Situated along an ancient stretch of the Silk Road in the Turkish region of Central Anatolia lies the city of Kayseri. A bridge between east and west trading routes, the industrial city is home to the 70-year-old denim mill Orta. “The materials and craftsmanship, technical developments, and the exchange of cultural products of the West and East were collected and shared on this route,” says Sedef Uncu Aki, Orta’s director. “These hold true to our values today and inspired us to create our four pillars of artisanship, technology, sustainability and regenerative biology,” she explains.
Founded in 1953, Orta began as a spinning and weaving mill before turning to denim production in 1985. TOAST has been working with them for the past five years, driven by their use of organic, locally sourced cotton and the quality of the resulting fabric they produce. “Our goal is to create ethical, long lasting and good quality denim that has a low, even positive, impact on the environment,” says Sedef. By supporting organic and BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) certified farms which are growing without the use of harmful pesticides, there is a commitment to reduce the stress on the local environment and improve the livelihoods and welfare of farming communities.
Entering the vast storage facility in Kayseri, bales of cotton are piled high to the ceiling in designated areas for each producer. The organic cotton used for the TOAST denim is a blend from two organic farms in east and west Turkey, occasionally using organic cotton from Kyrgyzstan when supply is low. Orta also works with recycled cotton on some of their fabrics but Sedef is quick to point out this isn’t always the least impactful solution: “We use around 20 per cent recycled cotton at the moment because the strength and durability can differ in the fibres,” she explains. “While the raw material is good for the environment, if the quality of the fabric decreases, this doesn’t solve our first aim, which is to make it durable and long lasting.”
Once the cotton bales have been opened, cleaned and blended, they are combed to make the fibres pliable to form thin sheets. These are spun into thick yarn, gradually becoming thinner through each spinning machine. “The cotton quality determines the yarn quality and in turn, the yarn quality determines the fabric quality, so each and every process is really important in our production,” says Sedef.
With a holistic approach to responsible production, every stage of the process at Orta is assessed for its impact. Arguably, none is more important than the water usage in indigo dyeing. Turkey is already a water-stressed country, which is only expected to worsen due to a rising population and the climate crisis, so it’s more important than ever for industries to act responsibly. “We have created a system called Indigo Flow, which uses up to 70 per cent less water than other methods, and it's the cleanest way of dyeing,” says Sedef. With this technique no water is required to wash the yarn after dyeing because the dye stays on the surface of the yarn.
Walking across the grounds to the indigo dyeing room, Sustainability Lead Sebla Önder explains more of their mindful approach from fibre to finish. “Based on the studies we have done we know that the raw material has the biggest impact, but each stage is looked at for its energy and water usage,” she says. “With Indigo Flow we produce cleaner wastewater as we are feeding less carbon into the system, which means less oxygen is needed to purify the water.”
Once the cotton has been dipped in indigo-coloured dye several times (this depends on the shade required), the yarn is left to dry before the weaving of the warp and weft yarns takes place. The result is a deep inky denim fabric, which in the case of TOAST garments is left untreated with minimal finishing processes. Rather than repeated washings or distressing techniques, the fabric ages with the wearer over time. “Day after day, year after year, the garment ages according to your body shape, which is wonderful to us,” says Sedef. “It’s very specific and creates an emotional connection.”
Transparency is a key part of Orta’s philosophy and in 2019 they launched the Orta Blu app to calculate the environmental impact of all the denim they manufacture. Starting from raw material extraction, it considers each stage of production including transporting material, spinning, dyeing, weaving, finishing, quality control and packing. By sharing this information and offering guidance they hope to aid designers and companies to make better decisions. “Design teams can select the raw material they want to use, the dyeing process, the weight of the fabric and the finishing processes, then see how their choices affect the result,” Sedef explains. “It has always been a value that we need to investigate more. To create new with less is our philosophy.”
Interview by Andie Cusick.
Photographs and film by James Bannister.
Our Side Button Organic Indigo Denim Pinafore Dress, Organic Indigo Denim Pinafore Dress, Jessa Organic Denim Dungarees, Annie Organic Indigo Side Button Jeans, and Ashley Organic Cotton Jeans are created with Orta denim, which uses up to 70 per cent less water than other dyeing methods.