From time to time I get questions from my ebook customers, wondering why they have gotten pale or disappointing results when eco-printing on cotton using an iron mordant. There is no simple answer, because there are a lot of different variables that can affect results. In this post I will discuss some of the major variables, as well as ideas for troubleshooting the cause of pale prints.
When we eco-print, we use leaves, fabric and mordant. Each of these has its own set of potential problems.
Troubleshooting fabric variables
Fabric naturally contains oil and waxes that act as a barrier for natural dyes, preventing them from binding to the fabric. If you want to use new fabric, you need to scour it. Scouring is a form of deep washing that strips out the oils and waxes. Insufficient scouring can cause pale results. Make sure you follow scouring instructions carefully and rinse well afterwards with hot water. You can find instructions for scouring in my Gum Leaf Alchemy ebook , Intro to Cotton ecourse , or through a web search.
A simpler option to use old, well washed fabric. Often this takes up natural dyes even better than scoured fabric.
Another fabric problem can be not wrapping bundles firmly enough. The leaves need to be pressed firmly into the fabric, otherwise the dye will seep out into the water and cause pale, patchy prints, rather than being absorbed directly where it is touching the fabric, in a perfect leaf shape.
Troubleshooting leaf variables
There are two major leaf variables that can cause pale results. First is the leaf itself and whether it actually has enough natural dyes in it. Some plants are great for eco-printing with and others just aren’t. And a particular genus may in general be good for eco-printing, but that doesn’t mean that every species in that genus will be. For example, some eucalyptus species will produce vivid orange or red prints on wool, while others don’t even create a print. And even species that usually give good results can be affected by growing conditions, weather and rainfall, as well as the time of year that you pick the leaves.
The second leaf variable is how it has been collected and stored. In my ebooks and ecourses, I recommend collecting fresh leaves and soaking them in water for a few days or weeks, to remove the water soluble tannins that can cause bleeding on iron-mordanted fabric. Soaking the leaves makes some of the dyes more available, so you get brighter and clearer results that with fresh leaves. But soaking them for too long can also cause pale results.
I recommend doing your own tests – compare fresh leaves with some soaked for a few days, a week and 2 weeks, all eco-printed on the same piece of iron-mordanted fabric and cooked for the same length of time. This will help you begin to see what works best for your local leaves.
I explore all of these leaf factors more deeply in my ebook, The Leaf Guide.
Troubleshooting mordant variables
Homemade mordants can be a little tricky, because they are all different strengths and the quality can vary, depending on what metal you used for it and how long it has been brewing. In general, as long as your mordant changes colour as the iron soaks in the vinegar, it is usable.
To test the quality of your iron mordant, try to control the other variables as much as possible. Use old, well washed cotton and some reliable leaves like rose and Eucalyptus cinerea. I recommend using them fresh, so you don’t accidentally use leaves that have been soaked for too long. Press your bundle between tiles and secure with clips, to ensure good pressure. Cook on a low boil for 1 hour, then let cool in the pot.
If you get strong results, you will know that your mordant is okay, and you can start experimenting with soaking the leaves for different lengths of time and using other fabric.
If you get pale results, it tells you something is probably wrong with your iron mordant. One possibility is that it is too old – iron mordant gets weaker over time as the pH changes. Another possibility is that the piece of metal you used wasn’t the best for making mordants with – try to find a very rusty piece of iron to make a new mordant with.
Does the amount of mordant matter?
Homemade mordants vary in strength, so it is not possible to give precise instructions like ‘use 4% of the Weight Of Fibre’. Some people worry that they have used too little or too much. Don’t be too worried about the amount though – the fabric will only absorb some of what is in the mordant bath, and it is quite a forgiving process.
A small amount is surprisingly potent, and it is rarely the case that people haven’t used enough. If you are doing a large batch of mordanting, just make sure that you add a small amount more after soaking each piece of fabric, to replace the mordant that it has absorbed.
Using too much mordant can be a problem however. If your fabric yellows significantly after being in the mordant bath, you have used more that necessary. Try to flush some off by soaking it in plain water. Too much mordant will damage the fibres and make them tear and break down much more quickly.
Enjoy them as is. Let go of the idea that eco-prints have to look a certain way, and just enjoy what you have received from the plants.
Re-print them: re-mordant your fabric and add a new layer of leaf eco-prints. This is also a good thing to do when eco-prints have faded from sun exposure. Fabric generally takes up natural dyes much better the second time.
I’ve been enjoying a stint of moon making over the past few months. Using relief shapes and eucalyptus bark dye to create ethereal moons on a dark background.
