A Garden Printed in July

Eco dyeing and eco printing are, for me, art forms sprung from my lifelong love of plants and gardening. My earliest childhood memories, in fact, are of the textures, forms and colours of plants – bilberries, heather and fuschia growing in Orkney. Since then, I have made a garden in every place I have lived, starting small in England with seed packages of orange calendula, blue cornflowers and purple Virginian stock that my garden-loving parents gave me. In my current Ottawa garden, just two summers old, I am slowly building a collection of plants native to eastern Ontario or other parts of North America, but not so exclusive a collection as to banish well-beloved European green immigrants, sentimental favourites, that have adapted to our eco zone. I am also delving into the tradtional use of dye plants by First Nations of this area. Some of the latter plants (Sanguinaria canadensis /bloodroot, for example) had made themselves at home in my new garden years before we bought the house. Such are the plants that I want to use for eco dyes and prints – local, regional, national and a few well-travelled and well- behaved internationals. The epithet “eco” in eco dyeing can mean several things, of course, but first, I use it to refer to my use of plants that are native to my geographical area, especially those I can grow myself or forage with respect in the neighbourhood.

And now into the garden during a hot and humid month of July in Ottawa. What to find in bloom there, full of seasonal colour for printing? Below, a little bouquet of favourite flowers and leaves that work for printing: Clockwise from the left: Bee balm, Japanese maple, Coreopsis verticillata, rose leaf, blue cornflower, calendula, burgundy cornflower Anthemis tinctoria (Dyer's marguerite), Cotinus obovatus (smokebush).

Not only the oft-invoked serendipity and spontanaity but also some deliberation and discrimination went into planning this series of “July Gardenista” prints. Instead of going first for the “dark and stormy” eco print that is the result of putting iron and tannin- rich plants together in the bundle, my goal with this little collection was to pair complementary colours and to promote a range of analagous colours by a careful choice of pigment-bearing plants. I wanted clear, bright summer's day colours , a “painter's palette” .

And after first showing you the “painter's palette” prints I obtained on paper, I have included some of my “dark-and-stormies” : the iron-tannin-indigo prints that develop fast outside on the stones in the heat of a 35 C day!

Here are the ” painter's palette” results.

The plants below were printed on (thrifted) handmade paper, highly textured, most likely some kind of mulberry (kozo).

The cornflowers, calendulas and coreopsis above are still attached to the paper

Orange calendula print and bloom, above.

Blue cornflower print ( Renaissance artists considered this blue to be inferior – or so say some of the art historians like Daniel Thompson) I love that blue-orange opposition!


Cotinus in July – a new colour each month from this plant! Blue with green from cotinus

The pink-purple is Monarda didyma ” Cambridge Scarlet”/ bee balm

Coreopsis verticillata red with marigold yellow

A few pages together. The red stems of the coreopsis bring essential structure to the design on tne surface so covered with abstract smudges of colour

Blue pansy, fresh, prints teal-green: a strong shape in a strong colour. Then we have the yellow- purple complements via Anthemis tinctoria and Monarda didyma, amorphous stains

More red- green complements, with interesting strong red lines and loose smudges in contrast. Plus a bit of blue in there. Where did that come from?


A rose leaf (below) offers a soft yellow to complement the also-soft pink-purple of the bee balm. Strident deep orange-reds sing loud with a powerful dark teal green print from a blue pansy, And an emerald cotinus leaf.

The many contrasts of colour, form and value in these prints keep them from being insipid, don't you think?

And now to the “dark-and-stormies” .

To get really dark prints (black, charcoal, blue-black) from leaves, we need to choose tannin-rich leaves like sumac, oak, walnut, geranium and others and process them with iron bits.I do my D and S's in three stages – three, if I dip the thing in indigo for the last stage.

