A TECHNIQUE DRIVEN Blog dedicated to mastery of surface design techniques. First we dye, overdye, paint, stitch, resist, tie, fold, silk screen, stamp, thermofax, batik, bejewel, stretch, shrink, sprinkle, Smooch, fuse, slice, dice, AND then we set it on fire using a variety of heat tools.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Eco Printing Basics

Peony Leaf Hanging with Black Thread Embellishment
In the past months, I have been crazy about Eco Printing, otherwise know as "botanical contact printing." There is a lot happening in this broad and lively field of work on fabric and paper, and I have so much to learn. But it wasn't hard to figure out why it appealed to me so much.
1. I love plants! They are the primary component of this process.
2. I love experimenting! Experimentation is key to getting a handle on what works.
3. I love presents! Every time I open a newly processed packet, it feels like it's my birthday!
Fabric & plant bundles ready for processing
Fabric & plants wrapped on tin cans after processing
In general, Eco Printing is a process of laying plant material on fabric or paper ( a.k.a substrates) - frequently between 2 layers of the substrate, wrapping the materials together for maximum contact between the plants and the substrates, and then processing with heat (either with steam or by immersion), sometimes using a mordant to encourage the bonding of the plant pigments to the substrate. Loads of variety with all parts of this.
Dried oak leaves on linen, ready for wrapping
Oak leaves and linen securely wrapped with twine around a birch stick, with ferrous sulfate mordant ready to add to simmering water bath.

Bundles simmering
Saucepan containing some hot water, used to submerge the floating bundles
So, what about mordants? In my brief experience with mordants, it seems to be one of more interesting and variable of the elements in the eco printing process. My first batch of printing came out beautifully, with clear black outlines and whole leaf prints.
Oak leaf prints, embellished with gold thread
In looking back at my notes (which I try to record after every printing session), I see that I soaked the cotton and linen fabrics for this batch in a solution of 3 liters water, 1 teaspoon soda ash, and 1 teaspoon alum for about 12 hours. Then I squeezed out excess solution and soaked the fabrics in 3 liters water with 1 teaspoon ferrous sulfate for a couple of days. There were 3 mordants used here: soda ash, alum, and ferrous sulfate (the last responsible for the dark prints). Also note that I used October oak leaves that were completely dead and dry, and they gave beautiful results. I have also had good results with just alum on both fabric and paper and with seawater on a series with mangrove leaves and seaweed right off the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

About the processing with heat: I have successfully processed both fabric and paper bundles in simmering water and above it with steam, usually for 2 or 3 hours. Sometimes I break up the required time, such as when I need to run an errand and don't want to leave the stove on. The break doesn't seem to matter. I am fortunate to have a vented fan that takes the moisture out of the house. REALLY helpful! I generally leave the bundles to cool overnight or for a few hours. After unwrapping the materials, I try to avoid rinsing the fabrics for at least a few days to allow for the continued bonding of the plant pigments to the fabric.

Is heat necessary? My understanding is that printing can take place at room temperature but that it requires longer periods of time. In her bible (or book, for some) Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles, India Flint has information on cold processing. I highly recommend her book, although I wouldn't call it the best resource for rank beginners. There are loads of books, blogs, websites, and workshops. I explore endlessly! You should too.

Here is a short list of plants that have worked very well for me:
  • oaks (all species that I tried)
  • peony leaves
  • onion and shallot skins (I collect them in a plastic bag as I cook and store in the freezer)
  • eucalyptus (moderately successful - from florist shops)
  • fruit tree leaves (cherry, pear, some unknown species)
  • mangrove leaves
  • fresh seaweed (Sargassum sp.)
  • sweet gum leaves (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • sassafras leaves (Sassafras albidum)
In most cases, I have used both fresh and frozen materials with equally good results.

BOTANICAL NOTE: Don't be afraid of using Latin names! It's the most reliable way to know exactly which plant you have or want to find. Above, I used the Genus and the species names of sweet gum = Liquidambar styraciflua. When using the names, the protocol calls for either 1) italicizing both words or 2) underlining each word separately: Liquidambar styraciflua. Here's the thing: each species can have many common names but it has only ONE scientific name. The wonderful print below was made using a Florida garden plant that my friend called "Lipstick Plant" (because of the red flowers at the tips of the stems). But when I looked up the plant online, I found a completely different plant called "Lipstick Plant." Not what I was looking for!
"False" Lipstick Plant on paper

For now, here are a few images of finished works made with my fabric and paper eco prints, and I am working on more ways to use up those piles I am accumulating!
Purse made with Peony print on cotton

Cherry leaves processed between tin, in red cabbage bath

Silk scarf processed on tin can with onion skin and tropical leaves
Oak leaf table runner on linen

I expect I'll hear from many of you with more information. I'll attempt to organize any comments into a post later in the month, so send it on. Thanks!


  1. You have gotten way clearer results than I have. I generally use my rusty things soaked in vinegar and then mix the vinegar with water to process. I actully soak wooden dowels in the mixture and wrap my piece around the dowels to get a shibori type effect.

    But yours are way darker and clearer than mine. I really love what you ahve done.

    thanks for sharing

  2. It is becoming clear to me that the time spent in mordanting the fabrics and papers is very worthwhile. I have some cotton that was soaked in soyvmilk for a couple of days to try next. This is one of the mordants suggested by India Flint, and I'll share my results with you all.

  3. Soda Ash is not a mordant. It's used to prepare fabric for dyeing with MX Procion. See Paula Burch here:

  4. Thank you for a most informative post. I have some dried oak leaves on hand.


  5. I love all your comments. Mordants are a big issue in this process, yes? I have been searching for a thorough overview of the more common mordants, especially which of the "alums" are best for which plants or processes. A table, rather than a narrative would be perfect. I'm starting one myself and will add any tested results, if you want to add them. Any ideas out there?

  6. Yes, this was a great series.


Although this blog is no longer active, we will get your comments so please feel free to share them.