Tutorial 3 ECO PRINTING BASICS
Note that these are my current practices. In your own research and experiments, you may well discover other processes that work well for you. Take what you can responsibly use and leave the rest.
Eco printing or eco dyeing is a contemporary application of the traditions of natural dyeing. In eco printing or dyeing, plants are enclosed in textiles or paper, bundled by winding over rods or stacked in layers and then steamed or immersed in hot water to extract the pigments and produce a print made with plant dyes. Direct and close contact between the plant and the substrate is essential. Leaves, stems, flowers, buds, seeds and roots may be used; also bark and wood. At different seasons of the year, different pigments may concentrate in various plant parts so great colour variability is possible – and desirable! Eco dyeing and printing does not focus on strict replication of results. Many plants that are not considered traditional dye plants will yield colourful prints, and sometimes, traditional dye plants produce different colours when processed as eco prints. Garden plants, kitchen plants and, where allowed, locally foraged plants may be used, fresh and/or dried. Prints with colours and forms both clearly defined and attractively diffused are produced by this process.
Health and Safety First
The “natural” in natural dyeing does NOT automatically mean “safe” or even legal. Many people are sensitive or allergic in various degrees to different plants; and some plants are dangerous for everyone. You are advised to research plants that may cause you adverse reactions either by touch or smell and to avoid contact with them. I , for example, never use the lovely but poisonous lily of the valley for eco dyeing, even though it is well known among traditional natural dyers as a source of green dye. Many plants contain poisonous substances in lesser amounts that may possibly be flushed away by the dye processes – apple seeds and the pits of the prunus spp. are examples. So I try to increase my knowledge but to avoid potential sources of trouble.
I wear gloves and a mask when handling powders, use dedicated equipment for dyeing (never using them for any other purpose, e.g. for food preparation), avoid the use of the toxic chemicals formerly much used in natural dyeing (eg chrome and tin) and try to inform myself about the poisonous plants in my area. Dye chemicals alum and iron can be safely used if precautions are taken in preparation and handling (e.g. wear a mask). Copper as a mordant or colour changer is a bit more iffy according to some but not all natural dye sources; I am comfortable using it as a colour changer to intensify greens. (Soak copper pipe bits in vinegar to make copper sulphate/copper acetate)
How to eco print (contact print with plants) on textiles or paper
Instructions are for steaming or immersing plants with textiles to obtain an eco print using kitchen equipment solely dedicated to dyeing. They work for wool pre-mordanted in alum, for cellulose fibres pre-mordanted with alum and for paper (cotton rag or plant fibres) pre-mordanted with alum. Microwaving mordanted textiles and papers also yields interesting results, while slower steeping processes (over days or even weeks) such as solar dyeing, composting and rusting work well for contact printing.
I will cover only the basics of steaming and immersing in this tutorial. Solar dyeing and rusting will be the subjects of other tutorials
1. Preparing to print:
For steaming: Aluminum, stainless steel lidded steaming vessel with a rack. OR a bamboo steamer over a pot. I like this one for steaming:
For an immersion dye bath: A lidded aluminum or stainless steel vessel; or a copper or iron pot-as-mordant. (An aluminum, iron or copper pot can affect the dye colour) Here is a selection:
For bundling: Branches with or without bark (for tannin marks); plastic pipe; copper pipe (as mordant); steel rebar, tin cans/ lids, iron/metal bits (for rust prints or as mordant); wooden dowels; cotton string; rocks or bricks as weights. Wooden rods below, copper and bark-covered rods in the image above:
Other equipment: Heat source (e.g.. portable electric hotplate) ; tongs; gloves; facemask; thermometer; vinegar for rusting; iron or rustable metal bits (nails, tin can pieces, etc) kitchen scales; notebook and pen.
2. Preparation of textiles and paper
WOF means Weight of Fibre.
1.Scour textiles in water, hand-hot or boiling as appropriate with Orvus Paste (sodium lauryl sulfate AKA sheep shampoo), Synthrapol or a pH neutral soap such as blue Dawn (‘bird rescue’ shampoo).
2.Use hand-hot water to scour wool.
3. If the cellulose fibre (cotton, linen, bamboo or hemp) is new, boil the fabric for one hour with a squirt of recommended soap to release all the additives, then rinse.