I use Australian 20 cent coins for mini moons, and metal coasters for larger moons. But you can use any flat circle that will survive a dye bath – it is best to stick with stainless steel, ceramic or wood circles.
Making moons is a great way to use up less interesting eco-prints. Patchy leaf prints can create beautiful moon textures:
You can also make shibori moons over naturally dyed fabric. Here I used coreopsis and marigold dye for yellow and madder for pink moons:
I’m a little nervous to announce this, because I don’t want to upset anyone who has paid the full price. I appreciate you so much, and your support has meant that I can transition my business to this new pricing model, which will help people with less money to still be able to access my work.
The seed of this idea
In April this year, during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns, I was watching my business income plummet and getting ready to apply for government support. Then one night a vision came to me – to create an eco-printing ecourse for everyone stuck at home, using materials we could easily find, and for it to be ‘pay what you can’, because most people were in the same position financially. And so the Iso Dye Club was born.
I originally wanted to let each customer choose their own price, but it proved too technologically difficult. So I came up with a system of levels instead. I also gave away free places to anyone who needed them.
I had no idea whether I’d even earn enough to make up for all the work it took. But I decided to just trust the universe, and focus on generosity, community and connection.
I ended up having an amazing month financially (especially within the wider financial context), and at the time of writing, I have over 500 people enrolled in the course. I am sharing this because I want you to realise that it is possible to have success this way. It is possible to run a business in a generous way, to give some priority to social equality, and to still earn a good income too.
This runs counter to all the mainstream business advice I have ever read. There seems to be an accepted belief that as a business grows it should charge more – you have probably noticed that online courses are getting more and more expensive. This way of thinking focuses on scarcity and exclusivity.
Business models of scarcity and inequality
The general advice for running any sort of creative online business is to charge as much as you can, and then put a lot of effort into marketing it in such a way that people feel like they need it. Sometimes this is done overtly, tapping into feelings of shame or FOMO. Sometimes it is more subtle.
In pricing advice, there is a lot of talk about money blocks, and owning your value, and a general assumption that higher prices are the ultimate goal. More and more, I am questioning this.
Yes, creatives deserve to earn enough money to live on, to be fairly compensated for our work. But there is more than one way to achieve this. We need to dig below the surface and really examine this paradigm of scarcity that we are co-creating. Do we really want our world to head more in the direction of individualism, accumulation of wealth and power, and an ever-increasing divide between rich and poor? Our business models can either support this, or support a different story. And where we spend our money can either support this, or support a different story.
Even Patreon, which in some ways offers more affordable access to creatives’ work, still operates from this paradigm of inequality. Most Patreon subscriptions have multiple tiers of pricing, and the higher tier you are in, the more you get. This may seem reasonable. If you pay more, you should get more, right? But do people with more money really deserve to get more?
Economic inequality is firmly entrenched in our society, and is inextricably linked to power and privilege based on factors such as race, gender and ability – factors that we have no control over. If you are born female in a society where males earn more, if you are born disabled or as a person of colour or Indigenous, do you really deserve less?
Business models of interdependency and abundance
What if business growth could instead mean that we can make things cheaper and share them among more people, while still earning enough?
Unlike in the Patreon model, everyone who buys my ecourses gets access to all the same course materials, no matter which level they join at. This is a model of abundance. There is enough for everyone, everyone is welcome. We also get to foster a sense of interdependence. The people who pay more, support the people who pay less to be able to join.
It is possible to run a profitable, sustainable business that aligns with our values. It is possible to have a win-win situation. To offer something that is generous and accessible, a good experience for my students, while still earning enough to be a fair exchange for the work I put into it.
When you buy any of my products, when you comment on my posts or share them, you are supporting my work. This in turn means that I can continue to make, experiment, learn, film, write and create both products and free content. We both give, we both receive. This is interdependence.
It has been a bit scary making this transition. Wondering if I am undervaluing my work, or whether it will be a failure. But then I come back to my heart. I remember what I truly care about and what sort of life I want to live, and the world I want to co-create.
If this topic interests or excites you and you want to learn more, I highly recommend Charles Eisenstein’s books, Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, and his ecourse, Living In The Gift.
How the variable pricing levels work
Each ecourse on my website now has several price levels. The lowest levels are concession places for people who need extra support and can’t afford the full price. If you can, I encourage you to pay the full price ‘Tree’ level or higher. This allows me to earn a fair income from my work, and also to offer concession places. In turn, this keeps the ‘pay what you can’ pricing model sustainable. But if you can only afford the lowest levels, you are still very welcome.
If you can afford to pay the higher levels, you are supporting other people to access my courses through your generosity. You are also supporting me to continue creating free content as well as new ebooks and ecourses.
