August prints from native plants: Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Eco dyeing and printing are seasonal activities for me, closely tied to my garden's rhythms. Late summer and early fall in AgCan/USDA zones 4/5 is a period rich in accumulated plant pigments. Even though eco printing as a technique relies on the knowledge of tradional dyeing, it does not always turn up the same pigments in the dye pot as do the traditional “whole cloth, dye bath” techniques for dyeing fibres.

Furthermore, due to the nature of the eco print processes ( bundling, stacking, steaming, composting, tying, solarizing, etc.) , more than one colour may show up from one plant on a dye printed surface. This happens when the eco print processes force pigments in the plants to separate out into constituent colours on the surface of the substrate. These colour differences can often lost be when the plants are processed to extract colours by first heating them in water in a pot to make a dye bath, then processing the fibres in the dye bath to take up the colour.

I like to approach my print surfaces as if they were abstract compostions; thus, I am concerned with the interplay among colours, forms and field. The second image (rather far below) shows silk crepe de chine eco printed with a selection of native plants from my garden last week: a background lightly coloured pale- ish yellow by just a tad of goldenrod ( a few sprigs removed from the tops), a lot of coreopsis verticillata (the whole plant in bits) to give small, varied and strong red-orange marks, the blue-black berries of Aronia melanocarpa ( black chokeberry) smooshed on to contribute blue, purple and lavender areas to the field (plus the darks and lights of analagous colours, as does the coreopsis), purple sandcherry leaves for deep teal greens (not shown), and on the right, a Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quiquefolia) leaflet in its red fall colours – but scarcely any eco print from it.

This image right below shows coreopsis (red and oranges) and red cabbage (blues) on silk. The colours and distribution of forms across the field of the textile reminded me of flower paintings by Seurat and Odilon Redon- along with the orange-blue Impressionist fave colour combos. Playing with the dye outcomes is for me the most fascinating part of contact printing with plants

Back to the Virginia creeper (VC)

VC, a native vine, is not much used in the traditional dye pot, as far as I can tell. It seems to be a kind of Bait and Switch plant, flaunting spectacular red and purple fall foliage, adorned with rich bunches of black berries that birds devour; but it appears to be a Tame, Timid and Stripeless Tiger in the trad dye pot. Adrosko, Cannon, Casselman and Dean (to mention some Big Trad Dye Names, see my References page) make no mention of VC as a dye plant. Other sources do mention it but without enthusiasm: Richards and Tyrl in their book on on North American dye plants have it classified in their chapter about plants that give little or no colour, noting only a pale yellow-cream. ( I guess that is the chapter every poor dye plant dreads to be consigned to… But take heart, Virginia creepers. Eco printing is your friend.)

Daniel Moerman (in “Native American Ethnobotany” ) writes with erudition that the Kiowa Indian tribe (in Canadian usage: “First Nations” or Kiowa native peoples) obtained pink dyes from VC berries to colour feathers used in war dances.

The notion of long-term “fastness” is not generallly addressed, other than to recommend the use of the Usual Suspects as mordants. I suspect tannins and iron might help VC colour up in an eco print process more than in the trad dye pot.

The only really hopeful discussion about potential eco print colour from the VC appears in a 1986 publication entitled “Dye Plants of Ontario” from the Burr House Spinners and Weavers Guild ( see Reference page). The guild tested the vine for dye potential, using the whole plant, having gathered it in November and noting: “This vine is not known as a dye plant.”

With alum as mordant , a 6:1 plant-to-water ratio and 45 minutes in a simmering dye bath, the colour given is “butterscotch”. Other mordants were as follows: with copper, a rich tan; with iron, a golden tan. As a modifier post-dye bath, iron gave deep bronze; ammonia, a bright golden tan. Summer foliage gave ivory with an ammonia rinse, and olive greens with a vinegar rinse. No longer recommended as mordants are tin and chrome though the Burr House dyers did report their experiments with these.