3. Recycled cellulose textiles should also be scoured by boiling to remove all the old laundry products.
4. NO need to scour paper.
Weigh the textiles and paper DRY. (I admit that I sometimes make a guesstimate with the papers…)
1. Pre mordant textiles or paper by soaking in water with alum acetate at 5% -10% WOF or potassium aluminum sulfate at 15% -25% WOF. (Note: For eco printing cellulose fibres, I do not use a traditional dyers’ tannin-alum-tannin mordanting process; I reserve this process for traditional natural dyeing. I find the simple alum soak is sufficient to allow plant dyes to attach to the textile or paper in eco printing. You may have other preferences)
2. Soak at least overnight. No need to rinse.
Here is an image of some of the mordants: alum acetate and potassium aluminum sulphate; and colour-changers , e.g. iron oxides (ferrous acetate liquor, ferrous sulphate powder; iron bits) tannins ) and tannin powders; plus some pH papers for measuring water and dyes that change colours based on shifting pH. (I made ferrous acetate with rusty nails or rustable metals soaked in vinegar – in the jar pictured)
4. Arranging and eco printing the plant-textile-paper bundles or stacks
Textile and paper bundles may be STEAMED or IMMERSED in water or dye to obtain a print. COVER the pot!
1. Lay out the wet cloth or paper on a flat surface. Below is a wool panel with native plants laid out; the panel will be folded and rolled. Papers are simply layered one on top of the other, maybe six layers deep.
NOTE: The iron oxide reacts with tannins in the plants and gives deep charcoal colours; or if no tannins are present, the iron tends to fix the dye colours or darken them or give the forms greater definition. Ferrous sulphate powder at 2% WOF as a mordanting pre-soak will do similar.
3. For an immersion dye bath, roll the cloth or paper over copper pipe, tree branch, wood dowel, plastic pipe, etc., folding as needed. In the process pictured below, paper is bundled over copper pipes and immersed directly in the water with dye plants such as sumac berries or walnuts. Textiles can also be processed this way. The outside of the paper or textile will take on the colours of the dye bath; the interior will be printed with the plants that are enclosed.
7. Steam the bundles to extract the dye. Tie the paper or textile stack closed ( as seen below) OR, for a resist print, enclose the textile or paper stack/bundle between can lids, plastic pieces or wooden boards; clamp the bundle closed with binder clips. (Image not shown for this resist process)
Place the paper or textile (OR paper PLUS textile!) stacks on the steaming rack and weight them down:
For steaming larger, thick textile bundles, wrap the plant material tightly in the fabric, tie up the bundle by wrapping the string around and around, then place on the steaming rack and cover the pot. The string gives interesting marks.
- Fill the steamer with water to just below the rack. (Put little glass jelly jars under the rack to hold and raise it)
- Place the bundle or stack on the rack.
- Raise the heat and steam the bundle at a simmer (maximum 180° F / 80° C) for an hour or until colour shows through distinctly, usually about two hours.
- Turn the bundle every 30 minutes using tongs.
- Turn off the heat and let rest overnight or longer. (Or not. Open the bundle if you are desperate to look. )
- Unwrap and evaluate.
- If desired, print again one or more times to develop the design and colour associations or to rescue a weak print.
- Sometimes the dye is so strong it prints on the rocks I use to weigh down the stack! Here is Prunus cistena:
6. Processing the bundles or stacks: Immersing
- Fill vessel with water or dye to cover. NO rack needed for the immersion bath.
- Enter the rolled bundles into a cold water or dye bath. If stacking cloth, weigh the stack down with a brick or similar.
- Gradually raise the heat to a maximum of 185°F / 85°C degrees.
- Simmer the bundle or stack for an hour to two hours, turning every 30 minutes and checking for colour. Very thick handwovens might need an hour or even two longer.
- Turn off the heat and let all rest overnight or longer.
- Unwrap and evaluate. Print again as noted.
- If steeping or solar dyeing, simply leave the bundled plants in a glass vessel in the sun for a week or so
7. Developing colours pre- and post-printing
After evaluating, you may want to add other forms or colours to printed areas that seem less interesting. Try some of these and print the bundle or stack again, as before:
Soya milk as mordant: Instead of alum, soak the textile in soya milk or paint soya onto areas, pre-printing, to render fibres more receptive to dyes, especially for dried plants.
Copper sulfate (copper bits in vinegar), ammonia and vinegar can be used as modifiers to shift colours (often towards greens) either by dipping or by painting onto areas.
Iron liquor (AKA ferrous acetate: nails in vinegar) or ferrous sulfate powder can be used pre-printing at 2% WOF as a mordant and post-printing as a dye assistant. Iron bits, when bundled with the plants, can act as a co-mordant with alum and to shift colours in areas of contact to darker values. As a post-print dye assistant, iron can reveal hidden layers or promote overlapping ones: a wimpy print will often “pop” after an iron dip. The iron acts by greying or greening or deeply-darkening the print.