The world is changing, and perhaps we need to let go of the idea that people with lots of money deserve more, and people with less money deserve less. No matter what level you can afford, you will get access to all the same course materials. There is enough for everyone, and I trust that you can support or be supported, as you need.
When you decide on a price level that feels fair based on your circumstances and what I am offering, you’ll know. It will feel right in your heart.
I’ve decided recently to bring more of my creations into Gumnut Magic, beyond just eco-printing and natural dyeing. I also love to sew and make collages, and I want to make a home for these things here too. I’ve tried doing it separately for the past few years and it just doesn’t work. And when I think about it, everything I do is deeply interconnected. It is all rooted in a love for nature and using materials carefully and with respect. Sometimes this involves eco-printing on second hand fabric with plants gathered on local walks, like this sweet rose:
Sometimes this involves piecing together magical garments from worn out clothing and scraps of fabric, inspired by fairies and other magical beings. This dress is made from old tshirts, lovingly given new life (and you may notice its resemblance to the wasteland dress I share recently):
Sometimes this involves piecing together collages using scraps of images from old books and magazines. Seeking spirit and mythology hidden in the debris of Western civilisation. This work is called ‘Edge of the Sacred‘, inspired by David Tacey’s fabulous book of the same name:
Whether you are here just for the plant dyes, or excited for these new sharings, thank you for reading and being part of the unfolding of Gumnut Magic.
I am finally ready for it to go out into the world – I’ve taken some proper photos of it, worn by my gorgeous friend, and have listed it in my Etsy shop. I want to share some of the final photos here too.
This dress is one of my favourite things I have made so far. Naturally stained and sculptural, almost like it has grown up out of the landscape.
I had originally planned to eco-print the dress when it was finished. Luckily when I shared it on my Instagram page, everyone convinced me to leave it alone and let the subtle colours and patterns of each piece come through.
I am so glad I listened to them. I’m not usually that into greys, but there is something alive in this cloth…
The live round of the Iso Dye Club has come to an end, although new students are still welcome to join and will be able to work through the ecourse at their own pace. It has been the most wonderful, inspiring whirlwind of an adventure. I feel so grateful to all the people who threw themselves into it with such enthusiasm and dedication, sharing their beautiful creations on Instagram and in our private group.
It has been such a good way to spend this quarantine/isolation time, hopefully for my students but also for me personally. I really appreciated staying busy, and feeling uplifted by everyone’s kind, supportive comments.
I’m also really glad that I offered it as ‘pay what you can’, to make it accessible to lots of people, especially at this time when so many of us are out of work or underemployed. Going forward, I want to bring this pricing model to more of my business, because it is a small way that I can help to create a more equitable world. Or as Charles Eisenstein puts it, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.
I want to share some of what we did in the course, because I really enjoyed creating simple lessons using materials that people would be able to access easily at home or in their neighbourhood, yet still get some stunning results. This craft doesn’t have to be complicated or precise. At it’s most basic, you just put leaves on paper or fabric, hold it together somehow and heat it up! And I encouraged everyone in the course to embrace the results they got, because sometimes in eco-printing, as in life, we don’t get what we expected and it can be very healing to learn to accept this.
Week 1: Rolled Bundles
For Week 1, we started with some simple rolled bundles, on both paper and fabric. We rolled around jars and cans – even rusty cans, if people were lucky enough to have these highly coveted, utterly magical eco-printing tools!
We used plain fabric and paper, to see how even the most simple technique could still give us some beautiful colours and patterns:
Week 2: Simple Homemade Mordants and Binders
In Week 2, we prepared our fabric and paper with homemade iron mordants and with protein binders (from kitchen scraps of yogurt, cow’s milk, nut milk or other protein-rich liquids). As well as leaves and flowers, I also demonstrated with some ingredients from the kitchen – onion skins, tea leaves and a sprinkling of turmeric – because some of the students were in isolation in apartments, or still emerging from the depths of winter. Here you can see the different colours and strength of results on plain cotton, and that prepared with a protein binder and iron mordant (from left to right).
