Eco Printing – Nature’s Miracle

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.


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…


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  1. I am wanting to dye my silk pink with safflower after botanical printing but I’m not sure if I should unbundle it first or just add to the dye bundled (after it has cooled). I’d love to know your thoughts on this or just this process in general (with any botanical dye). Thank you!

    1. I have not tried safflower but when I use other dyes like cochineal I dye it first and then print and use some leaves that discharge well. If you want the colour throughout you’ll have to unbundle otherwise it will not get everywhere. I would imagine that it should be washed before dyeing as there will be tannin and iron(?) on it if just unbundled. The best is to do small experiments. As I read, it has the ability to give a range of colours from yellow to reds/pink depending on PH. Sounds like fun!!

  2. Thank you for your generous sharing. Will gather some autumn leaves now (Australia).
    How long will it keep? Do dry leaves work as well as fresh?

    1. Yes, dry ones can work just as well, they may just need a bit of rehydration. Eucalyptus needs a longer soak and often eco printers add vinegar to the soak. I wish I had more euca to play with, lucky you! See this post as well for how to save leaves.

  3. Thank you, your words are a precious gift! I don’t know if I’ll try to imitate you, but your works fill me with enthusiasm. Greetings from Italy. ♥