Tannins occurring naturally in tree bark and in certain leaves (e.g. Rhus typhina/sumac) contribute both fastness and deeper colouration to neighbouring prints. Tannin-rich seedpods like catalpa, green fruits from black walnut and twig barks from prunus species or sumac make strong direct contact prints and help fix nearby colours. Prunus cistena even prints on rock! When bundled into textiles with iron bits or dipped in iron liquor post-printing, tannin-rich leaves or barks from maple or sumac produce dramatic black, deeply greyed or even blue-greyed prints.
You can paint on dye powders that have been dissolved in water or sprinkle them on (see below)
Immerse the eco printed bundle in a dye bath in a colour of your choice and process (see above). Use plants or dye powders to obtain your colour. For instructions for dyeing with dye powders, see the Maiwa site (see References below). For dye plants: be adventurous!
8. Other dye extracting processes:
Solar dyeing is really fun. Add a teaspoon of alum to a jar of water, fill it with plant materials bundled in cloth or paper and leave in the sun. Below are red cabbage (amended with ammonia and vinegar to shift colours) and coreopsis (orange-reds) dyes. In our local water, acids (e.g. vinegar) shift the pH to reds and magentas; alkalis (e.g. ammonia) shifts the basic blue dye in red cabbage to greens and teals
9. Using Dye Powders
I buy dye powders of plants that are not native to my area and that I can use to create special effects on textile or paper. Usually, I sprinkle the dye powders on; I can also paint them after dissolving them in liquid. Pre-reduced indigo as powder gives nice effects this way.
Dry the printed cloth and cure at least a few days before final rinsing.
No need to rinse papers.
Rinse cloth in plain water without soap. Some colour will normally wash out.
Dry, press and store or display out of direct light
Light and wash fastness
The standard practices for naturally dyed handwovens apply to rendering eco prints wash- and lightfast.
Faded prints can be eco printed again!
The standard practice for establishing dye light fastness is to expose the dyed materials to strong sunlight for about a month. Attach cardboard to cover all but an inch of the dyed material; each week thereafter, move the card an inch or so to reveal a new portion of the dyed fabric or paper. Mark the dates on each exposed section. Eco dyeing and printing are still experimental processes so lightfastness information has not yet reached canonical status!
Record dates, textile type, mordants, plants used, extraction method, results obtained, etc. (I like to make Artist’s Books with my printed textiles and papers for keeping dye records).
12. Environmental Law
In some countries or regions collection of material from the wild, including plants, bark or lichens, is regulated by law. Please be aware of, and adhere to, the law in your country or region.
13. Toxicity of plant materials
If you are experimenting with any plant material ensure that you are aware of all issues related to toxicity in handling and processing individual species. A useful reference for poisonous berries, for example, is published by Lone Pine in “Wild Berries of Ontario”.
Cardon, Dominique (2007): Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science, London: Archetype Publications.
Diadick Casselman, Karen (1993): Craft of the Dyer, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Chambers, Fiona Hammersley and Cory Harris (2012): Wild Berries of Ontario, Alberta: Lone Pine Publishing.
Dean, Jenny (1999): Wild Colour: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Colour, New York: Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd. Random House.
Flint, India (2008): Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles, Colorado, USA: Interweave Press.
Kadolph, Sara J. and Casselman, Karen Diadick (2004) In The Bag: Contact Natural Dyes. In Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 2004. http://ctr.sagepub.com 22:15.DOI 10:1177/0087302X0402200103. [accessed 1 January, 2013]
McGuffin, Nancy J., Ed. (1986): ‘Dye Plants of Ontario’. Concord, Ontario, Canada. Burr House Spinners and Weavers Guild.
Richards, Lynne & Tyrl, Ronald (2005): Dyes From American Native Plants: A Practical Guide, Portland, Cambridge: Timber Press.
About the author
Of Orkney heritage, Wendy Feldberg is a fibre artist now living in Ottawa, Ontario. Wendy works in contact printing with natural dyes from local plant pigments for her embroidered textiles and Artist Books.
Leaf Monoprinting by Cassandra Tondro
Cassandra Tondro’s online tutorial on extracting natural dyes from leaves to obtain a print.
Cassandra calls her end product a “monoprint” . Cassandra is a “Green” artist living in California. She has been making leaf monoprints for about four years. On her blog, she also posts about eco prints.
She has graciously allowed me to link to her tutorial.
Leaf Monoprint Process
Rust and Plant Printed Artist Book (modeled on my Artist Book “Botanica: New World Scroll 1 “
Eco Printing with Rust and Plants
My artist book “Botanica: New World Scroll 1” is made from papers eco printed with rust and plant dyes as a contemporary take on traditions of natural dyeing and bookmaking. Object and process both invite us to slow down and savor making, handling and viewing a beautiful book, to appreciate a book’s tactile and visual pleasures as well as its intellectual ones. Historically, the first books were scrolls, sometimes pleated or slatted, objects of reverence treasured for both content and form. My book’s accordion and pamphlet-stitched structure printed in contemporary style on watercolor paper creates living links to a rich past.
