Limited Artist Series: California Clay Tee

Natural and local dye directly from the earth

California Clay

An ancient technique meets modern design, creating sustainable dyes

What is clay dyeing?

For thousands of years, communities across our planet have been using the ground beneath their feet to dye textiles. The method has been called mud dyeing, earth dyeing, clay dyeing and more. The basic technique is to use earthen matter to color textiles. “Clay” is a geological term to classify earthen matter, as distinguished from sand or silt. Clay is often used to make ceramics and pottery. Although clay can generally be found many places on Earth, each particular clay has its own profile of minerals and local organic matter. That means, a clay found in California is different from a clay found in Indonesia. Similar to the concept of terroir, our Limited Artist Series: California Clay Tee is a unique reflection of our local ecosystem. If you take a walk along the rugged Northern California coast, you may see the golden yellow bluffs where this clay is from.

Our Limited Artist Series: California Clay Tee is dyed by artist Rosa Novak.

The process of dyeing with clay

Rosa Novak is an Oakland artist digging local clays for ceramic and dye applications. She is interested in the intersection of land use histories, soil science, waste-cycling, and place-based making.

These shirts were dyed with naturally eroded iron-rich clay collected from the coast of California.

This particular clay was collected from fallen soil below a bluff on the beach, after a storm this past spring.

Dyeing with clay is a process of steeping in slip - local clay and mineral-rich soil and water - over the course of weeks. The coated fiber is then dried to a sandy crust, and holds it’s shape more like a piece of earth than a piece of fabric.

Once the clay dye is discharged, the color of the dry soil remains as a dye in the fabric. The longevity of this color depends on the soil and amount of wear. To lengthen the dye’s vibrance, hand wash with gentle detergent as infrequently as possible. If worn more heavily, the shirt will not lose its color all at once, but will naturally fade to new shades of golden clay yellow.

Learn more about Rosa Novak and her work here.

Fighting climate change using soil - not oil - to dye clothing

To combat climate change, the fashion industry needs to find alternatives to conventional chemical dyes. Clay dyeing offers insights and solutions into how the fashion industry can decrease its carbon footprint while building new sustainable systems.

Oil-based and chemical dyes: Most conventional clothing today is dyed using synthetic chemicals derived from oil and coal. Such dyes are often toxic and actively contribute to water, soil and air pollution. The conventional fast fashion paradigm contributes to climate change and ecosystem degradation. This dyeing process happens on a large industrial scale, amplifying the negative impacts. These chemical heavy processes occur in developing nations where environmental laws and worker safety protections are lax.

Clay dyes: Clay dyeing lowers the carbon impact of clothing, eliminates toxic dye materials from textile manufacturing and creates deeper connections between people and the earth. This dyeing process occurs on a human scale in very small batches, dependent on the weather and natural erosion. The method and timing of collecting this clay mirrors sustainable foraging practices.

This Limited Artist Series: California Clay Tee collaboration explores sustainable practices through art, design and manufacturing.

Dyed by hand

Our Limited Artist Series: California Clay Tee is dyed by hand by Rosa Novak in small batches. Here is a glimpse into the tactile experience of her work.

Want to explore more about sustainable fashion?

Learn more about our toxin-free fashion, our USA grown organic cotton and Harvest & Mill’s unique approach to sustainable design.

See how Organic Heirloom Cotton can help clean up the fashion industry.