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Combine my stubborn streak with this mysterious art form of ‘Eco Printing’ and you have a whole lot of unique prints! I have been completely obsessed with this way of printing especially on cotton. Eco printing uses natures gifts in the form of leaves (and sometimes flowers) to create a transfer print to fabric without the use of ink or painting (so no drawing or painting skills needed). Come see this magic of Eco Printing on Cotton…

Preparing the Cotton Fabric:

As I had mentioned in my earlier post, each type of fibre needs to be readied for taking the colour from the leaves. To make sure you are starting with the cleanest possible fibres you should scour your fabric. Most fabrics have some coatings, starches and buildup of oils. Scouring is a strong cleaning to get of these impurities. Cotton should be scoured with a 2 hour simmer in a washing soda (soda ash) solution. Rinse out all the ‘dirty’ water once cooled enough to handle.

Cotton is fairly inexpensive so it seems a great fibre to start with. That is what I thought; however it turns out it is more difficult to print on cotton and other cellulose fibres than it is on protein fibres like silk. With that said, preparing/scouring and pre-mordanting cotton is even more important.

The pre-mordant that can be used with cotton is soya milk. Multiple ‘soak and dry’ cycles help the fibre allow printing. Aluminum acetate is another possible pre-mordant however soya milkis readily available.

The printing mordant that I like to use is iron. I make a bucket full of rusty items and water to create a solution of iron. Vinegar can help you along to create an iron acetate. You may also buy iron sulphate and then use specific recipes for your iron solution. But the artist in me likes to be a bit more adventurous and leave some to chance.

As a side note; this art form is very satisfying when it all works, but it will not always happen. If you want perfect results each time, then find another print method. ‘Just as in life; things that are more difficult to get are usually worth more…’ That’s my theory and I accept the ‘duds’ as part of the process.

I have spent months learning and reading and testing and testing some more. But just like a degree in chemistry it is still no where near knowing it all. But that is also the beauty of this Eco printing; it keeps you yearning to learn more and trying new variations.

I am a great observer. I had left a leaf in the iron water for a couple days and when I noticed it there was some great blue-black created by the iron and the tannins in the leaves. Ah-ha! A chemical reaction of sorts!

Materials Needed:

  • Cotton Fabric (practice on ripped strips of cotton bed sheets)
  • strong string of some type (butchers twine is great)
  • scissors
  • some round type of dowel/pipe to wrap the fabric around (thicker is a bit better) (old wood curtain rods work well)
  • tray to soak leaves in
  • rags/towels (to soak up extra messes)
  • gloves
  • extra old sheeting (optional to make ‘Iron Blanket’)

Step #1 Prepare your leaves

Depending on the time of year, you may have fresh or dried/pressed leaves to dampen. I let them soak in the iron water for at least 30 minutes (enough time to get set up)

A long table is great, and placing some plastic or tarp to protect against stains (from iron)

In reference to the leaves, there are some that are more sure to print well. Maple leaves, japanese maple, rose, sumac, eucalyptus, smoke bush, etc. have high tannin content. You will find your favourites. The weather, time of year, area, all play into the way that the leaf prints. The underside tends to print stronger as well.

Is your head spinning yet? That is why you need to take notes, for future reference.

Step #2 Place the leaves

These sheets were scoured in washing soda (not baking soda) well and no other treatment. (see further down for more pre-mordanted cotton methods)

The dipped leaves are placed so that there is a good coverage. Some are facing up and some down.

Step #3 Roll’em Up

Roll it up tightly to keep the leaves well flattened to the fabric. At this time I was not aware that there may be bleed through to other layers. A layer of ‘barrier’ plastic drop cloth can be put on top of the leaves to make sure there is no bleed through.

Step #4 Tie the Bundle

To keep the fabric tight to the leaves, wrap at regular intervals quite tightly.

As an extra measure you may wrap the entire roll in a foil or plastic. This will keep the moisture in and not let more in. Each slight variation may effect the result slightly as well.

Step #5 Steaming (or boiling)

Depending on the type of leaves you have used they may give off odd smells/vapour when they are steamed/boiled. I have read that sumac may be somewhat irritating to some. For that reason I decided to do the cooking outside on the BBQ side burner. Use an old pot or dedicated vessel.

You have the choice of steaming or submerged boiling. I chose to use steaming since it seems like less extra water would effect the print. Make sure the bundle is elevated (on top of some small mason jars or steam basket) and you don’t run dry. You can add metals to the water as extra mordant but I feel that they don’t really get into the bundle when steaming.

The time needed also varies. Some boil/steam for as much as 3 hours and some for about 1.5 hours. I tend to steam for about 2 hours. If you would like extra setting you can leave it bundled for a long time (weeks) or open right away. I chose something mid way. After steaming for 2 hours I wrapped them in a thick blanket to hold heat for a while longer.