To make my book, stacks of papers were layered with leaves and metals, sprayed with vinegar and water to rust the metals, then steamed over boiling water to extract the “eco” prints. Plant pigments combined with rust to deposit prints directly on the paper in a range of greys, charcoals and blacks as well as natural rust and plant colors.
The process of eco printing papers offers artists many creative options. For eco printing projects other than bookmaking, try stacking papers six sheets high and sized to fit your steamer, and then follow directions for processing an eco printed book.
Tools and Materials to Make an Eco Printed Book
For the book pages
- 6 pieces of 140 lb. watercolor paper, 4” x 8”, folded in half to make a section 4” x 4”
For the book’s spine
- 1 piece of 80 lb. or 90 lb. artist paper, 4” x 24” folded into an accordion with 16 panels, each 4” x 1 ½”
To print the papers
For the spine:
- Loose black or Rooibos tea leaves (dry)
- Flat, scrap metal pieces
For the pages:
- Tannin-rich leaves such as maple, chokecherry oak, sumac, walnut, etc. (“Botanica: New World Scroll 1” is printed with fall-gathered Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).
- Flat metal pieces
To develop the rust
- Spray bottle filled with 50-50 mixture of white vinegar (5% acid) and water
To stitch the book sections
- Linen or other strong thread
To steam the prints
- Covered cooking vessel (e.g. an old meat roaster) filled with three inches of water and fitted with a raised rack, large enough to hold the papers (Safety note: Do not use for food preparation)
To enclose the papers
- Four pieces of cardboard, each 4” x 4”, two per stack of papers
To weight the papers
- Bricks, rocks, heavy ceramic dishes (to ensure close contact between paper and printing materials)
Source of heat
- Kitchen stove, portable hot plate, camping stove, etc.
Tongs and gloves for handling hot materials
To print the papers
- Make two stacks of papers each with three sections folded 4” x 4”
- Insert two or more tannin-rich leaves and a small flat piece of metal inside the fold of each section and also between each of the sections in the stack (I used maple and chokecherry leaves for their contrasting shapes)
- Spray –soak the stacks with the vinegar-water mixture.
- Place one piece of the 4” x 4” cardboard under and one on top of each stack.
- Wrap the stacks around with cotton string and tie securely.
- Place the two stacks side by side on the steaming rack
- Place the weights on top of the stacks
- Bring the water in the pot to a boil and steam for 60 – 90 minutes
- Turn the bundles every thirty minutes. Steam longer if the desired print is faint, shorter if too strong.
10. When complete, turn off the heat and allow the bundles to rest in the pot until cool or overnight
11. Unwrap the bundles, discard the plants but reserve the metal pieces for other prints.
12. Spread the papers out to dry. Remove stuck-on plant material
13. Once dry, flatten papers under weights.
To print the accordion spine
- Insert dry tea leaves between all the folds of the accordion; insert pieces of metal also inside a few of the folds.
- Spray-soak the spine with vinegar-water
- Tie with cotton string and steam as for book papers
To assemble the book
Write the names of the plants in English and Latin on the spine with black and/or gold archival pens
- Insert one 4” x 4” folded section into the second “valley” fold from one end of the accordion
- Stitch the section into the spine using linen thread and a pamphlet stitch
- Repeat with the other five sections
- Make two book covers (front and back) using 4” x4” eco printed end papers, textile and bookboard
6. Using PVA glue, encase each end portion of the accordion spine between an end paper and a textile-covered book board. (See image for ideas)
For more information, see the Resources section.
- To help fix the colors, pre-soak papers for two hours or overnight in a solution of one teaspoon of alum acetate or potassium alum sulphate to four cups of water.
- Rusted metals alone print colors in the orange-rust-brown range on papers.
- Leaves may be layered on top of rust printed papers and processed a second time. This method tends to print tannin-rich leaves as black on top of rust.
- Leaves printed alone without metals tend to print colors depending in their growth season: greens, blues, purples, yellows, browns are common
- Natural dye powders can be sprinkled onto papers or diluted and painted on selectively, as can plant inks such as walnut
- Dye assistants such as ammonia, cream of tartar, iron or copper sulphate can be painted on selectively to induce color shifts.
- Spray papers with a deacidifier on completion of the project.
Resources for bookmaking and natural dyes
- Alisa Golden: “Creating Handmade Books”
- Shereen Laplantz: “Cover to Cover: Creative Techniques for Making Beautiful Books, Journals and Albums”
- For a complete line of supplies and information related to natural dyes, dye assistants and reference materials, see www.maiwa.com
- Jenny Dean (with Karen Diadick Casselman, consultant): “Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes”