carolina,

WAGNER: They can be relatively devastating to the environment if you don't know what you're doing. Just because it's natural doesn't necessarily mean it's good. The business of all of the waste that you have left over with the cochineal bug as a for instance, only 1.8% of the solid matter is a dye, so 98.2% is going into the waste stream somewhere.

GRIFFIN: But the Gurleys say their process has a mild impact compared to synthetic dyes. An industry report says textile companies spent more than $1 billion over the past decade treating wastewater and disposing of the toxic sludge left over from their dyeing processes. At Allegro, the wastewater is clean enough to drain right into the city's sewer system. And the leftover bug and plant pulp is turned into compost. Skeptics also say there's simply not enough land to raise all the natural materials it would take to supply the textile industry. The Gurleys counter there's plenty of room to expand.

S. GURLEY: We have started organic growing projects, basically worldwide. We're trying a lot of them here in the United States; American farmers need them just as bad as rainforests in the Third World.

GRIFFIN: The Gurleys have paired up with Wright Industries in North Carolina, the nation's largest distributor of dyes. Wright Industries' Rita Parham says she was skeptical about the Allegro process at first.

PARHAM: I kept reading about how natural dyes were not feasible, that there was no possibility that they could be used in any viable sense, or any kind of mass scale. Every estimate I read was, just made it sound impossible.

GRIFFIN: But a visit to the Allegro facility convinced her the process will work. Now, Wright Industries is gearing up to manufacture and distribute Allegro dyes under the name E-Color. Kent Gurley says dozens of companies have expressed interest in the dyes. While he pitches the E-Color process and develops new sources for raw materials, Sally Gurley continues to work on the colors themselves.

S. GURLEY: Yellow, which we get from the osages, is the weakest color. But we've had some great advances this year in the fastness of yellow, so that was also real exciting. We don't have black on cotton yet without using anything toxic; we don't have it. But we, this dark charcoal is pretty close. We're getting closer and closer all the time.

GRIFFIN: For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.



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