Thus, with this info In mind, I plan to experiment further with the Virginia creeper as it matures in my garden and in the environs.

And after all that “learned” text above, I expect, Dear Reader, that you will be wondering when your author will finally put up the Eye Candy.

Here it is:


The red leaf on the right is one leaflet of the five leaflets ( the “quinque” in quinquefolia) of the Virginia creeper. But hardly any eco print at all. The reds and purples came from coreopsis and aronia berries, though of course, one could be forgiven for hoping the VC had printed thus. But we know that what we see in a leaf is not what we necessarily get on an eco printed substrate. (And I think snails ate the holes in the VC leaflet – the vine was covered in snails. )

Next, I will mess around with tannins and iron to see if an eco print can be coaxed out of the Virginia creeper. There were no iron bits, bark or tannin rich plants in the bundle shown here. Of course, I am just guessing that we could get a print from the VC in the environment of these mordants/dye assistants. TBD.

Inspiration for this post

Thanks to the edltor of the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers who asked me about fastness of dye in the Virginia creeper. That question became my research topic for today, and led me down this most interesting rabbit hole. I have been planting lots of the native Virginia creeper this summer to attract birds, to give fall colour, to cover the tattier parts of our fence and to give privacy. Perhaps VC leaves can make an interesting eco print, or perhaps the VC berries can dye some war dance feathers pink (gonna try for those pink feathers for sure but maybe will weave them into the garden loom instead of my hair. Turn swords to ploughshares, kind of.)

Meanwhile, here is a taste of some more Eye Candy in relation to future posts about dyeing with native plants. The next post will be about eco prints on silk with other native plants from my garden. See if you can guess the plants printed here:







Hints: Walnut, coreopsis, sumac, aronia berries, rose, cotinus, goldenrod, purple sandcherry.


Until next time





Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) in the garden and the dye pot


This month, I made my first indigo vat, guided by an excellent article by Isabella Whitworth and Christina Chisholm, published in the winter 2011 issue of the U.K. Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. The article is available online as a free download from the journal:

In a recent blog post, Isabella (dye expert, textile artist, teacher, independent scholar and dye editor for the above journal) adds some very useful notes to the dye experiences reported in her 2011 article. Check these out on her blog at; see also some other suggestions for dye authors on my reference page here. The link to Isabella's article is also in her most recent post about Japanese indigo

All the instructions needed for your Japanese indigo vat are there. Please disregard the journal links I sent in the original version of this post (if you saved it) and see my “Stern Footnote To Self” at the end of this post.

Japanese indigo is not a native of North America or Europe and has a bit of a rep for being frost-tender. Despite my limited experience of it, I have found it a plant with a violent will to live and leave a legacy. It sets seed abundantly, though seed viability is limited, maybe not more than two years from harvest.

In the photo below, you see that at every node, the plant grows long roots. These two-and-a-half-foot-long stalks of indigo were in a bucket of water for three days after I had cut the plants for the dye pot, and then got too busy to make the dye. The indigo rooted overnight at each node under water and bloomed after a day.


I obtained the seeds some two years ago from another textile artist and dyer in Ottawa, Debra Percival; Debra is also an accomplished printmaker and devotee of non-toxic printmaking. Debra starts her seeds indoors, then pots the young plants up in planters on her small patio. She notes that after composting unused plants that have set seed by the fall, she often finds plantlets growing in the compost in late spring from overwintering seeds. Find Debra at

I planted my first batch of seed in a pot outside in May two years ago…and forgot all about it that year. We had begun the process of selling our former house and indigo vats were struck off the agenda….Come October, I found the pot, plants still cheerful, and brought it inside to more neglect on a cold floor near a window. Though the plants looked scraggy and tatty, some pink flowers boldly showed up and set seed by Christmas…and by late February, seedlings appeared, became plants and yet again went to seed in the pot – only to suffer neglect for another year! It was the seeds from this second batch that provided the plants for the vat of 2014. Here they are, blooming and setting seed even in a pot of water:


