Here’s a video tutorial I made about eco-printing on paper using a rusty can. I love this method because it is easy to get interesting prints with most types of paper and leaves, although I have used some of my favourites for this demonstration.
This is one of the methods I share in my eco-printing on paper ebook, Plant Poetry, along with lots of information about plants, papers and bundling techniques to try.
If you just want to watch a quick preview of the whole process, check out this short video:
I hope that this inspires you to get creative with the plants around you. Have fun experimenting!
I’ve been working on something a little different. Sculpting this dress from many years worth of naturally dyed fabric scraps. Beautiful leftovers from wrapping bundles, with so many unique marks and memories. Using what I have, embracing imperfection and delighting in texture.
Here’s an old experiment that I haven’t shared on here yet. Waratahs are native Australian plants with luscious, bright red flower heads.
I had a beautiful waratah that was looking a bit old. It had turned purple and the individual flowers were starting to fall off. So I gathered them up and decided to try eco-printing on paper with them.
First I sprinkled them over a small piece of watercolour paper.
Then I wrapped and tied this around a rusty metal tin.
I cooked the tin in simmering water in a dye pot for about half an hour then let it cool before unwrapping it to see what colours and patterns had emerged.
The shapes of each flower showed up clearly, outlined in dark black where the natural dyes have interacted with the rusty tin. The rust also created lovely orange speckles across the background.
Using a rusty tin is one of my favourite methods for eco-printing on paper. It helps you get striking results even if your plant materials don’t contain much dye. This simple technique can be adapted to any leaf or flower that you want to try (as long as they are not toxic, of course!)
Here’s a quick video of how I wrap and unwrap eco-print bundles. Unlike many eco-printers, I don’t wrap around a stick or other firm object. I prefer to just fold the bundle in on itself and then tie tightly. This creates a semi-flexible bundle that fits easily into the dyepot.
This piece was mordanted with iron and eco-printed with eucalyptus leaves, using the method described in my ebook Gum Leaf Alchemy.
When I first started eco-printing, I boiled my bundles for 3 hours. I got good results, so I kept doing this. But one day I noticed that after a short amount of boiling the leaves had already produced a lot of beautiful colour.
So I decided to take a more systematic approach to working out the optimal length of boiling. I made up a batch of small bundles using leaves from 3 different eucalyptus varieties on pieces of the same pre-mordanted cotton. I set them to boil, then removed them at 15 minute intervals.
I was suprised to see that there wasn’t much difference between the bundle that had been boiled for just 15 minutes (left), and the very last one which was left in for 1 hour and 45 minutes (right).
The colour of the leaves on the top sides did shift from brown to blue with longer boiling times, but the centre green and botton brown leaf prints didn’t really vary. The blue band on the right side print is from the piece of dowel that the bundles were wrapped around. This band got progressively darker and bled more the longer that each sample was boiled for, because wood has its own tannins.
Even though much of the dye has already emerged after 15 minutes, I do cook my bundles for longer, to ensure that the maximum amount of colour is transferred to the fabric and to really give it time to set. I find that about 1 hour is a good length of time when eco-printing on cotton. It’s enough time to get strong prints, while being mindful of energy use.
Following on from my recent post about combining shibori dyeing and eco-printing on wool, here are some similar effects achieved on cotton. I really enjoy combining organic eco-prints with geometric grids or lines from shibori dyeing methods.
This pattern was created by folding the tshirt up into a small bundle, adding liquidambar and Japanese maple leaves as I went. Then I tied it tightly with string and submerged it in a dye bath of eucalyptus bark and iron, cooking it for about 1 hour. The fabric was mordanted with homemade iron and alum mordants, following the instructions in my ebook, Gum Leaf Alchemy.
Here is a close up of a similar pattern, this time with eucalyptus leaves and an iron mordant. The large section of lines show which part of the tshirt ended up on the outside of the bundle, wrapped tightly with string. There are smaller sections of lines where other parts of the tshirt were also on the outside of the bundle, because of how it was folded.