Week 3: Folded Bundles
This week, we folded our paper and fabric and cooked them in dyebaths. On paper we experimented with creating different amounts of colour in the background. These bundles are both the same paper with the same leaves, cooked in the same dye bath, but I shared a simple trick for creating either dark or light backgrounds:
And on cotton, we created some shibori patterns around our leaf prints. This was one of my favourite lessons from the whole course. The leaves were eco-printed on fabric prepared with a simple yogurt binder, with a few tricks to get these vibrant results:
Week 4: Fun Things to do with Pale Results
When eco-printing, it is inevitable that some of your results will be pale or uninteresting. So we finished the course by exploring 3 ways to improve our pale prints. One option was to re-print the paper or fabric, with the addition of iron to bring out more colour and detail:
Another option was to draw over our paper eco-prints, either what we could see or what we could imagine. I shared some simple tips to encourage even the most reluctant artist to give it a try:
And we finished the course with a bonus lesson, because I wanted to thank everyone who was involved. So we used some of our pale fabric results to create some mini shibori moons:
This is another contender for my most favourite lesson. Sometimes the marks and leaf prints already on the fabric creates the most wonderful serendipitous results:
I hope you enjoyed this peek into the ecourse. If you are interested in joining us, I have left enrollments open because I want this course to be available to anyone who wants to be comforted or inspired by the magical combination of plants, creativity and community. Read more or join us here – the sliding scale starts at about the price of a coffee!
And whether you are enrolled in the course, or just enjoying this preview, I’d love to know which week or lesson is your favourite?!
This ecourse is a gentle introduction to natural dyeing and eco-printing techniques, for cotton and paper. The focus is on making do with what we have. Simple methods and simple materials. Finding joy in the process and in unexpected results.
It’s also a chance to slow down, to connect with plants and with fellow artists/makers in isolation. Creativity and nature ground me, especially in uncertain and changing times. I look forward to sharing this with you too.
We’ll be using kitchen scraps to make natural dyes and binders, and eco-printing on paper and fabric that we find around the house. Here’s some results on printer paper:
This is a bit different from my other courses, because I wanted to offer something more affordable, and more accessible to those of you who can’t access fancy materials or lots of plants at this time. So our results might be softer and simpler, but this feels like good medicine for these times.
The course is 4 weeks long, with 2 videos each week that cover both paper and fabric projects. There’s also a bonus video to get you started, about natural dyeing with easter eggs. Here’s a preview:
Here’s a simple video tutorial for eco-printing on paper using St John’s wort. I’ve used three different variables to get quite different results from a single plant:
plain watercolour paper
paper soaked in iron mordant
paper soaked in logwood dye
Although I love the bright results St John’s wort gives on plain paper, the discharge print is really special. As mentioned in the video, you can learn more about discharge eco-printing on paper from my ebook, Plant Poetry. That ebook covers a whole range of methods for eco-printing on paper, and has many examples of plants that are suitable to use.
Here’s a quick version of the tutorial, if you just want to see the process without all the explanations:
Please excuse the sideways orientation, it’s to make it easier to view for those of you on phones!
Last year I created my eco-printing ecourse, Living Colour. It is a comprehensive guide to eco-printing on natural and semi-synthetic fabrics, using alum, iron and soy milk, and a whole range of techniques. But for those of you who are interested in just one topic, rather than the whole course, I have begun breaking up the ecourse into four modules: ‘Intro to Cotton’, ‘Advanced Cotton’, ‘Soy Milk Binders’ and ‘Wool and Shibori’.
I released the Soy Milk Binder module in November, and will make the rest of the modules available through 2020. Here are some samples of work by my students:
This lovely piece was eco-printed by Debbie Lucas. She prepared the cotton with soy milk binder, then used geranium and herb Robert leaves which have created a bright, layered pattern.
These soft, harmonious prints were created by Bobbi Stowers, using rose, passion vine and eucalyptus leaves. Again, the cotton was prepared with soy milk binder.
It is also possible to prepare fabric with cow’s milk, which creates a similar effect to soy milk because both are protein rich. Kathy Little has used this to great effect in this sample of eucalyptus leaves eco-printed on cotton. You can see how the cow’s milk makes the cotton take the dyes very similarly to wool, creating vivid orange prints.
I recently collaborated with the gorgeous Alice @catinawitchhat, who took some stunning photos of one of my wasteland dress creations. It was such an honour to see her work her magic of styling and modelling and photography with something I had made. Check out her Instagram feed for more of her creative, beautiful photos.
Here is how the dress started off, pieced together from many scraps of white stretch cotton, some of which had already been eco-printed. I used a combination of hand-stitching, decorative stitching and machine stitching.
After I had finished sewing it, I decided to dye the whole garment, to unify the different parts. In the photo below, you can see some of the prints from the big, round eucalyptus leaves that I used. They created quite a gentle, scattered pattern in earthy greys, which was perfect for the grey goth aesthetic that Alice does so well.
And yes, this dress has pockets! Repurposed from the sleeves of the old tops that I cut up to make the dress, which I simply pulled inside out and sewed shut at the end.
I love how the grey looks against Alice’s vibrant orange hair, and the soft oranges of the dry bushland behind her. She really brought the magic of Gumnut Magic to Life. Thank you Alice!