Since there is generally no indication how things are going it is like Christmas when it is time to open them up. This one was giving me a bit of a sneak peek. I never tire of the opening stage! I bet that is why most find this art form so addicting.

Well, there you have it! I was quite happy with these results!

The amount of detail that these prints made was quite amazing. ‘Like stipple drawings of leaves.

These are walnut leaves were also dipped in iron solution prior to steaming. I love the detail!

Step #6 Neutralize and Wash

After unwrapping you should give them a rinse in a weak baking soda bath to neutralize the iron.  Then wash in a ph neutral detergent like (good for the duckies) ‘Dawn’ or other specialized washing soap. I find there may be a bit of extra tannin washing out, but most of the strong blacks stay put quite well.

If you have too much ‘black’ print then you have a strong iron solution and can dilute it more next time.

So, are you amazed yet!? That is just one simple basic method. There are many more variations, add in some natural colours by dyeing and you will be even more amazed how truly magical it is!

Eco Printing Method #2

‘The Iron Blanket’

As a variation of the application of the iron mordant you can also make an ‘iron blanket’. An iron blanket is an extra piece of fabric (even paper towels) that is soaked in the rusty iron water and then wrung out. This layer will be put above the leaves to bring the iron to the fabric in a different way. In this method the leaves are not dipped in iron water, they are used as is (or wetted if dried)

Do you notice a difference in how the colours/prints turn out here? They are now printing the colours outside of the leaf shapes since the iron is applied around the leaf shape. The tannin of the leaf spreads out from the leaf and blends with the iron from the blanket to create the ‘halo’ shape and accent the leaf. Some make soak through the leaf and also print a colour. You just never know exactly…

The Barrier Layer

To keep the colours from bleeding through the layers I definitely use a barrier layer. That can be plastic wrap (Like Saran wrap) or strips of plastic drop sheets (reusable). Some find success in using baking parchment paper, even tin foil as a barrier. I like to use the drop sheets as I can cut off a strip in the width that I am working with.

This is a heavy weight cotton that was pre-mordanted with soya milk. It is soaked in a solution of soya milk and water ( 1 part to 5 parts) and dried and then repeated. This can be repeated as many as 5 times. I soaked in soya 2x.

The results are again quite amazing! I love how they look like water colour paintings! Each specie of leaf can also bring some colour to the mix.

Oh how I wish I could grow some eucalyptus! Go ahead, run out and get some leaves and Eco Print on Cotton. Do check out here before you start on your magical Eco Printing journey. I will be posting some gift ideas as Christmas is soon approaching…


I'm an artist & I make things... all kinds of things.

This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. That is so beautiful! I cannot wait until you show more approaching Christmas!

    I’m so grateful for you talents and especially because you share with the world!



  2. Barb,
    You constantly amaze me with your creations, yet another beautiful project that you created, thank you for allowing us to share in your creations.


    1. That’s kind to say. Even after so many years of painting my own art I get such a kick out of the unexpected results each time! Better than playing the lottery…

  3. Thank you for your kind ideas and new creations. I’m very enthusiastic to begin some projects. Tell me please some dyes for Christmas time.

  4. I have never seen anything like this! So unique and amazing! Hope to start in the spring. I’m lured by the Iron Blanket ! Thank you so very much for sharing your art & looking forward for more.

    PS I have a love for linen. Is it possible to apply this method to linen?

    1. It IS such an amazing art form! Yes! I have seen many people who use linen. Just be aware that you will need to do some testing (perhaps small pieces) until you find your magical ‘combination’. Good luck!

  5. Hi barbara, i have a question. Im new at this technique. Not sure where to put the barrier?
    Cotton with fresh leaves then iron blanket on top then the barrier on top of all OR do i start with the barrier sheet ( iow back of corton) then my cotton with leaves then the iron blanket. As im not sure about this.
    I used a iron blanket once ontop of silk but most of the prints went onto the iron blanket itself?

    Thank you

    1. I put the barrier on top before rolling to prevent bleed-through printing. (I bet some people put it on the bottom but the result is pretty well the same as since it ends up between the ‘sandwich’ layers) The iron blanket works well when the fabric is dyed first so that the iron reacts around the leaf shape to create a different type of silhouette print around the leaf shape. I use them mostly with the silks that are pre-dyed.

      The iron and tannins react to make prints so yes, you will get prints on the iron blanket as well. Sometimes I find parts that I keep some to use in projects from the iron blankets. My guess is that you will have a silhouette type of print from the way you are layering. It’s all such an experimentation process. You could make a roll that has a few small trials in it.

      Good luck. Keep researching and reading. There’s also dipping in tannin solutions… No steaming outside in this -10º weather.

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