This long-sleeved tshirt was also folded up, but into a smaller bundle which was pressed between two square pieces of hardwood. This helped to create a very even, geometric pattern to contrast with the organic shape of the leaf prints. This piece was also mordanted with iron and alum.
This piece of fabric was mordanted with iron, covered in rose leaves and folded into large squares. I pressed the fabric between 2 tiles, clipped the tiles together then submerged the bundle in a dye bath and cooked it.
If you would like to come back to this idea later, you can pin the below image.
I’ve had plenty of luck lately finding lovely second-hand woollens to dye. Although cotton is my favourite for eco-printing, it is always a nice treat to use wool for a change. It gives such different results, especially when using eucalyptus leaves.
My favourite method for eco-printing on wool is to fold up the garment into a square, adding leaves as I go. Here I have used eucalyptus leaves. Then I press the bundle between tiles or blocks of wood and tie it firmly to hold the leaves in places. For thin bundles, clamps or clips can also be used.
I submerge this bundle in a dye bath and cook it for 2-3 hours (longer than I would do for cotton).
When it has cooled down, I unwrap it to reveal bright orange prints where the leaves were touching the fabric, and dark patches where the edges of the bundle were exposed to the dye bath.
Sometimes the dye seeps into the bundle and surrounds the leaf prints. And lines are created wherever the string was pressing firmly into the fabric.
Here is one of the finished pieces. The shibori patches have dried quite light on this one and just add gentle areas of warm brown to contrast with the bright leaf prints.
This piece I folded up into very small squares and tied between two pieces of hardwood. The fabric was already dyed blue with synthethic dyes when I bought it.
You can see how well the eucalyptus leaves have printed over the synthetic dye, and the lines created from the folding method.
Dyeing with avocado is a safe and simple process, perfect for beginners to natural dyeing. Both the seeds (also called stones or pits) and the skins contain colour. They produce a quite colourfast dye of the most unexpected and delightful pink.
The exact colour you get will be affected by which variety of avocado you use, the time of year, the pH of your water, and whether you use the seeds or the skins or both. For this tutorial I have used just the seeds, which contain more potent dye. I collected them over a couple of months, washing them well and storing them in the freezer. This keeps the colour better than drying them out.
You will need:
Avocado seeds or skin or a mix of both (well washed)
An aluminium or stainless steel dye pot (aluminium will provide a mild mordanting effect but is not necessary)
A long-handled spoon or stick for stirring
Loose weave fabric such as muslin for straining the dye
Step one: cover the seeds in water and simmer gently for 1-2 hours. Turn the heat off and let the dye rest for several hours or, even better, overnight.
Step two: break up the seeds to make more of the dyes available. This is best done while wearing gloves because the tannins can irritate your skin. If the seeds are too firm to break up, repeat step one first.
Step three: re-heat the dye bath for another hour or so to let the colour develop further. Let it cool again, then strain through the loose weave fabric.
Step four: If you want to create a shibori effect, tie off sections of your fabric using rubber bands or string. For the top on the left, I tied off 3 sections to create 3 white lines. For the onesie on the right, I gathered fabric in the centre and wrapped it in rubber bands to create a circle pattern.
Step five: Bring the dye bath back to simmering, then add your fabric (pre-wet it so that it will absorb the dye evenly). Add extra water so there is enough space for the fabric to move freely. This will also help to create even colour. Let it cook on a very low heat for about one hour, stirring from time to time. Leave it to cool overnight, stirring occasionally. The colour will continue to develop as it sits.
Step six: When you are happy with the colour, remove the fabric from the dye pot. Keep in mind that the colour will lighten as the fabric dries.
Squeeze out the excess dye, and rinse well. Then remove the rubber bands to reveal the resist pattern.
Results: Depending on the avocados you used and the pH of your water, you should get lovely peach to pink tones on your fabric. Below you can see that my soy mordanted cotton came out an earthy pink, somewhat lighter once it dried but still a rich colour. I also added a piece of silk to the dye pot and it turned a more peachy tone. You can shift peach dyes to pink by altering the pH of your dyepot with a small amount of washing soda.
