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It’s pretty obvious that I get a lot of my inspiration from nature. When I discovered there is an art form that gets a helping hand from ‘Mother nature’ I was super excited! Magic happens when leaves and fabric come together under the right circumstances. I have lovingly spent the last few months experimenting. The results are so amazingly beautiful and often unexpected. I liken it to christmas each time I unwrap one.

This post will be a bit of a teaser; an introduction to Eco Printing, as this process can not be explained on one page. Mother nature works her magic so I hope to clear up some of that mystery through this post and future specific ones.

Tannins in Nature

The basic principle of eco printing is that various leaves and plant material (fresh or dried) possess tannins which have the ability to print permanent colour onto fibres in the form of fabric when combined with the proper procedure. Not every leaf will be as successful, as some have much higher tannin content than others. The top side and bottom both may yield different results. Results may vary from zone, time of year and even time of day, as there is so much invisible chemistry happening. It is directly related to the art of dyeing with natural plant material. A few pioneers in this craft; India Flint and Irit Dulman have made wonderful discoveries over many years of experimenting. The process usually involves some form of heat and also some pressure to create a distinct print.

It is that time of year here in Canada when the leaves are shedding so it may be the last chance to collect until spring. I have experimented with my local collection and now have my favourite species to collect and store. But don’t feel limited to these. Silver Maple, Sumac (various varieties), Rose, Japanese Maple, Blackberry, Hedge Maple, Walnut, Dark Horse Weigela, Catalpa, are a few I’ve tried. If you have the luxury to obtain eucalyptus there are species that will print bright oranges and reds.

Like a squirrel, I have been stock-piling my leaves for winter. Place leaves in a single layer between multiple sheets of newspaper. I had tried books but they became too full and had more chance of having mold develop since they could not provide enough air circulation. You can stack the piles but do not put too much weight as then they may not breathe adequately.

Sumac is available along roadsides in abundance and maples are quite common here.

Mordants

This process however is not as simple as just plopping some leaves onto fabric. To make the molecules adhere there needs to be a ‘mordant’ that acts like a molecular bond between the fibre and dye of the leaves (plant material). These mordants are commonly metal ‘salts’.

One of the readily available metals is iron. Making a bucket of ‘iron water’ can be as simple as collecting some rusty chain or railway spikes. As when dealing with any chemical; do exercise caution by wearing gloves when working with the solutions.

Other readily available mordant is ‘Alum’ (Aluminum Potassium Sulphate) which is considered safer than many ‘metal salts’ since it is used in the treatment of water and commonly used when making pickles. It can be obtained in the spice aisle of grocery stores.

Some eco printing can be as simple as using a quick dip in some ‘iron water’ to help the leaves’ tannins adhere to the fibre. Since there are chemical reactions happening between so many materials, slight variations bring different results. Once the ‘magic’ happens many artists like to keep it a secret so it may take some personal experimentation to have the entire puzzle to come together.

Historically, dyeing fabric with natural plant material has been around since 100 A.D. Applying heat to a vessel of dye and submerging the textile is simple however the retaining of the colour through time and laundering may not be so easy. Some colours may be wonderful however are called ‘fugitive’ as they disappear over time. To assure colourfastness careful scouring and mordanting is required.

 

Various Fibres

Results also depend on the type of fibre. Fibres need to be natural, not synthetic. (however I have heard that nylon will print) There are 2 basic categories for fibre; Cellulose and Protein

‘Cellulose’ includes fibres made from plants such as; cotton, linen, ramie, hemp, bamboo, and rayon.

‘Protein’ includes fibres that come from the fur or hair of animals or spun by an insect like the silkworm. Besides the obvious Sheep wool, there is Alpaca, Camel, Angora goats, silk and Cashmere.

Speaking generally, protein fibres do tend to take dye easier and thus yield better eco printing results. Some of the processes include alkalinity and acidity which behave differently with each fibre.

Shown here is one process of laying tannin rich leaves that have been dipped briefly into iron water on damp cotton fabric. The fabric should be first scoured well to clean any residual substance from the fibre. Scouring methods vary according to fibre as well.

To assure a clear print pressure and contact between plant and fabric is also important. There are various ways of layering and folding with rolling being one of the most common methods.

The rolls can be made on pipes, branches or wooden dowels. The material of the centre may also play a key role in the chemistry reaction if made of a metal.

