May Eco Colours in Layers

Blooms and green leaves aplenty in the May garden! How rich might they be in pigments, though, so early in the season? Especially if printed on linen, a cellulose fibre- which can be challenging to print if new. I was thinking that some of the colours would be weaker this season.

To get the best colours, I like to refer to the dye books for advice. The trad dye lit recommends a three-step mordanting process for cellulose fibres: alum, tannin, then alum again. I used alum acetate as the linen mordant – it needs no heat, only a soak overnight. The tannin came from fresh young sumac leaves in my garden.

I cooked a pot full of leaves with water to cover along with a length of white linen at 180 F and obtained a yellow liquor (a dye as well as a tannin mordant). I skipped the usual first alum soak and put the tannin-mordanted linen straight into the alum bucket (having used one tablespoon of alum to each half pound of dry-weight fabric in water to cover) Within half an hour, the linen had become bright yellow-green! Hmm. Had not predicted quite such a vibrant yellow!

The sumac tannin bath: yellow for sure!

The off-white linen dyed yellow-green, post-alum soak:

Layered with a selection of May blooms and leaves:

Dandelions and spent tulips :

…Canada Violets:



Flowering Crabapple (Malus “Royalty”) – red leaves, deep pink blooms.

Purple Sandcherry (Prunus cistena):

Bundled into the steamer for an hour or so:

After the bundling: Diffuse marks.

Lots of blue-green teals with deep yellows on this layer; pinks and purples from the tulips; dark, dark blues from the tulip anthers; deep blue-green from the crabapple red-purple leaves; ditto, the sandcherry. The bright yellow is from the pink crabapple blossom: the dotty blues from the lilacs and teal blue from the violets. Way more blue than I predicted. Looking now for some shapes and forms to complement the range of colours obtained, I laid out more plants.

The linen was layered again with the same selection of plants plus some rose leaves:


This time, the fabric was torn into smaller pieces and layered flat in the steamer, in the same way that I eco print papers.

With this result:

..and with a stalk of Coreopsis verticillata (Threadleaf Coreopsis) – that is the bright red on the right over the sumac leaf that prints golden.

And now yet another layer, this time with more Coreopsis Verticillata to give precise form and brightly contrasting colour- the Orange-Blue opposition is one of my favourites. But first, just look at the red in the jR on the left here! Within half an hour, the coreopsis stalks in the jar had given up this much dye in a jar of warm water with half a teaspoon of alum acetate. On the right, the jar contains fresh stalks in plain water. The incredible red colour is from the leaves and the roots: later, when the blooms arrive, they too will print bright red.

Sumac and coreopsis for the third layer, to give colour contrasts and precise botanical forms:

With these results:

The first four samples were modified with iron before the final layering: that had interesting effects all over the piece. Note how the sumac print yellow-greens have become blue.



The sumac imposed its yellow over the base and made bright yellow patches when it came in contact with the lilac:

Primary colouration…

Compare the green sumac print (below) with the blue sumac print, iron-dipped, above. The next few samples were not treated with an iron dip.

Next post: Some of these same prints modified with iron and over-printed with sumac and coreopsis. Plus some embroideries, as promised last time, and lots of eco prints on paper using the same range of plants.




23 thoughts on “May Eco Colours in Layers

    1. Hi Pia,

      This spring, I used the coreopsis verticillata stalks without flowers only on a “What If” inspiration- I knew they gave colour because I had used them with their blooms late last summer and the summet before. This spring I was “pushing the envelope” extra hard because I was away from my garden for part of April and most of May 2012 (my daughters’s wedding, etc)

      will try other memebers of the coreopsis family, too

      Thanks for your comments, Pia.Great to share our gardens around the world!


  1. Wow and wow! I too love the red from the coreopsis stalks ..but really I adore this whole post. As I am still rather new at this most addictive process and as I love many colors, experimentation and layering your work and many photos here teaches me and inspires.

    1. Hi Ginny,
      Yes, the stalks are “colouricious” too. My paper prints of 2012 had several good results with the stalks but I had used them late in the season along with the blooms. That they gave red early in the season, without blooms, was a surprise to me. Coreopsis verticillata, a common garden plant in Ontario, is a hybrid form of the wild Tickseed that grows abundantly in fields, especially in the Prairies. So the family seems worth scrutiny by the eco printer
      Thanks for your comments, Ginny!


    1. Thanks, Phoebe Willow
      Maybe you have other kinds of coreopsis to try – they seem so willing to share their colours!
      The same orangey red of eucalyptus


  2. Amazing colours and I love the individual prints, what an interesting post. I am hoping to get back to some more experimenting with plants soon, this post was the inspiration I needed.

  3. What a beautiful range of colours, and depth being developed during the process. And – I am “envious” of how many plants are flowering in your garden allready. My garden is trying to recover after a burning and cold winter, The plants that are really strong are the Meconopsis. I am glad I have my greenhouse where I have grown a lot of new perennials, to replace those who did not make it.
    Cannot wait to see the next post!!!

    1. Thanks, Ms. Elly Propelly.
      We have had a very long cold spring, too, just as occurred in the UK. Maybe a lot of. Europe, too. We were cheered in Ottawa by a week of unseasonably warm weather in the first week of May after a totally frigid April – that brought out all the blooms, then we went back to the cold…which has preserved the blooms longer! Thus I have been able to work longer with the tulpis…So one step back, one step forward in the dance of the seasons


  4. Wonderful – thank you for documenting your whole process!! It is all so inspiring. The Threadleaf Coreopsis is really interesting, I can only compare the effect to eucalyptus (colourwise/effect). Have to see if I can find some seeds!

    1. Hope you can try it, too. Mona. The variety “Moonbeam” (coreopsis verticillata) is a paler yellow than the one I used. I am curious about its dye potential. It is a favourite in gardens when bright yellow seems rather ordinary to some eyes (not mine)


    1. Blogging late at night, Darcy…when bed is calling…shortened words, crappy sentence structure ensue…

      “traditional dye literature”

      Check my resources pages for refs to good dye info from the long time natural dye experts like Karen Leigh Casselman and Jenny Dean, plus Kimberly Baxter Packwood of course; and the queen of dye chemists, Dominique Cardon. The rest of us are dabblers by comparison.

      Thanks for asking



    1. Hi Terrie!
      Try this in the kiln – it works, I understand. Trace Willans of Australia has printed plant colours on clay and so has a UK artist, Kerry Von Zschock. Thanks for your comments



    1. Yes, that depth of colour is really worth working for. I find it is a great psrt of the challenge of this kind of dyeing- keeps me coming back to bundling for the dye pot!


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