As soon as the sun gets strong and the plants are in their glory I think about using the sun to print! It’s a prefect reason to get outdoors and get creative ideas flowing. I’m so pleased to introduce how to make Cyanotype prints on Fabric with you!
What is Cyanotype?
Cyanotype is a process that utilizes UV (sunlight) to create prints. It is a photographic method that quite inexpensively creates a cyan blue print. Variations in the technique can allow many creative solutions. It was invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel. It involves a couple chemicals; potassium ferricyanide & ammonium ferric citrate. If you would like to learn the chemical theory you can read here.
I am excited to use this process as I am passionate about using dyeing in my creative use of fabric. I do also have very vivid memories of the days in the darkroom developing my own black & white photographs & prints.
What do you need to Cyanotype on Fabric?
There are two chemical compounds required to create the cyanotype solution, Potassium Ferricyanide, and Ferric Ammonium Citrate. I bought a bit larger quantity from a photo-supply store but you can get convenient kits as well. There are options to buy pre-treated cyanotype fabrics and papers as well.
The basic recipe of cyanotype chemicals is 10g of Potassium Ferricyanide mixed with water to make up to 100ml. Measure 25g of Ferric Ammonium Citrate and add water to bring it up to 100 ml as well. Mix these two solutions together and keep in a dark container. The solutions should be well dissolved and it is also recommended to sit for a bit for assurance.
The fabric should a natural fibre like cotton, linen, hemp, silk, rayon etc. Make sure it is clean and scoured. I am using up some of my stash of denim, bleached and light.
Stay safe and use gloves and a good mask while measuring the powders. Prepare your work surfaces in case of spillage. You will. need a scale to measure the chemicals
Prepare a vessel to hold the chemicals once mixed. Since the mixed solution is light sensitive it needs to be stored in a dark bottle. You can wrap a jar with black electrical tape if need be.
How to make the Cyanotype Solution:
Since the solution is light sensitive I covered my light with some red cellophane. I recall that was what we similarly had in the darkroom for photography. The LED and Incandescant bulbs we have do emit a bit of UV rays to I was extra cautious. I also covered the window.
Measure out 10 Grams of Potassium Ferricyanide into a jar and add enough water to bring to 100ml volume. Mix carefully.
Measure out 25 Grams of Ferric Ammonium Citrate into a jar and add enough water to bring to 100ml volume. Mix carefully.
Combine the two solutions and allow time to fully dissolve. Use once dissolved or keep in dark til ready for use.
Preparing Your Fabric:
Once your solution is ready it is only a matter of applying to the fabric (paper is the same process). Choose a brush or foam brush that does not drip too much and is soft enough to spread the thin solution. This part of the process also happens in low light or dark.
You can expose the wet fabric with designs to the sun right away or let it dry. I opted for letting it dry in a dark closet so that there was less chance of contamination.
What to Use for Cyanotype Designs:
Well, this is really only some suggestions as there are so many possibilities of what to use for a cyanotype print. Some of the easiest things are botanical plants, leaves and flowers. The uniqueness of the print comes from the choice of material. Light can pass through a variety of objects to make creative prints. Things like fabric, lace, thread, can also create a detailed print due to their nature. I am planning on digging out some old negative films as well (stay tuned). This opens up a lot of possibilities for printmakers and artists who do not want to draw.
Any roadside ditch can have amazing specimens if you are looking for botanical things. Look at the lovely lines from some old weeds! You have endless options of how to lay out your designs.
Prepare Your Cyanotype design:
Since the fabric is now UV light-sensitive you should work under low light conditions to place objects & arrange your designs. The key to getting clear crisp prints is the amount of contact the objects have with the fabric. Ideally they are flat and pressed down to allow no light to sneak underneath. I love the way small blossoms (even maple tree flowers) give detailed shapes. Experiment with adding whatever elements tell your story. This is perfect for media artists!
To keep everything in place it works well to cover with something like a sheet of glass or plexi-glass. Anything that will allow the light to pass can work. Binder clips will make sure it stays in place.