To create good contact and pressure the roll is tied quite tightly with twine. There may also be some other ‘barrier’ material involved to stop colours bleeding through layers.

Sounds complicated?! It really isn’t once the basic principles are understood as then it’s like cooking; so many possibilities!

 

Heat Processing

Speaking of cooking… The process does involve heat. The rolls may be steamed or even submerged and boiled; each with different results. Experimenting is key, as changing any part of the process often yields different results.

The Reveal

As notes are taken and successes documented, results can still be unexpected.  Since it is not visible what is happening until it is unrolled, the anticipation is always exciting. As with anything that is difficult to attain, it is much ore rewarding once you do!

This is one of my first prints that I was quite happy with. The dark results came from a strong use of iron as a mordant.

Results are not always guaranteed so any results are quite welcome and may be used to create unique one of a kind crafts and clothing.

The intricate details that print are quite remarkable and can vary according to the choice of fabric.

As with cooking and baking, combining more ingredients gives more variety of results. Using a dye bath before or after ‘printing’ can give the design a whole new dimension. Prior to eco printing this silk scarf was dyed with indigo dye.

How absolutely amazing is this print on silk?! The red background is from dyeing with madder root, another natural botanical dye.

As an artist, I have spent many years painstakingly hand painting details on landscapes and designs. Eco printing however does not involve that skill but relies on nature’s magic and a bit of know-how. I do not profess to be a complete expert but will share some of my detailed successes.

I do warn you though; it can be quite addicting…

 

barbmaker

I’m an artist & I make things… all kinds of things.

This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. You say “I am an artist & I make things”. That is only partly true…you are a genius who makes beautiful things. I get great pleasure from viewing your work. I am in awe!

    Thank you.

    1. Wow, that is so kind to say! Being a ‘visual’ person is hard sometimes as I assess everything I see constantly. But yes, I get great satisfaction from making. The best part is I can make what I want! I hope you can join in the making…

  2. They came out so beautiful!!!! I’ve been wanting to try the natural printing for some time but haven’t go around to it…. I can wait to see more of what your doing!

    1. No, as dry cleaning uses some crazy chemicals. I wash them a couple times after printing and use a mild ph neutral soap. (like Dawn) The whole idea is that the colours bond well with the fibre. There will be some posts up soon… Enjoy!

    1. Thank you! I have yet to try paper as each step does take a lot of effort, ss you have probably found out already. And most do not like to share as it does cost quite a bit to figure things out. It is quite cold now so I am limited to inside steaming/cooking. However I do always have ideas spinning in my head…

  3. Barb, what amazing work you do. I have ideas percolating in my head just by seeing the results of your art. Thank you for sharing your process. You are very generous as well as ultra talented.

    1. Those are kind words, thanks. But I always believe most people have some talent; it just needs a way to come out. Eco printing is quite the addiction and can become so diverse, each time yielding different results. ‘Buckle in’ for the ride…

  4. I have been eco-dyeing for a couple of years; using silk, linen and papers. Your writing and results are the clearest and most beautiful I have come across. I wish I had had your blog when I started as you have really lain it all out for beginners and for those of us who have experimented for awhile. Thank you for this generous sharing.

    1. Yes, I know! I have had to do a lot of testing and did struggle at first as well. I had pondered whether to post this info as most would rather sell it or charge for workshops. You can help support my cause to post more by purchasing some scarves

    1. There are probably as many methods as artists trying it! I tend to use the alum for the cotton printing. It’s an exciting artform that doesn’t always act like you expect. Due to the sensitive chemistry slight variations give different results. But as someone once said; things that come easily usually aren’t that valuable. I usually use the vinegar for my silk.

  5. Absolutely wonderful work, I am so grateful that you share your experiences and knowledge gained through your experiments. Fabric dying and eco dying have long been a desire of mine, and after reading your information I will be giving it a whirl come spring. I like the cleaner looking results and the overdying techniques, so this will be a challenge for me. Do you have a preference if you purchase dyes, or do you always use eco dyes made yourself from plant product. Again, thank you and I will be following.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I started my ‘dyeing’ with shibori where I use fibre reactive dyes to make it easier. I still love that! However for some strange reason I tend to gravitate to art forms that are a bit more challenging. Eco printing is quite that. I have only used natural dyes with the eco printing and am still learning as artists continue to do over their lifetime. Glad that I’ve inspired you…

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