How to make mud cloth from Spartina mud

Soils from the Spartina marsh areas are excellent for making mud cloth. When you are in the marsh, take a trowel and dig near the Spartina roots. You will likely smell hydrogen sulfide (smells like rotten eggs) from the activities of the soil microbes. The rich, dark soil is what you want to collect. You might also find some soil that has an orange color. This is likely iron oxide that is formed in the mud through actions of the microbes there. You should collect the mud several days before you are ready to use it on your cloth. Keep it moist and covered in the classroom until you are ready to make the cloth. To understand a little about how soils relate to making mud cloth, NASA has a good explanation of the overall process. I have adapted the process to be easier for you to use in classes.

To create the initial background of light yellow to brown, you should have clean white cloth to begin. A freshly washed sheet can be cut into several sections for a class to use. A natural dye that makes a nice color is strongly brewed tea. Use only a couple of cups of water to 3-5 tea bags. Other types of dyes include heated instant coffee, boiled yellow onion skins, and boiled cumin. If you want a “warmer” color, you might combine thinly sliced or shredded carrots to instant coffee that is boiled. You can experiment with different kinds of natural dyes to get the kind of background desired-think of all of those food that leave stains on your clothes and you will get the idea of what types of materials will be useful for dyes. Allow the dye water to cool to slightly above body temperature (feels warm to the touch). Then add your pieces of cloth to soak for a few minutes (light background) to half an hour (darker color). If you have more than one piece of cloth in your dye bath, be sure to stir the items so that the dying process is more uniform. After you are satisfied with the background color, gently wring out the pieces and hang them up to dry. When the cloth is dry, you can begin to sketch your designs on the material. You can use a pencil to draw the design lightly (you are going to cover the design fully with the mud dye, so do not be too concerned about perfectly straight lines or smooth curves. Mud cloth usually has a series of geometric designs (to get some ideas of what you might include, you can look at African Textiles online [teacher note: this might be an interesting webquest for students to find out information about different textiles and the cultures from which they originate]. You can make simple designs or they can be very complicated. To begin, you should keep it simple. When you are satisfied with the design, you can prepare your mud dye. Take some of the mud that you have collected from the marsh and add a little water until the mud forms a paste. Using a popsicle stick or a wooden cuticle stick, paint over your design with the mud. BE CAREFUL NOT TO GET THE MUD ALL OVER YOU, remember, you are using it as a dye. You might have to work on completing the design over a couple of days. When you have completely covered the design with mud paste and allowed it to dry, gently dip your cloth in fresh, clean water to remove excess mud. After removing the mud, dip your cloth again in the background dye. This will restain the background. You are also using the acids in the background dye to help make the mud dye “fast” (so that it does not fade or wash out easily). Now, repeat covering the design with the mud paste, allow the cloth to dry, and rinse with clean water to remove excess mud. Now you are ready for the finishing touches on the cloth. If you want to have the background dye in the design, you are done. Most of the finer kinds of cloth will have the background color removed. You can use a bleach pen to color over the background areas. Be careful with the pens and be sure to use them as directed. When you have completed bleaching the background area, rinse the cloth again but this time in ice water or very cold water. This will help to keep the colors from fading. The cloth can be framed or used to make a variety of items. Be creative!

When you have become comfortable with this technique, try some variations on your own. What would you use if you wanted a blue cloth background, for example. You can also experiment with designs. For instance, you can pin leaves to cloth and outline them or shells. Use your imagination. Be sure to keep a log book of the different things you have tried so that you will be able to repeat your experiments if you like the outcomes.

Next: Websites of interest