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An Interview with Winona Quigley: Scaling Natural Dyes

An Interview with Winona Quigley: Scaling Natural Dyes

Carole Murphy, recently sat down with Winona Quigley the founder of Green Matters Natural Dye Company and a New York-trained fashion expert, to discuss why she started her business and how she brought it to scale, partnering with companies like, Purse for the People,  Stitch Fix and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Read the full interview or listen to the audio recording of this program HERE.


Carole

This is Heart stock radio and I'm your host Carole Murphy. Today our guest is Winona Quigley of Green Matters Natural Dye Company. Hi Winona!

Winona

Hi Carole. Thank you so much for having me!

Carole

Thank you so much for doing this and sharing your story with our listeners and myself.

Winona

Of course, I always feel like I'm so lucky to get to talk to all the wonderful people out there on the planet who really have beautiful visions.

Carole

Can you tell our listeners a little bit about Green Matters Natural Dye Company and what it is that you do there?

Winona

I'm the CEO and Co-founder. We are an industrial dye house that processes only plant-based dyes for businesses and fashion. We’re for soft goods brands that are looking for a greener solution to wet processing synthetic dyes, which are the second largest polluter of global waterways. Trillions of gallons of polluted water are dumped into rivers, lakes, and oceans every year. And so we set out to find a solution to offer to businesses that need color but don't want to contribute to that problem. 

So while we are still a small business, we are growing and we're hoping to not only offer our services to brands, but also to educate people who interact with soft goods, which is all of us, about the impact that garments and textiles have on the environment. A little bit more mindfulness on the end of the consumer can help push companies to offer something better for the planet.

Carole

You have a very interesting background. Can you share that a little bit with our listeners and how that all relates to Green Matters?

Winona

I started when I was still a student with absolutely no experience running a business. My research began in plant dyes in 2013 in a soup pot in my Manhattan kitchen. I started exploring it initially for a school project while I was a student at Parsons The New School for Design, really after just dyeing a few swatches with things like onion skins and avocado pits and things like that that are easy to access. I just developed this fascination with the color that nature has to offer not only in the beautiful displays that plants make but also in what they have to offer in terms of dye and the things that we can't see in plants. So I started to explore that much to the chagrin of my professors who wanted me to pursue a career, a “traditional” career in fashion design that focused more on designing flats and clothing to send tech packs to factories overseas.

I spent about two years developing that research and in 2015 started to pursue natural dyes as a business. Initially, we thought it was going to be a clothing line, but a mentor early on convinced me that the world doesn't need another clothing line, but that we needed a natural dye house that was able to provide a solution to the problem. So before even launching, we pivoted to being a business-facing dye house and that was very, very small scale. We were dyeing in soup pots. We eventually graduated to beer kettles but were still dyeing by hand and taking on very small projects. 

Every dye we did was a learning experience. Something that I always say is that mistakes are some of the most important information that you have. I was developing this in those first two years of research. At the same time, I was also doing internships at fashion companies, which was really helpful to get a sense of how the industry interacts with textile vendors. And that was really useful information.

The funny part about my roots and my origin is that I have this experience in the fashion world and education in the fashion world. But there's so much about running what ultimately became a factory that you don't learn in school. For instance, things about logistics. It's great if you can dye something, but not great if you can't figure out how to get it to your client.

So there was lots of learning along the way and trying to translate my knowledge about the fashion industry into running a factory in 2017.

When we had the opportunity to purchase industrial garment dye machines that meant we could dye larger batches at one time. Nobody's dyeing things by hand anymore. So, we bought our first three machines in 2017 and it really changed the game for us. tIt meant that we could work with different types of clients and expand to new clients. Since then, we’ve expanded our fleet of machines.

It feels like a long time and a short time, but we turned seven years old in July!

Carole

Yes. Time has a way of flying by.

Winona

You know, especially when your hair is on fire. When you're bootstrapping and running a company.

Carole

I'm curious about your education. Can you tell our listeners about your experience there and why you decided to go to Parsons School of Design?

Winona

Well, I think like most young adults trying to figure out their path and choosing higher education, I definitely had a glamorized vision of what fashion was like. As a teenager, I was reading fashion magazines like Vogue and I was enamored by glossy images of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothing and really just wanted an outlet for creativity. I think that as most people find out when they go to fashion school, the industry is not anywhere near as glamorous as they thought. In part just like what it takes to produce a collection and how fast companies are trying to pump out clothing right now, but also the impact that it has on its workers and the environment.

I think in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 was a big wake-up call for a lot of people in the industry. I was still a student at that time and it just really woke me up. There's nothing glamorous about fashion. People are dying. There's a huge environmental impact. I think that that was a big turning point for me in terms of how I view the fashion industry and how I saw my part in it.

The wonderful thing about Parsons is that they have an immense focus on sustainability. Even since I've left the school, they have programs that are entirely focused on sustainability and aren't necessarily pushing students to focus just on design but are now guiding them to focus more on innovative solutions, because design is only a small part of garment production.

