P.E.I. Dirt Shirt in business almost 25 years
Posted on August 27, 2021 | By Alexander Chafe | 1 Comment
On Prince Edward Island, locals are accustomed to the iron-oxide rich red soil and its ability to stain clothes. This eventually became the inspiration behind a long-standing business.
In 1997, Dr. Michael Wheeler, founder of P.E.I. Dirt Shirt, was a veterinarian student looking for a summer job. Thinking about business opportunities and the common problem Islanders have with P.E.I. dirt, he wondered: Instead of trying to get the dirt out, could he take advantage of its rich colour and put it in? This idea has since turned into a business close to 25-years-old.
Dr. Wheeler began to test dying shirts with dirt using a large garbage bucket filled with water and a canoe paddle. After many trials, he perfected the process and opened the first store in Charlottetown. The shirts were an instant hit.
All Dirt Shirt company products continue to be dyed by hand, but there have been some upgrades to the process. A cement mixer is now used to mix P.E.I. soil, water and other secret ingredients to create a solution for dying products. This is then transferred to an old-school mechanical washing machine, where products are added and mixed for about 30 minutes. Products are then removed and left to soak overnight before being washed and dried.
The P.E.I. Dirt Shirt company started with one original cotton t-shirt and screen printed graphic. After sales grew, experimentation began with sweatshirts and new designs.
Over the years, many products have been added: bags, golf towels, kid’s clothes, dog bananas, tea towels and more. Essentially, any white fabric that’s 100 per cent cotton is fair game. The company also sells handmade pottery from local crafters using traditional red clay mixed with P.E.I. dirt.
Places of Commerce
Business for P.E.I. Dirt Shirt is primarily driven during tourist season through in-store sales at their four locations across the Island. About 10-12 years ago, a website was launched, which received more attention during the pandemic. E-commerce now accounts for about 10 per cent of annual sales.
Milestone Celebrations to Come
About five years ago, Dr. Wheeler’s wife Michele took over the business, so Michael could focus on his career as a vet.
Today, P.E.I. Dirt Shirt company employs about 25-30 staff each summer across all store locations, and their product line continues to grow. Next on Michele’s list is to experiment with other fabrics like linen, as well as plan new designs to celebrate the business’s milestone 25th anniversary in 2022.
Looking back at Dirt Shirt’s success over the years, Michele noted the nostalgia Islanders and tourists have developed for their products: “People form an emotional attachment because it has an actual piece of P.E.I. in the product. P.E.I. gets into your heart and people love the fact that people can take a piece of it home.”
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