Clay Dyeing Instructions

Kimberly Baxter Packwood © 2002-2017

Clay Dyeing is a misnomer.  Clay is actually a pigment, which sits on the fibers surface.  A dye actually penetrates the fibers surface, i.e., molecular structure, and is locked into place, usually with the help of a mordant.

But since the introduction of several articles on “Clay Dyeing” the fascination has increased, and the name has stuck.

Materials List:

First you want to start with PFD fabrics, this is fabric that has been prepared for dyeing.  Usually this means that no special treatments have been used on the fabrics.  Do NOT use a fabric that has a stain blocking coating on it’s surface.

Use junky old paint brushes when working with raw clays as they tend to tear up the brush.  I use cheap house painting/craft brushes when working with clay.

Containers for preparing the clay:  yogurt and deli containers work well here.

A Stainless Steel or Enamel Pot for mordanting fabrics, if working with cotton.

Measuring spoons and cups that are for the studio only.

Plastic or a washable work surface to paint fabric on.

Buckets for immersion dyeing

Soy milk, or soy beans, blender and water for making soy milk.


Clothesline for drying fabrics on.

Scour your fabric:

If you are using wool or silk fabric wash it in hot water using a mild detergent.

For Cotton fabricsI scour using soda ash, not washing soda.  Washing soda is the hydrous form of soda ash, meaning that it has the water molecules attached.  This makes it less aggressive than soda ash, and therefore has less scouring power.

For clay dyeing scouring your fabric in the washing machine on hot water works well.

Once your fabric is scoured if it is cotton you really should pre-mordant it in a tannin mordant bath.  You can buy tannin or use oak galls or walnut husks.  This process will make your fabric darker in appearance and enable it to hold the pigments better.

Mordanting your fabric:

WARNING: Wear a Dust Mask orRespirator while handling Tannin, it can irritate your breathing passages.  Persons with known allergies to oak should not handle this product.

1.   Place 1 ounce of tannic acid, or other tannin bearing item into a pot of boiling water, and place your wet scoured fabric in the pot. 

2.   Boil this for one hour, stirring frequently to make sure it is properly mordanted.

3.   NOTE: Use pots, utensils and other equipment that are designated only for dyeing!

4.   Rinse your fabric and line dry.

5.   Stretch out fabric and paint with soy milk. 

6.  You can allow this to dry and then paint with pigments or you can paint with pigments while it is wet.

Preparing Clays

Mix a small amount of clay with soy milk.   Example if I use ¼ cup of clay I will use a two cups of soy milk or more to dilute the clay. 

You can use as little as a couple of teaspoons of the clay and a whole lot of soy milk.

Mix the solution and let it sit for about 45 minutes stirring it frequently.  I let mine sit overnight, covered in the fridge.

You can add more soy milk later to stretch the solution or to do immersion dyeing with the clays.    You can also add more clay if you desire but it’s best if you build the color up in layers to get the greatest intensity.

If your clay is really high in iron or other minerals wear gloves and a respirator, as these elements can be irritating to the nose and skin.

Why soy milk?  Enzymes help to lock the pigments to the fibers surface.  It is the glue that bonds the clay.  You could also use acorns nut meats if you have access to a large supply.

Immersion Dyeing:

Experiment by placing ¼ cup of clay in a bucket filled partly with soy milk, this could be a small ice cream pail.  Let the clay and soy milk emulsify.  After the color of the milk has taken on the color of the clay insert your wetted, preferably with soy milk, fabric into the bucket.  Swish it around and leave for a period of time, say overnight,  Stirring frequently, say every couple of hours or so, to make sure you have good coverage.

Take fabric out of bucket and hang to dry on the clothesline, or other appropriate place. 

Let it dry and cure for a week or more.

Rinse in warm water,  and let it dry and cure for a few more days.

Then wash it in the washing machine with a non detergent soap.  Dry in the normal manner.

You want to use a non detergent soap so that you don’t remove your hard earned color.

Clay painting:

Take fabric and stretch it out onto a sheet of plastic, pre-mordant if it’s cotton.  Paint the fabric with soy milk. 

At this point it’s your decision to let it dry or not, there are differing schools and arguments about this process, I use both depending on the effect I desire 

Take your diluted soy paint, I use a cup of soy milk and upwards of 1T of the clay, and paint it on the fabrics.

Allow to dry in place.  Allowing the fabric to dry on the plastic, known as batching, allows the fabric to wick up the excess clays that have penetrated the fabric surface.

You can add additional layers of color after it has dried, or cure the fabric as above, rinse, cure and then wash.

Experiment with potting soils, and various types of clays for a rich surface.

Clays come in a range of colors from whites, yellows, ocher's, reds, greens to black.

rust cover.jpg

Rust and Clay Dyeing e-Book (63 pages) $9.95  

In this book Kimberly Baxter Packwood covers multiple techniques on rust dyeing, how to obtain rust, and how to stop it's progression. Step-by-step detailed color photos. 
Chapter 1 Rust Dyeing
Chapter 2 Earth and Iron Oxide Dyeing
Chapter 3 Discharge Dyeing Rust
Chapter 4 Pigment, Ocher, & Clay Painting
Chapter 5 Resists & Other Techniques

If you found the information on this page to be helpful, please consider making a donation. I spend many hours researching and testing natural dye techniques, to ensure that you will achieve the best results when working with natural dyes. Your donation will allow me to continue with these endeavors. Thank you ~ Kimberly