So I think that for people who are interested in exploring innovation, Parsons is wonderful. That said, I was very fortunate to have grants and scholarships because it's not a cheap school. So it's a bit limited in terms of who is able to attend and who can access those resources. It's wonderful, but it's also very exclusive, which isn't inclusive.

Carole

What did your parents think about you going to Parsons? At what point did you know that you were going to pursue dyeing as a career? 

Winona

I was raised by a single mother and my grandparents. To be honest, my mom wasn't about it. She was just like, “you're not moving to New York City,” But that said, I know she's very proud of me. After graduating I actually moved back to my hometown to start the business in part because the commercial real estate is better here than in New York for operating the type of business we have. But also, just to have the support of my family and the agricultural community.

As a high school student, my family realized I was very creative and helped push me in the direction I needed to go to harness that creativity. I left a public high school when I was about 15 to do online schooling with an arts program in person twice a week. My family's support and helping me make that transition was really important. It was an immense privilege. And the program helped me develop my portfolio to get into Parsons. Then getting in, having that exposure to resources and focusing on sustainability is probably what pushed me closer to natural dyes.

So I'm grateful for this chain of events. I was thankful that when I did decide to start a business, my family was really supportive. I think a lot of entrepreneurs get push back from their loved ones for not pursuing a traditional career and I didn't. I've had immense support the whole way.

When Covid hit, obviously a lot of people had their jobs taken away or work was limited and my mom started working for my business, she still does part-time, so it's really wonderful how the support has never ended.

Carole

Did you have mentors early on? 

Winona

When we first launched the business in 2015, we came in contact with a man named Charles who is still a part of our team and still mentors us, and still helps us today. He was the one that said to me, “why do you want to do this? What's the reason?” And I said, “I want to dye things.” and he said, “Well if you're gonna start a clothing brand, you're going to spend 90% of your time selling. So if you want to dye, I think you should start a dye house.” And he's just been an amazing supporter along the way. He also just really understands me, even though we're from very different backgrounds.

Carole

Yes, it does indeed. You mentioned your hometown. Where are you based and how are you impacting your community? 

Winona

We are currently located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania right in the heart of Amish Country.

This is where I grew up. I did move to New York for school but moved back in part to start the business from home. We moved into a converted dairy farm here. It's a resource I don't think I appreciated until being here for a few years because the location we're in is so perfect for what we're doing.

The building is on a farm and we rent a portion of the warehouse space here that used to be an enormous dairy farm. My landlord, who was Amish, converted the building so that the huge chamber underneath the building that was previously used as a manure shoot for the dairy cows to be a rainwater cistern.

So what it means is that all of the rain captured from the roof goes down several spouts into the 60,000-gallon cistern under our studio. Then, we're able to use that rainwater for dyeing, which is great in terms of sustainable resources, but also really great because of natural dye. You want to work with water that has as few impurities as possible. So working with hard water isn't great. Working with municipal water wouldn't be great either because there are certain additives in the water that affect the color outcome.

So, that's just one way that being in an agricultural community has been wonderful for us. And it’s not just the building that we're in, but also the types of contractors that we need to keep running. For example, we have an amazing motor mechanic who mostly works on dairy farms and equipment, but his knowledge translates very seamlessly to the motors on our machines and the other components of our dye machines. It's really wonderful to have access to that resource and other local resources.

We had to do some repairs on a lot of our machines recently and the person doing the repairs was able to run down the street and go to an industrial irrigation store and buy irrigation supplies that work on our machine. It's kind of an odd thing that I wouldn't have expected until I was in the position to need to find these resources. The community is able to support us immensely in terms of the contractors. 

On our team, they're all local and everyone here is very creative and has either degrees in creative fields or skills that would be hard to apply at other jobs locally. Mostly, we’ve found people who never worked in a dye house before, but came to us with a set of skills that ended up being really well applied to what we're doing.

It's been great to hire a team of local women and non-binary people who have the skills we need to grow a business that’s doing a service that no one else is doing right now.

Carole

Amazing! I'm just wrapping my head around the visions that I have of your facility. It’s exciting to hear that you’re an early adapter and so are your clients. Now, I'm wondering about the materials that you're dyeing. Where do they come from? And how are your clients managing to find materials that are suitable and fit into the whole eco realm?

Winona

That's a really good question. And it's extremely varied. There is a lot in the textile world that's not perfect in terms of sustainability. So the fibers we’re working with are totally sourced by clients. We don't provide any of the fabrics. But it's interesting to see that everyone has a different mission or different values that are important to them.

For some, it's getting a certain type of sustainable fiber but it's not able to be sourced in the U.S. So they're importing from overseas. Whereas other clients are only using what's available domestically.

So it's a real mix depending on what our clients’ values are right now.

