The word indigo comes from the Greek indikón, meaning “Indian substance.” India was the first hub of indigo manufacturing, and the pigment, valued as a luxury item in Greece and Rome, is one of the world’s oldest dyes. Today, however, the use of the Indigofera plant has dwindled. Instead, the majority of clothing manufacturers use synthetic indigo dye, which was first produced at the end of the 19th century. It colors, among other things, most of the world’s supply of blue jeans.
Synthetic dyes are cheaper and more durable than their natural counterparts, but they are more wasteful, too: the average pair of conventionally dyed jeans, for example, requires 1,500 liters of water to produce. According to the World Health Organization, this is enough water to meet a person’s basic survival needs for over a year.
Lily Shafroth, co-founder and creative director of the unisex outerwear label Artful Scout, knew that she wanted to avoid making clothes with synthetic dyes — not only because of their negative environmental effects, but because natural dyes actually offer up more creative possibilities.
“Color is huge for me,” explained the Colorado and Washington DC native, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016 with a degree in cultural geography. “Natural dyes are really cool because they’re not colorfast; they don’t have strong chemicals that bond them and make them look brand new all the time.”
On one hand, this means that naturally dyed garments require some extra care (Artful Scout offers a guide on their website). On the other, naturally dyed garments are one-of-a-kind: not only does the color vary slightly from batch to batch, but each garment will also fade according to the way they are worn — think the lightened knees on a favorite pair of jeans, or the softened hue of your oldest t-shirt.
Artful Scout’s current collection includes four pieces available in as many colors: pomegranate, peony, citrine, and indigo. The shades are produced using pigments from turmeric, pomegranate, madder, marigold, and indigo. (Fun fact: the shade pomegranate isn’t dyed with the fruit itself — the former is dyed with madder root, while the latter is used, alongside marigold, to produce the shade citrine.)
Lily now lives and works in Detroit, but Artful Scout was born in India, indigo’s own namesake. She traveled there in 2015 and soon partnered with Cotton Flower, an Uttar Pradesh-based organization that employs and educates women looking to gain tailoring experience.
Lily worked alongside the women of Cotton Flower sewing and cutting patterns. She also met their families and children, many of whom were enrolled in classes at the Ganga Learning Center, an affiliated organization that works to provide education to the Dalit people — India’s untouchable caste.
In college, Lily also completed a global poverty and practice minor. She says she never wanted to travel to India as a “warm body with good intentions.” Instead, she was interested in challenging the dynamics of international volunteerism, which she says reinforce ideas of Western dominance and imperialism.
“I was interested in asking: In this globalized world that we live in, and with India as this amazing superpower that will only continue to grow in my lifetime, how do we build relationships and engage with poverty in a more productive, thoughtful, constructive way?” she recalls. “That way was trade.”
And so, in addition to her collaboration with Cotton Flower, Artful Scout also partnered with Rachit, a third-generation dyer who dyes all of Artful Scout’s fabric. And although they’ve communicated extensively, Lily has never actually met Rachit — her Serbian business partner, Miliča, is able to travel to India more often and oversees the production side of things.
Despite the logistical challenges posed by an international operation, Artful Scout has launched with relative ease. The label made its brick-and-mortar debut at a Manhattan design collective in June, and a recent Detroit pop-up ran from August to September. Lily is already planning the next crop of Artful Scout garments, but says she is more interested in building a collection of staple pieces than cycling through seasonal offerings.
This mindset is sustainability-oriented, and also harkens to some of Lily’s creative inspirations, including uniforms and workwear, which are intended to be worn daily over a long period of time. The Artful Scout lab coat, for example, takes inspiration from a doctor’s jacket, while the utility jacket is based on a 1930s workman’s jacket from France.
Above all, Lily hopes that people find joy and purpose while living and working in her clothes. As she puts it: “Whatever your life’s work is, get down to it. Have your life story imprinted on your jacket.”
And that utility jacket? It uses just 48 liters of water to produce.
Words by Sarah Elizabeth Adler