My Eco Printing Wool Secrets

Wool has so many amazing qualities that it deserves the beauty of Eco Printing. I’m happy to share some of my Eco Printing wool secrets that I’ve discovered so you too can create some magic.

Where to get wool

I have been sewing and making clothes for many years. Nowadays when I shop at fabric stores there are few fabrics made with natural fibres. It seems we are turning into a polyester/acrylic society. There may be only a few suiting fabrics and pre-made scarves that can be bought to print on. That is great, but often the price makes you cringe that you may now not get a perfect print at a high expense. My favourite wool is from virgin wool blankets and older wool fabric remnants. Here in Canada the blankets were a staple in many homes and are now losing their appeal so they often find their way into thrift stores when the younger generation dumps them. I feel sad for the sheep…

Anyways, they come in many thicknesses and colours & have so much potential.

The challenge of Eco Printing thick wool

Think about it; wool is ‘hair’ that grew on an animal. It is similar to our hair but much thinner. Human hair is about 50-70 microns and wool can be anywhere from 10 to over 25 microns. Some is softer against the skin as it is finer like merino wool. Cashmere is from a goat and even smaller than 10 microns so quite luxurious.

The individual fibres have a scaled outer layer that can make it ‘felt’ together by being agitated and shocked by temperature changes. This can work in your favour or not. I like the density of felted wool and fact that some it may not fray when cut. It will also provide a more ‘solid’ image of your print since more fibres are closer together.

How to bundle wool

When considering how to get the best contact printing you need to consider the method you want to use. Since wool has a tendency to not keep/absorb water easily (it will continue to drip out) That is why it is often preferred by many eco printers to use a submersion method.

However, if you know me, I am stubborn. I would rather use my alternate method as it does not involve so much waste of energy and require constant attention. But to do so I have had to adjust the bundling method specifically for the wool. I had found that not using a barrier like my re-used plastic would give undefined prints since the moisture was making it’s way through the bundle too much. I needed a way of keeping the moisture ‘in place’ next to the wool fibres, similar to what happens in a simmering pot.

To combat the bleeding I use a blanket that is quite absorbent; cotton flannel in one or 2 thicknesses does hold moisture quite well. Depending on my preferred method of bringing iron into the design, it may get a dip in iron solution, or not.

The above print was made by leaves dipped in iron solution as well as a weak flannel iron blanket. That resulted in prints of leaves as well as the ‘outlines’ from using a blanket. That ensured a pretty good definition f the leaf shapes. By the way, if you’d like I have many of these in my shop right now.

With this finer wool fabric, it was a lower micron wool and did tend to hold the moisture better. I did find that without a barrier it needed to be printed 2X so that the less defined prints were over printed. Folding and bundling large irregular shaped pieces makes for some mind-boggling figuring out.

Softening Wool:

If the wool feels scratchy you may be able to soften it. Wool is like hair so I. use a mild shampoo to wash it as then it has the proper PH. (making my own soap made me realize this) And just like a nice conditioner softens your hair, a soak or rinse in hair conditioner will help soften the wool even more.

This vest printed on yardage does hold an edge quite nicely without fraying and is softer against the skin. Some of the prints are light and airy for this piece.

Since the wool is quite dense the prints did also not travel through the fabric as much, so considerations for double layering was needed.

Another way to process:

To do a method of simmering or boiling you will need a vessel large enough for the bundle. As much as I’d like to have a cauldron outside and lots of firewood, I am more limited. Make sure you use a dedicated pot for cooking these shibori & leaf folded bundles on the stove. I have a stock pile of onion skins collecting and cooked this in a strong solution giving the wonderful golden reds..

The graphics of string marks adds so much, so I purposely used a thick twine that was not absorbent.

After the easter egg colouring I really love the strength and warmth that onion skin prints on wool! Look at those well defined markings!

I am trained as an illustrator, so I have had many years of controlling media, but I love this way of ‘not’ having that much control. The hap-hazard designs from the folding and string marks are amazing!

If I haven’t said it enough; Eco printing is NOT an exact art form! Embrace the magic and accept the nuances & subtlety of the designs. If you want perfect prints, buy some typical fabric.

Finer woven wool

I was lucky to find some pre-made thin wool scarves. They were so large however that they needed a way to bundle easily in my method of using a small microwave. You can roll on a bendable tubing but I still find it a challenge. If the fabric is thin enough there is the opportunity to fold and have the prints actually travel through the layers. That’s what worked perfectly with this.

Happy Accident:

I still have another job so my eco printing obsession has to fit in between other tasks in my daily life (reality) so I often just whip up a bundle quickly while in my laundry room, process, and then let sit insulated for hours. I may give it another zap to bring up temperature but you’d be amazed how much heat it holds, still warm the next morning.

But, one time I forgot… hard to believe I know, since opening bundles is the highlight of my day! When I opened the bundles they had even more subtle areas of printing, as if they needed that time of an extra 2 days to just exhaust any reaction of tannin and iron. Who knows the little magic going on in there.

This is fine wool that was mordanted with alum, then dipped in a medium strength iron (since wringing does express most of it) and leaves layered without a barrier.

The background colour was a light rose as I could not find white. Simple maples on iron dipped wool, double and triple folded. (pssst, if you would like one of these…)

These are so light and soft, I’ll be sad when they are all gone. Now all I seem to do is read labels for fibre content.

Wool Yardage works too

Obviously you can also buy fabric by the yard but you will have to consider how to finish edges. Any kind that can be fringed is a bonus to making a bulky rolled hem. This light wool suiting was thin enough to print the images through to the back.

Using a light iron blanket, a plastic barrier (reused for years) and leaves dipped in an iron solution made these prints. Some of the fall leaves had already turned quite brown but this still gave some interesting prints. Did I know exactly what would happen? No. I had an idea I would get some decent prints but the details was in the leaves’ control.

I hope I have inspired you to pick up that piece of wool… if not, you are welcome to own some of mine Then I will be able to keep printing and sharing… Maybe someone deserves a special gift.

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  1. Barb I’m a felt maker and I’ve been challenged and frustrated to get a good result on my silk-merino pieces. I use an iron blanket but find that often the prints are lovelier and more crisp on the blanket that the felt surface. I’m tempted to dip the felted scarves in iron solution, and am delighted to read that you’ve done that. You mention a medium strength solution – how much iron do you use? Is it a ferrous sulphate solution or a home-made iron solution? How do you wash the wool after it’s been treated with iron and dyed?

    1. Lately I have simplified by using iron sulphate in warm water. I tend to be a bit intuitive with my recipes as I sometimes want darker prints. I use about a teaspoon or more per bucket of water. I find that some of the fibres are closer in some fabrics than others so I experiment. I also adjust as some leaves are quite easy printers like the maples. To wash the wool I use a mild shampoo as it is like hair. If the wool gets scratchy I may even use a bit of hair conditioner. I hope that helps!