Most people use washing machines to remove dirt.
Not Rusty Pearson and Adam Conrath.
Virginia T-Shirt Company’s partners dump dirt—actually Fredericksburg-area red clay—into a washing machine to create their new line of Virginia Original Red Clay Apparel T–shirts and hoodies.
“It’s not a clean process by any means,” Pearson said as he used a hose to pour a slurry of the stuff over a load of pristine white cotton hoodies last week.
The garments soak, agitate and spin in the washing machine long enough for the iron oxide in the clay to permanently stain them a rusty red, a process that can take three to five hours. Then they’re washed twice more in progressively cleaner water, dried and stamped with the Virginia Original Red Clay Apparel logo that Conrath designed.
Virginia T-Shirt Company, which is based in Hartwood, sells the line on its website, vatshirt.com; The Card Cellar in downtown Fredericksburg; Earth, Glaze & Fire in Warrenton; and La Bee da Loca in Culpeper. It’s also available through Amazon.com.
“It sells itself pretty much because it’s so unique,” Conrath said.
He and Pearson came up with the dirt shirt idea last year while kicking around possibilities for expanding their part-time business after Pearson, an Army veteran, retired as the Fort Belvoir Fire Department’s assistant fire chief last October. They’d seen the Original Red Dirt Shirt in Hawaii and parts of the Southwest, and thought that concept held promise. Pearson then plunged into research.
He discovered that this area’s red clay is high in iron oxide, and thought that the science aspect of using it as a natural dye was cool. But he wasn’t sold until he ran across a quote that he found by noted American historian and magazine editor Richard M. Ketchum.
“If any land in America deserves to be called hallowed ground,” Ketchum said, “it is the red clay soil of Virginia on which so much of this nation’s past is preserved.”
Using some of that “hallowed ground” as dye, Pearson and Conrath, realized, would add a historical dimension to the new apparel line.
Figuring out exactly how to do that took some trial and error. The first batches were made using a five-gallon bucket in Pearson’s kitchen.
“We had to find the right blend of material,” Pearson said. “Every thread absorbs the dye a different way.”
His wife eventually told him he had to get the operation out of their house. He and Conrath, who also has a day job working for the federal government, have a setup in an office building off Warrenton Road. They plan to look for a large space and more washing machines once their lease is up.
Right now, they’re using a single washing machine hooked up to three 50-gallon blue plastic tanks. Red clay gets sifted through two white plastic colanders to remove rocks. It’s then mixed with water to make a slurry and dumped into one of the tanks.
“A pound of clay is enough to do 100 shirts,” Pearson said.
Slurry from the first tank gets poured over half of the garments in the washer, and then the rest are added. Once they’ve absorbed enough of the natural dye, water from the other two tanks is used to finish removing the remaining clay. The three-step process creates garments that will eventually fade to a soft shade of rust with repeated washings.
Lori Shoup, Conrath’s sister, came up with the idea of tying each piece with twine to complement their rustic look. The attached tag gives washing instructions.
Pearson and Conrath sold the first shirts online, but customers kept saying that they wanted to find them locally. They approached Bart Goldberg, owner of The Card Cellar at 915 Caroline St., about being the exclusive vendor in Fredericksburg. He placed an order two weeks before Christmas, and said that he’s already had to reorder.
“People like the uniqueness of it,” Goldberg said. “The fact that it’s done locally is pretty popular.”
He said that one customer bought one for her father as a Christmas present because he’d worn out a dirt shirt he’d purchased out west.
“It was the perfect gift for her father because it was a local one,” Goldberg said. “It’s the novelty that gets people, but they’re actually very comfortable.”
The Card Cellar will continue carrying shirts with the Virginia Original Red Clay Apparel because it already stocks a number of Fredericksburg-themed T–shirts, he said. But Pearson and Conrath can localize the clay and the logo for other businesses.
Shirts and hoodies made for the Potomac Nationals fans when the team moves to Fredericksburg, for example, could be dyed with red clay dug up when the stadium is being built, Pearson said.
“I would love to have our brand grow,” he said, “and have customers understand that it’s not just a cool shirt, but what the dirt represents.”