Nearly all children of the Deep South have heard the demands of their mother, loudly instructing them to avoid the stain-creating nuisance lurking beneath their feet. “Don’t ruin your clothes in that dirt, ” Southern moms have yelled for years, fearful of the carnage that could be caused by the region’s distinctive red-clay soil.
But where others saw nothing but the potential for splatters and splotches and all sorts of wash-resistant havoc, Martin Ledvina saw a marketing possibility. A native of the Czech Republic, Ledvina moved to Alabama in 1992 to attend school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. And one of the first things he noticed about his new home was the land itself.
“You don’t see that kind of red dirt where I’m from, ” Ledvina says. “It fascinated me. I thought the earth must be really special here.”
Two years later, Ledvina met Alabama native Joy Maples, and the two began dating. One day after Maples had taken a particularly muddy mountain bike ride, Ledvina noticed how heavily stained her clothes were, and how the red dirt clung tightly to the fabric even after repeated washing.
“I didn’t know it was so indestructible, ” says Ledvina, who has a chemical engineering background. “That’s when I first got the idea of using the clay in clothing. I was like, ‘Why don’t we stain it on purpose?’ I thought we could take this dirt and its color and actually stain cloth on purpose, with the idea of using something natural rather than chemically manufactured dyes.
“At first it was just a joke, but the idea stuck in my head. I did some experiments with some dirt and old shirts to see what would happen. I got really interested in exploring the idea. Finally I tried to convince Joy to start a business.”
Maples, who had grown up hearing that the red menace was to be avoided at all costs, initially was not a fan of the concept. “I thought it was crazy, ” she recalls with a laugh. “I really didn’t think it was a worthy business idea.”
Maples changed her mind shortly after she and Ledvina got married. During their honeymoon in Hawaii, the couple walked into a store and saw a terra cotta-colored shirt that had been dyed with local dirt. Maples bought one and took it back home, but discovered that while the color never completely left the shirt, it did fade quickly with the initial washings. So Maples told Ledvina, “If you can make it where the color stays in and doesn’t wash out, then maybe it is something we can do.”
Ledvina spent most of his spare time in 1996 working on the dying process, while Maples, who was a small business consultant, developed a business plan. At the end of the year, the couple unveiled a single product, a red-clay colored T-shirt dubbed the Alabama Dirt Shirt. It quickly became a popular item, leading to the creation of an environmentally friendly clothing line called Earth Creations.
Today, the Bessemer-based company has 25 employees and a sewing plant in Moulton and offers a full line of clothing options, including dresses, pants and infant wear. The company introduces new seasonal products twice a year, many of them made with organic cotton, hemp and bamboo. And, of course, most are still dyed with natural clay.
“Our products become more involved every year, ” Ledvina says. “We still have the basic garments, but we’re trying to develop and make more fashion-forward styles with each season.”
The operation has changed considerably from the early years, when Ledvina and Maples would drive around with shovels and buckets in their car, scooping up dirt wherever it was available.
“Anytime we would go somewhere, we would sample different clays, ” Ledvina says. “Then people just started giving us dirt from their backyards and farms. One time, I bought a car and told the salesman what I did, and he gave me some dirt.
“But in order to be consistent with the color and things like that, we needed to have just one source. So we finally found some people who supply clay for brickmaking and started getting the dirt from them.”
When Earth Creations was formed in the late 1990s, Maples says the entire concept of eco-friendly clothing was mainly a niche offering. “When we started going to trade shows in 1997, there was Patagonia and then three or four other small businesses like ourselves. And that was it. That’s all there were, ” she says.
The market has expanded tremendously since them, but Earth Creations remains one of the industry leaders. In September, the company was given a “People & Planet Award” by the non-profit organization Green America. The award recognizes the best “green” small businesses in the country and is voted on by the public.
“To be recognized by that particular award is a big thing. It really means a whole lot, ” Ledvina says. “It means that what we are doing has an impact. It’s an all-encompassing pat on the back and reaffirmation that what we’ve been trying to do makes sense to others.”
It also brings recognition to the state of Alabama, which is one of the things that pleases Maples the most. She says it is important that Earth Creations is closely associated with the state. After all, there literally is part of the state within the company’s products.
“It’s really neat that our landscape in Alabama works with who we are, ” Maples says. “It’s almost like the way steel-making started in Birmingham because they had all the elements there to make steel. We kind of have that same parallel. It’s nice to be able to connect Alabama with our products like that and show people that side of our state.”
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
text by Cary Estes • photos by Robert Rausch