Pin the below image if you would like to come back to this tutorial later. And if you do try dyeing with avocado, let me know in the comments!
When doing natural dyeing or eco-printing on plant-based fibres such as cotton, you need to prepare the fabric with something to help the plant dyes adhere. This could be mordants such as metals or tannins. Or you could use a protein-rich binder such as soy milk, cow’s milk, eggs or blood. These emulate the results that you will get dyeing protein fibres (wool, silk, leather).
Before I explain my process of preparing fabric with milk, I would like to clarify my use of language. Although milk and these other protein-rich materials are not technically mordants, the word mordant is often used informally to describe them. I don’t have a problem with this, because in its basic sense a mordant is something that helps plant dyes bind to fabric. So I apologise to dye puritans for conflating these words, but I find that more people understand what I mean if I speak about milk as a mordant rather than a binder.
For ethical reasons, I only use cow’s milk to mordant fabric when it would otherwise be going to waste. It doesn’t seem reasonable to buy it for this purpose when many people are starving and the dairy industry is horrific. But I have a friend who occasionally brings me bottles from their workplace that are close to their use-by date and were going to be thrown in the bin. Dumpster diving is also a good way to find wasted milk and put it to good use.
Step one: add water to your milk at a ratio of 1:1. Pre-wet your cotton fabric (so it will absorb evenly) and add it to the milk. There should be enough space for the fabric to move freely. Let it soak for about half a day, stirring occasionally. This is best done on a cold day or in a very shady spot or else the milk will quickly get smelly and this smell will remain in the fabric even after dyeing. I soak fabric for less time in cow’s milk than when using soy milk, because it does tend to go bad faster (especially when it is already close to the use-by date).
Step two: remove the fabric, squeeze out the excess milk and put it in your washing machine on a spin cycle. Then hang to dry. Putting it on a spin cycle means that there won’t be milk dripping down the side of the fabric as it dries, which would show up as streaks when you dye it.
Step three: if your milk is still good, add the fabric back in just until it is saturated, then remove and put through the spin cycle and dry again. Do this process twice. Adding extra layers strengthens the mordant, and it is done in quick dips so that the previously adhered milk won’t have time to come off. These extra steps can be omitted if your milk bucket is getting too smelly- you will still get good results from one round of mordanting.
Step four: once your fabric is dry, leave it to cure for at least a week before dyeing it. Again, this strengthens the mordant and helps it adhere strongly to the fabric. Then dye or eco-print with it as desired.
This picture illustrates the difference between protein and metal mordants. The top piece of cotton was prepared with cow’s milk. The bottom piece was mordanted with iron. Both pieces were eco-printed with the same species of eucalyptus leaves. On the milk mordant, the leaves have printed a bright reddish-orange. This is similar to the results these leaves give on silk and wool, which is unsurprising because protein mordants make plant fibres dye like protein fibres. On the iron mordant, the leaves have printed olive-green and have some speckles and vein details. I find that iron mordants are great for bringing out details, while protein mordants give flatter results but sometimes more vivid colours.
I hope this has been useful for you and gives you a way to make use of milk that would otherwise go to waste. Feel free to pin the image below to return to this information later.
Drawing over the top of eco-printed paper is a lovely project to do with all the samples that accumulate. It can be a meditative process, and can also inspire new ways of drawing.
The photo below shows symmetrical paper eco-prints that I created by sandwiching plant matter between two pieces of paper and wrapping them around a rusty tin, before heating in water. You can see how adding simple line drawings with a black fineliner can create a very striking and organic artwork out of what was quite a subdued print.
Experiment with different types of lines and marks- squiggly lines, dots, light feathery lines, dark bold lines. Keep some areas simple and build others up to create contrast and detail.
If you want help learning how to eco-print so that you can try out these drawings, I have in-depth instructions in my Plant Poetry ebook.