First stage: Bundle the paper and textile/layer with iron and vinegar to get a good iron print; bundle up the iron chunks and slosh on the white vinegar, 5% acetic acid, no exact proportions. Wrapping the iron or layering it flat works well. No need to alum-mordant; but if you do, no matter. Put the textile or paper with iron between heavy black plastic garbage bags, weighted down, and leave in the sun for a day (or even less if it is very hot outside, say over 30 C. Keep checking…) Leave it to print until you are happy with the result, then unwrap and evaluate. You can add more iron, vinegar, tea leaves and leave it for a while longer if you like.

Second stage: For this stage, I layer on leaves, then I steam the bundle to print the leaves. I layer tannin-rich leaves onto the textile or paper, put the iron bits back in, bundle or stack the package in the dye pot, slosh again with vinegar and process (covered) over high steam heat over water for about an hour. The leaves print blue-black if they are tannin-rich. You may get smidges of yellow or green colouration also. Very nice. I suggest using leaves of contrasting size and shape, like the longer pinnate sumac with the smaller palmate geranium. This kind of attention to shape and size of print elements makes for a more interesting surface design. After all, sooner or later, an artist might like to feel they have some control over the essentially- spontaneous exo print process. Serendipity and considered choices make good partners in design.

Third stage for indigo: Either dribble on a diluted indigo solution from pre- reduced crystals and let dry; or skip this stage and dribble the indigo onto the substrate at Stage Two before steaming.

For good info on using pre-reduced indigo, check out Catherine Ellis' fine PDF via Earth Guild.

NB The indigo I am using at the moment is not the “granola” indigo, i.e., the “haute eco” indigo used by “eco-printerati” which comes from real leaves. MIne Is the synthetic variety, alas, the pre-reduced crystals. But rest assured, Dear Reader, for when my potted Indigo indigofera plant grows big enough, I, too, shall aspire to membership in the aforementioned elite company. And you shall be the first to know. ( And I do have my Japanese indigo in the works, too. )

And now some the pics of the the iron/rust, tannin and indigo prints.

Shlomo cut and welded these iron bits:

The bundle was dribbled and blobbed here and there with indigo: iron bits with tannin from tea leaves.

Other iron bits for the bundles/layers/stacks:

Leaves layered on the textile after the first printing with iron and tea leaves only:

Ready for steam processing: Indigo dribble, tannin marks from some ? leaves in the bundle that printed in the heat of the sun: lots of great rust marks.

Papers and iron stashed under plastic in the hot sun:,

Rust prints on paper with indigo and tannin-rich tea leaves, dry.


Part of a rust printed textile:

Sumac prints blue-black with iron bits:

Indigo and rust with tannins and leaf prints:


And one last print: Japanese maple and geranium without iron but with indigo. Just the usual eco print process to print the maple and geranium on rice (mulberry) paper, then pre-reduced indigo dribbled on with a bulb baster. The maples printed different colours on rice paper than on linen where ir gave purple and green, And here, different colours from the upper and under side of the leaf.

And that is it for ” July Gardenista” prints, Dear Reader.

We are off to Brooklyn this week for a week to babysit our newest grandbaby! And to give the poor parents a break – little Zev is no sleeper! We may have time for some arty things – the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is nearby…we will not be able to resist a nice walk in the gardens with our little grandson.

Leaving you with one of my faves:

Until August, then.





Forest Floor

A forest floor is a place of new beginnings, nurturing life from the detritus of the old, first drawing down the eye of the body and the eye of the mind so as to enable them together to look up and beyond.

Here are the first images of pieces for my upcoming show “Forest Floor”, July 2012 at the Shenkman Arts Centre, Ottawa. The work featured is contact printed with plants and rust on silks, linens, cotton and papers and stitched at various stages of the process.

“Eyes of the Forest” (22″ x 96″)

Silk habotai, contact printed with plants and rusted iron; hand stitched. Mounted for hanging on a plexi bar.

1. Section of the work, hanging.


2. Another section:


Third section:


Detail 1

Detail 2

Detail 3

Detail 4

Detail 5

Detail 6


Plants used for contact printing: red cabbage, safflower petals, Osage Orange (dye powder) rooibos tea, black tea.