How to Expose your Cyanotype:
My preference to expose these is to use the direct sunlight on a bright sunny day. To make it easier to transport my boards I place them in a double garbage bag until ready to put on the table outdoors. You will notice the yellow-green colour in almost no time it will be darker blue.
The exposing happens quickly and I found that 5 minutes on a cloudless day was enough here in Canada in May. You could make yourself a test piece with a cardboard strip that gets moved every few minutes to assess exposure time differences. Myself, I work more like an artist than scientist…
These are already exposed enough. If you over expose the light may start to pass through the specimens and the prints will become less. ‘But there is no right or wrong as that may create extra interest.
When ready take the board indoors and quickly move to rinsing since the parts of the print under the objects could still be exposed.
How to make Cyanotype Prints on Fabric
- Dark bottle/Vessel - (to store light sensitive solution)
- Dust Mask
- Rubber Gloves
- Stir sticks
- Accurate scale
- Paint brushes/foam brushes
- Measuring cup
- Fabric - (natural fibres like cotton, silk, hemp, linen, rayon, viscose, bamboo)
- Board - (to place fabric on)
- Transparent Plastic or Glass Sheet
- Binder Clips
- 10 grams Potassium Ferricyanide
- 25 grams Ferric Ammonium Citrate
- Prepare a space to work that is dimly lit to avoid UV light (mostly from sun but also small amounts from light bulbs) Protect the surface.
- Collect the supplies and tools
- Measure 10g of Potassium Ferricyanide and add enough water to make 100ml. Mix gently.
- Measure 25g of Ferric Ammonium Citrate and add water to bring it up to 100 ml as well. Mix gently.
- Mix both solutions together in a light-proof vessel. Allow time to fully dissolve.
- Prepare fabric (make sure it's very clean)
- Apply the Cyanotype solution onto the desired area of the fabric with a brush or foam roller. Be careful of drips.
- Allow to dry in a dark place
- Place the fabric on a board for ease of transporting. Place Objects or botanical items in your chosen design. Be aware of how much the items are in contact with the fabric surface for clear prints
- Place a clear sheet of plastic or glass over flat items to keep in place. Protect the piece from sun exposure (may place in a dark bag) until ready to expose.
- Take your board outside on a bright sunny day to expose to the UV rays. The time will depend on a few factors such as UV level. You will see the colour of the fabric turn from yellowish green to darker blue quickly. 5 minutes on a bright day was enough for mine but tests could be performed.
- Once exposed bring inside to quickly take off objects and rinse before further exposure. Rinse until water shows no yellow colour rinsing out.
- If a darker blue is desired a small capful of hydrogen peroxide can be added to final rinse.
- Dry in a area out of direct sunlight.
- Fabrics can be washed gently in cool water with phosphate free detergent, no use of alkaline chemicals. Iron with press cloth and dry iron. Enjoy!
It is magic when you remove the objects and see the details! Perhaps I can find some variegated leaves for more details. Another good thing is that these objects can be used again. If you dry them they can be used over and over….
Washing the Prints:
The sun-exposed fabric now needs to be rinsed of all the chemical that did not expose. That is why you will see a yellow rinse water. Keep rinsing in the sink until only clear water comes out.
Even more details show up after you rinse out the extra chemical. Is it not amazing what the power of the sun is?!
The colour of the cyan is beautiful. In the printmaking world this method of using objects is called a photogram.
Darkening the Print;
The print will darken as it oxidizes more or you can add a capful of hydrogen [peroxide into the rinse water to expedite it. See above for colour difference.
As you know I love blue & white; shibori and also ice dyeing. This ‘ups’ my game and there’s more challenges I want to put this through. I immerse myself in all aspects when I learn something new. ‘And I love that I can use up some of those old jeans…
Caring for you Cyanotypes:
These are washable however phosphates and alkaline environments are not recommended. Most detergents are now phosphate free but testing is recommended. Washing should be done in cold water and use a pressing cloth with a dry iron if needed. Hang to dry and keep out of long exposure to direct sunlight.