We used to do a lot of yarn dyeing for businesses selling hand knitting yarns, but transitioned to garment dyeing after the purchase of our garment dyeing machines in 2017. .. We're primarily focused on garment dyeing. So whatever our client is dying needs to arrive to us fully finished.Those clients are also the same ones that in 2020 when there was an enormous supply chain disruption, came to us saying, you know our factories are shut down overseas and we have unsold inventory that we want to dye so that we can turn it around and make into a new product. That facilitated new relationships and some existing relationships with customers that we're just trying to use their unsold inventory.

And it usually went well and it's now a core part of their relationship with us, sending us things that didn't sell in a certain colorway. Because they want to change the colorway and make it more salable. Some things are being imported and then they're stored here in the U.S. and sent to us. We also have some clients who are dedicated to domestic production and are knitting, cutting, and sewing the fabric in the U.S. and sending it to us to be dyed. 

This is incredible because it not only reduces the pollution output of an individual garment, but also reduces the carbon footprint because it's not being sent to multiple different countries for finishings.

So, overall, it's pretty variable. We started working with Stitch Fix in 2020 and they have a new line that is called Mohnton Made and it is manufactured here in Pennsylvania. They purchased knitting and cotton factories in Reading. They are importing the yarns. Some of the yarn is recycled cotton or material, which a lot of people are really interested in in terms of sustainable textiles. They're knitting mostly jersey fabrics and cutting and sewing it here in Pennsylvania and sending it to us to be dyed here too.

It’s exciting to see that industry pop back up. A lot of textile and sewing jobs went overseas, which is something I think about a lot because my great grandmother, who was around a lot when I was really small and took care of me, worked in a sewing factory here. She worked there her whole life and around the time she retired, the factory closed and all those jobs went overseas.

Seeing businesses that are investing in those domestic textile jobs really encourages me. It’s exciting to see that work recreating this network of different businesses and relearning how to manufacture materials and garments here in the U.S. again.

Carole

I'm wondering from the other side, where do you get your materials to create the dyes?

Winona

That's pretty variable as well. Some of our dyes are imported and they come to us in the form of meltdown extracts. So you might get a jar of what looks like a colored powder, but is extracted madder root. Some of our madder root or indigo is coming from India, but we also have some domestic suppliers. There's a really wonderful dye company called Stony Creek Colors and they are growing organic indigo in Tennessee. It's been really exciting to offer a dye to our clients that's domestically sourced and they have other dyes that we're exploring as well, including a walnut paste. 

Another exciting source of dye is waste streams. So far, the biggest one that we offer is avocado pits, which make like a light pink dye. Avocado pits have been a wonderful source of dye but it does require a little more work on our part in terms of not only collecting it, but having to wash it, store it, and then extract the dye from the pits, which in basic terms is like making like a really hot soup of avocado pits. It makes like a thick dye concentrate that we add to our machines.

We're also trying to explore other waste streams to introduce to our dye services, like onion skins or pomegranate rinds. But it is not easy to get our hands on something that people are throwing away in part because the businesses that have this waste don’t always understand what we're using it for or why.

Avocado pits have proved a little bit easier to get our hands on working with local cafes if you explain what you're doing. We have a partnership with Chipotle Mexican Grill where we use the avocado pits left over from the restaurant locations to dye a merch line for them. It's called Chipotle Goods. That's been exciting in part because of the scale that we're doing it. They often will release and drop a product on their Instagram, so they will continue to get orders in with us.

That partnership has been really great because it gives us hope for other types of waste streams that we can collect. We’ve probably turned out hundreds of thousands of avocado pits from Chipotle in such beautiful colors! 

Carole

We've got about three minutes left here and I'm hoping that we can talk a little bit about how you funded your enterprise. 

Winona

We've had to be very scrappy. I dug a lot of things out of the trash to outfit Green Matters initially. A $20,000 grant is what launched Green Matters and a couple of other grants along the way. But for the most part, it's been organic growth and being really scrappy.

We don't have investors and yeah, we just try to grow slowly, really thoughtfully. I hope it's always that way because we're able to grow in the direction we want to, not the direction that the person with the wallet wants us to,

Carole

Where did your grant come from?

Winona

It was from a business competition at Temple University, the Fox School of Business. I started the business with a partner and the partner was attending that university. And so we initially pitched there and that's where we got the grant to start the business, which happened right after graduation.

Carole

Nice. So how might folks find you?

Winona

The best way to keep in touch with us is Instagram. We are Green Matters Natural Dye Co on Instagram And you can watch some of our stories. We like to post our process and videos of us working. So it can be a lot of fun. You should join us there!

Carole

So thank you so much for your work and for sharing your story here on Heart Stock.  And as usual, I'm your host Carole Murphy and Daniel Hogan is in the studio. We've been speaking with Winona Quigley and as usual, we will be back with you next week. 

Heart Stock Radio is a production of KBMF 102.5 Butte America radio. Our program is every Friday at five p.m. Mountain Standard time via Livestream at http://www.butteamericaradio.org/

 

Thanks to our contributor: Kasi Martin

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