Eco Printing more “Silk Roads”

January 12, 2012

Outside the snow is falling and the dye garden is asleep:

Inside, the studio consoles. I have a shipment from Maiwa, Vancouver (via Couleurs de Plantes, France):  a collection of powdered natural dye extracts, mostly colours I cannot obtain  from my Zone 4 garden,  like some reds and purples. For my “Silk Roads” collection, I would like  to extend the lavenders and sky blues I obtain regularly from Red Cabbage.

I tried the dye extract Madder Rich (red) and Logwood (purple)  in a non-traditional way: instead of dissolving the dye powders in water for an immersion dye bath, I sprinkled  the powder onto dampened silk fragments , pushing the powders around with a small paint brush, then bundling the silk over a copper pipe and steaming as usual.

“Madder Rich” dye extract on silk habotai 8 mm

Wow! That red will rack the eco-bundle colours up a notch. As it happens, today I received a late, long-anticipated Christmas gift in the mail: India Flint’s new book,  “Second Skin”. In Chapter 10, India describes her use of a dye-sprinkle technique to obtain madder reds in her eco bundles. That gives me confidence to try the technique further. One stands on others’ shoulders to see far…My aim with the madder experiment was to see if the elevated water temperature (above 200 in a steam bath) would bring out the browns in the madder, as it is reported to do in a boiling water immersion bath. As far as I can tell with this one small test, the madder reds will stay fixed.

Logwood dye extract on silk habotai, 8mm.

Exotic serpent? I folded the silk lengthwise in half and rolled that around a copper pipe before steaming. After these little tests, I feel ready to try some dye extract powders in my “Silk Roads” collection.  One thing worth noting:  no excess dye washed out in the rinse water. 

Now three more panels from the current “Silk Roads” collection:

Silk Roads 5.

No rusted iron, rooibos tea or vinegar in this  ecoprint, just Red Cabbage, safflower and black tea leaves. The results are a range of strong ambers complemented by lavender-purple (not blue) from Red Cabbage, but no blacks or very dark browns and greys.  Where the purples and the ambers mix, lightish greens appear:  


Silk Roads 6


Rusted iron from a reliably rusty corn stick muffin pan and a vintage flat iron (oval rust prints);  Red Cabbage, safflower petals, black tea, rooibos tea. Soaked briefly (20 mins?) in 5% vinegar after bundling, steamed for 2 hours. Greens – chartreusey ones- appear where the safflower and red cabbage meet.  A detail:

I think of Turner ‘s cosmic, abstract, oilpainted sky-scapes when I see how these colours work together to create wonderfully expressive markings.  The iron shifts the colours and especially the values, typically darkening the marks and enriching the range of lights and darks.

Silk Roads 7

The corn-cob shapes appear as bright orangey-rust prints. A fresher Red Cabbage might have given deeper colours of blue and purple but the lighter sky blue still charms gently. The cabbage that  printed the previous three panels was at least a month old.  Two more details:

Silk Roads 7 (detail 2)

Note where black tea, normally a dark brown, prints nearly black in the presence of iron. Safflower and Red Cabbage together make more greens. In “Silk Roads 5”, the same black tea prints deep amber brown in the absence of iron. Rooibos tea holds its own as a rusty red-brown here. I use whole dried tea leaves for the black tea eco print, not the ground leaves we might find in tea bags, e.g. for the rooibos.  One last detail:

Silk Roads 7 (detail 2)

These dye sources in combination give a full range of colour values, dark, medium and light, with some “betweens”. The darker values are coaxed out by the iron in combo with tannins in the black tea. “Silk Roads 5”, without strong value contrasts (lower contrast is not always a colour sin),  communicates subtlety. It allows a third colour, green, to emerge brightly from the mix of Red Cabbage and Black Tea. 

Always delightful surprises. Which is why eco printing is a fascinating field.

Next posts

Eco printing with dye extracts plus direct printing with plants .

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