Painting with Earth Pigments and Soymilk

Here at Sewing Seeds, we decided to step back briefly from the plants and try our hand at different ways of naturally coloring fabric – earth pigments!

The use of earth pigments is nothing new; people have been working with it for centuries. The first recorded paintings in history were created using red ocher and carbon black earth pigments on cave walls. From Egyptian tomb paintings to those of Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, and even Andy Warhol, earth pigments have been used to achieve a vast range of color.

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Earth pigments are minerals mined all over the world for their colors. Since they come from the Earth’s surface, they are not actually classified as dyes. Dyes create color when a substance makes a molecular bond with fiber and chemically attaches together. Earth pigments cannot penetrate and bond molecularly with fiber by itself; it has to be suspended in another medium that joins with the fiber. In this case, we are using fresh soymilk! The protein in the soymilk is what binds the earth pigment and the fiber together.

Part 1: Pre-treating the fabric with soymilk

What you need:

-       ¼ cup of dry soybeans

-       a blender

-       a piece of muslin

-       a refrigerator

The first step is easy – put a ¼ cup of dry soybeans in a jar and cover with a good amount of water.

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Let them sit over night, then on the next day rinse off the soaking water.

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Add the soybeans and three cups of warm water to a blender and run on medium for four minutes. Strain the blended liquid through the muslin – keep the liquid.

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Scoop the soybean residue off the muslin, and put it back into the blender. Add two cups of warm water, and again run the blender on medium for four minutes. Using the same process, strain the liquid through the muslin, saving the strained liquid – but this time toss the soybean residue, wash your muslin cloth and hang it to dry. Now thin out your fresh soymilk solution by adding more water until it looks the color of “skim milk.”

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Completely soak your fabric in the soymilk, making sure the whole piece is fully wet!

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Then allow the fabric to air dry completely. Do not blow dry or heat the fabric in a dryer. Keep the remaining soymilk in the fridge so it doesn’t go bad! And don’t wait longer than two weeks to use the soymilk treated fabric.

Part 2: Making the earth pigment solution

What you need:

-       powdered earth pigment or powdered indigo

-       the fresh soymilk from Part 1

-       gum tragacanth (or organic printing gum)

-       mortar and pestle (a plate and something flat to grind also works)

First you need to decide what colors you want to work with. We used Italian Venetian Red, Raw Umber Italy, French Ocher, Green Earth from Germany, and Organic Indigo.

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Combine 1 teaspoon of the powdered earth pigment or indigo with 1 tablespoon of soymilk.

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Slowly mix/grind together until the pigment is fully wet and combined with the soymilk! (If it’s really necessary, you can add more soymilk but only enough to wet the pigment.)

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Now let me warn you about this part: it’s important you REALLY mix/grind the powder! The first time I stirred the pigment and soymilk together in too small a cup, but the pigment hadn’t truly been absorbed into the soymilk as you see below:

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To thicken, use gum tragacanth or organic printing gum – but only adding very little at a time. We learned the hard way that only 1 tablespoon can make it too thick (see below). If this happens to you it’s ok, just add more soymilk until you get the right consistency.

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Store the pigment paint in the fridge until you are ready to use it, but you need to apply your pigment paint within a few days of applying the soymilk.

Part 3: Applying the pigment to the fabric

What you need:

-       your pre-treated soymilk fabric

-       your mixed earth pigment paints

-       optional: disappearing ink pens, Nori paste, and Elmer’s washable school glue

Now for the fun part you’ve been waiting for – painting!

For this project we looked at African mud cloth designs for inspiration, but you can choose whatever design you want. You can freehand your design or draw it (I did that here using a disappearing ink pen), but either way be sure you secure the fabric from moving around when you paint.

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If you want to leave a certain part of the design unpainted, you can use Nori paste or even Elmer’s washable school glue (blue is best so you can see where you applied it), to create a resist to wash out later.

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And the painting begins!

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Part 4: Air cure

After you’ve applied all the color, let your fabric hang to dry completely! You should allow your fabric to air cure for two days or up to a month.

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Part 5: Washing out

Finally, wash your fabric out with a fabric detergent or synthrapol.

**Some suggest steaming your fabric before washing it to help preserve the color, but I didn’t notice a huge difference.

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Things I learned the hard way:

1) Make sure when you grind up the teaspoon of pigment and the teaspoon of soymilk, you REALLY grind them together well from the start! When they aren’t fully mixed together you get this gritty mess that flakes off when you wash it:

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2) Make sure you work with the soymilk before it goes bad!

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Otherwise the pigment and soymilk separate from each other and looks like this… the red color in the middle but with an oil-like residue bordering it:

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*Finished*

No matter what, you will end up with beautifully colored fabric!

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Below is a PDF you can print out with basic instructions to help you with your project or to share with a friend!

Earth Pigment instruction handout

Instructions came from natural dyer, Donna Brown.

Historical facts and cave painting photo from: http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/

4 Comments

  1. I am working with a Madagascar team to make a unique, non-spun textile. from moth cocoons that are sewn together. We would like to being dying the textile and I am writing to ask if there might be a volunteer at the center who would like to teach the team how to make and use natural dyes. Alternatively, we would also love to have the center display the textile – it has a beautiful natural surface design,

    Catherine Craig, PhD
    CPALI President and CEO

    • Caitlin

      Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for reaching out! Please email sewingseeds@textileartscenter.com for inquiries about future natural dye projects and collaborations.

  2. Dear True

    Thank you Thank you Thank you. I have been searching on the Internet for a couple of weeks now for a ‘how to’ process to take some natural indigo cake into a textile ink as I want to use it for monoprinting. Would you suggest that I add a natural thickener to the soy milk and indigo pigment to make it thick enough to use as a textile ink for monoprinting. I am thinking of either Guar Gum or Sodium Alginate ( a seaweed extract)?
    Cheers Melinda

  3. Wow! This could be one particular of the most useful blogs We’ve ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Great. I’m also a specialist in this topic so I can understand your effort.

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