Earth, clay, soil, dirt. We’re always trying to remove it, clean it, wash it out. . . Not this week!

I’ve known for years that natural earth pigments were frequently used as paints and stains in pre-modern times. But alas, knowing something was done doesn’t mean knowing how. What really needs to be done to make dirt stick permanently? I’ll admit, I had no idea what I was doing and how to get started with using earth pigments– so I plunged right in!

I would like to say this project was planned and mapped out ahead of time, no such thing. I did something which comes a little easier to me… I winged it! I was out on the mountain hunting elk a few months back and came to a spot in the road where the dirt was a bright reddish/orange color and was really fine and ‘poofy’. Actually, I didn’t actually register it as dirt initially– when I came around the corner onto an open hillside and noticed a red powder all over the vegetation near the road my first thought was that it was fire retardant from wildland firefighters. It was that bright and unnatural looking. Only thing was that there hadn’t been a fire close to there all summer so if they were dropping retardant they really missed the mark…. I kept driving though and pretty quickly came to this spot on the hillside where the red dirt was showing. Looked like any time someone drove that road it created a red dust cloud that settled on everything nearby and gave it this weird color. Naturally, of course, I popped out of the truck and collected a few handfuls in a spare grocery bag. Who knows when you might need colored dirt right??

In my defense I did have a project in mind for it, I was planning on using it as a colored slip to paint some designs on pottery…. Colorful soil like this is not common where I live and it would make a nice contrast to the local clay. Yet somehow that project never ended up happening and I’ve had a sack of dirt sitting around on my shelf for two months. Every now and then I start to wonder if I’m a hoarder– who has sacks of dirt sitting on their shelves for months?? Sadly, most of the stuff I collect isn’t even finished, mainly just materials to make something out of! I finally decided it was time to do something with it when I saw the bag sitting there couple days ago. Weekend project!

When I was younger my brother and I both had “dirt shirts” from Hawaii that were dyed (stained? Is dirt technically a dye?) with local dirt. His was a rusty shade of red (a pretty common soil color in that area) while mine was a blueish aquamarine (a color that would cause me to stop and do some serious questioning if I ever saw soil that looked like it. . .). At any rate, I decided to attempt making my own version and see what I thought of the process.

Having no experience with dyeing with dirt my game plan was pretty simple– add water and drop a t-shirt in. KISS right? Essentially, that’s as easy as it was. I did use a little vinegar to help set the color (frequently used as a pre-treatment when using natural dyes) but other than that all I did was set the shirt in a dirt slurry. That’s the abbreviated version if you want to stop reading now.

For those of you slightly more interested in details. Starting from the top: filter out the larger rocks, twigs, etc to make it easier on yourself. It’s really only the ultra fine particles that are going to be binding to the fabric anyway, might was well not make it too uncomfortable to be playing around in. Not that it matters since you won’t be collecting dirt from the same spot I did if you want to try this… but I measured all my ingredients so I can adjust things in the future if the color isn’t quite what I wanted. At any rate, I measured out 4 cups of dirt into a metal bowl and then added two cups of water and one of white vinegar. I have no idea if vinegar was necessary, I’ve used it in creating vegetable dye baths and know it is used to help a color stick to fabric so I thought I would add it just in case. Basically make a dirt shake, or maybe even a slightly thinner consistency. Now dampen the t-shirt and work it in…. mix it around until it is thoroughly saturated and completely covered or the stain my come out uneven. Which could be an interesting look too I guess. I left mine for about 2 ½ hours before I came back and rinsed it out. Not sure if longer leads to darker colors or not– sometime I’ll have to experiment with that! After you’ve given it ‘sufficient’ time (whatever that is to you) rinse it out thoroughly with the hose. Once you seem to have it clean go throw it in the washer and run a load by itself. After doing this the first time I decided it was a little light (colors fade when washed the first couple times) and put it back in the mud for another few hours to soak again and see if I could make it

darker. It had been a nice rusty brown when rinsed with the hose…. and started looking light peachy orange after going through the washing machine. The second time around it did seem to darken some, but is still a little lighter than I would have preferred. Not sure if that is simply the color that dirt creates or if I can adjust my process to extract a darker color from it. Overall though, I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out!

Do you have a local spot with interesting dirt/clay? Try staining something and send me a picture, I would love to see what colors you get from your local soil! Or if you have experience dyeing or staining with dirt I would love to hear the process you use and any insight you have. Dyeing with dirt turned out to be a pretty fun and laid back process, give it a shot and let me know what you think! Maybe next summer I’ll go back and get some for pottery….

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