Most dye authors (but not all) that I consulted ( see my Reference page) advised cutting the stalks before the plants bloomed, since dye could not reliably be extracted if the plants were in flower. The time to harvest leaves for the vat? Just before the bloom time! But I saved a few long stalks from the scissors to keep for seeds next year. Perhaps unnecessarily: the plants I cut at two nodes above the soil are now over twelve, lush, leafy inches high and it is barely three weeks since I collected the first harvest. Mind you, the fish fertiliser we use helps plants produce more leaves…


But after cutting down all the plants quickly before they could bloom, I found myself with too much indigo to deal with in one session. All the leaves from one planter full of plants were therefore dried and stored for “later”, while the harvest from the second planter went into the pot. And Lord knows what amount will yet arrive from the the plants that are now regrowing…I think I may get two more harvests.

Here is the first batch of dried Japanese indigo stalks and leaves; not sure if the stalks give colour, though…

Leaves stripped from the stalks and laid out, fresh and green:


After a day drying in the hot sun, the blue pigment begins to appear. I stored the dried leaves in a tin.


The dried stalks become bundles of warp on the garden loom:

And now the vat.

For my first indigo dye experiment, I used a (well-scoured) yard or so of silk velvet that had been an eco print flop last year.

I used a thrift shop electric turkey roaster with a thermometer gauge that allowed me to set and hold the temperature of the water in the pot to well below a simmer. I filled the pot with leaves, covered them with ice cold water and left them to warm for several hours, until the temperature reached 160F/60C. ( Slow warming ensures that the blue pigment is not destroyed.) The pot of leaves by then had changed colour to look like sherry:


After straining out the leaves, I added washing soda (sodium carbonate/soda ash) to the liquid, one tablespoon (15ml) at a time, until the liquid turned a kind of slimey green. Then I beat the water like mad with a whisk until It got frothy:


When I had plenty of froth (more than in the pic above), I heated the liquid in the vat back up to 160 C, then dissolved a tablesoon (15 ml) of thiourea dioxide in the liquid in order to remove the oxygen from the vat. I think I added a bit more than that, for good measure. This turned the liquid greeny-yellow. After a few minutes, I entered some silk velvet into the pot and left it submerged for about three minutes.

In the picture, you can see the silk beginning to turn aqua blue as areas of the fibre become exposed to the oxygen in the air.


Exposed to the air, the yellow turned aqua-green-blue.

Voila! I obtained this shade of green-blue by dipping the silk textile three times in the vat, each time for about three minutes, and hanging it for about five minutes each time. The textile had been eco printed once before but not very successfully, hence the yellowy-brown blotches on the surface.


The next step was to see if the indigo textile would accept fresh eco prints from plants with the pigment concentration that is available at this stage in the season. I layered the silk with aronia berries, Japanese maple, Cotinus obovatus and a few tansy buttons:


And finally, a Stern Foot(In Mouth)note to Self:

The only things in life that one can say one truly owns are one's mistakes.

Dear readers, please note the mea culpa: This blog post is an update of the one from the early hours of Labour Day in Canada in which I made three bad editing blunders with reference to the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

I offer my apologies to Isabella and the Journal. Please destroy my most recent post about indigo if you saved it and note the following:

1. I gave the link to Isabella's article about dyeing with indigo (see first para, above) without checking that the site listing “free” pdf's had, in fact, received permission to reprint the article from the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. I did not check (ouch) to see whether this site had permission to offer the JWSD article for download. I will not give the name of the site because they do not deserve any more publicity. I am truly repentant for my carelessness here.

2. Isabella's link is as follows:

3. Isabella is still the dye editor of the journal, not recently retired, as I, in my fog of indiscreet errors, stated.

And as one last note: I had also linked Isabella's name to the Midsomer Murders series…thank God it is no longer midsummer….