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!
Here’s a breakdown of this year in my business, for any other creative biz owners or if you are just curious about what it is like making a living as a maker!
I’ve been running Gumnut Magic for a few years now, but this was the year that I went properly full-time. No more side jobs to guarantee some money for the week. By January 2019 I had grown my business enough that I felt confident in ditching this safety net. I’m glad I took my time to get to this point though – it would have been really stressful to be fully dependent on it earlier and would have taken away much of the fun and joy. For anyone just starting out, I recommend growing your business up slowly and not expecting it to pay all your bills straight away.
My focus this year
This year I made and launched my first ecourse, Living Colour. It took much longer than I expected to put together (6 months longer!) because of technical difficulties and quite a few uncooperative eco-print bundles. It was a frustrating process, but the whole time I kept thinking that it was better to take longer and do it well, rather than rush the process.
I’m glad I made most of the content before I launched the course, because I wouldn’t have been able to cope with the stress of trying to get each week’s videos done in time. I know some people prefer to launch a course then start making it but that wouldn’t work for me.
That said, once the course had begun I kept filming extra lessons to add in, partly because I wanted to make it really good value for my lovely customers and partly because it was fun! The downside of this is that the course ended up a bit too big and overwhelming, covering too many different topics. So this led me to explore the idea of breaking the ecourse up into smaller modules, the first of which was the Soy Milk Binder module that I released in November. I think it works better to have a more focused topic at a lower price point, so more people can afford it and they can buy just the modules they want. But I will still keep the full ecourse available for those who want a comprehensive introduction to eco-printing.
What else I worked on
Besides the ecourse, I had some other streams of income. I ran a few workshops and kept selling my ebooks and also eco-printed clothing and fabric. I also got one of my ebooks translated into Spanish. I was really interested to see how this would go, as I’ve had lots of people asking about translations, especially into Spanish. But I haven’t sold that many of the Spanish ebook. Enough to cover the translation service, but not much more. So unless something changes, I won’t be getting any more translations done. Although I loved making my work accessible to more people, it doesn’t feel like a good use of my time.
That said, some areas of my business aren’t directly profitable or are somewhat inefficient – selling eco-printed clothes and fabric packs is definitely a hard way to make money. The dyeing process is very time intensive, then I have to photograph each item and create a unique listing for it. But I actually think of these products as having a different purpose than making money. Eco-printing the items is a way to practise my skills, and I can also photograph them to share on Instagram and my blog. It‘s also a way to find new customers by getting more of my work out there. Someone searching for clothing might find my etsy shop, then decide to buy an ebook instead. And, pragmatically, it also gives me something to do with all the fabric and clothing that I will be eco-printing anyway. It’s nice if I can sell them, but I make more money through teaching. And I also get a lot of joy from the teaching. This wasn’t the direction I thought my business would take when I started out, but I am so glad that I listened to what my audience wanted and also what I enjoyed doing. I started up as a clothing business, but I have been pivoting more and more each year towards teaching. Don’t be afraid to change your business structure, especially if you realise that something else might be more profitable, more enjoyable, and more wanted by your audience.
This year, I also spent a lot of time doing the usual marketing things of course. Pinterest was the biggest driver of traffic to my website and I did put a lot of energy into pinning there and creating new pins of my work. As part of this, I tried to write a new blog post at least once a month. I also grew my Instagram account from 6k to 13k followers – finally passing the mystical 10k, which lets you see extra analytics and get the ‘swipe up’ feature in stories. After several years in business, this year I really noticed that I started reaching critical mass with my marketing and exposure, where it is now somewhat self-sustaining. If you are still in the early stages of your business, know that with consistent work over time you will start to see this too.
What I loved
I am so grateful for the opportunity to just focus on Gumnut Magic this year. I am so much happier and more resilient when I don’t have to do any other work, even if it is just part time. Over the year my energy and contentment grew a lot, partly from other changes I made in my life but also hugely from not having to do any draining part-time jobs any more.
I also loved how much time I made this year for different creative outlets. I sewed lots of fun fairy clothing and also took up nature journalling. It felt great to nurture my creative self and make time for things beyond work.
What was hard
This year I really noticed how much I dislike having lots of things on at the same time, especially when they are time-dependent things. When I was running my soy milk binder module live, I also had a lot of other work and life commitments. I felt really stressed and pulled in lots of directions. But I also realised that I have more capacity that I think, to hold lots of things at once. I still don’t like it and would rather structure my life differently, but it is good to know that if I need to, I can do it. But the best thing about being my own boss is that I can choose how to structure my business. Going forward, I will be more intentional with my planning to avoid having all the things happening at once, and give myself space and time to get things done, with less time-dependent pressure. It is so important to structure your business in the way that works for you. There is no ‘right’ way, and you can choose which options feel best to you. If you set up your business to be mostly full of tasks and workflows that you enjoy, you will be so much more productive, which leads to being more profitable and successful. Not to mention more content, which is something I value as much as profit. If I just wanted to make money, I could go get a regular job!
I also struggled with Instagram in the second half of the year, seeing a significant drop in the number of likes and comments even though my audience was growing. I know this is partly because I wasn’t posting as much and wasn’t always putting a lot of effort into my photos. But it is also something I have seen other creative businesses struggling with. Going forward, I have decided that I need to stop focusing on creating so much content specifically for Instagram, and instead use it more as one place to share photos and information that I am also putting elsewhere. It can be a huge time drain otherwise that is not necessarily worth it. For those starting out, I would advise being mindful of your use of any social media platform. Try to discern what effort is actually useful, and what is taking away from time you could be putting into other areas of your business, such as making more content or products.
Plans for 2020
I’m really excited for 2020. I want to change some things in my business, and also make more time for rest and play. I’m going to be launching a second business soon, which will be a home for all my other creative work – collage, sewing and magic. And that will be more of a hobby business, just for fun, rather than one that needs to pay my bills. As Gumnut Magic has grown, I have noticed that eco-printing now feels a lot more like work. I still love doing it, but I generally do it for a very specific reason and sometimes in stressful circumstances like needing to get an ecourse lesson completed by a certain time. So I am making more space for things that can just be nourishing and fun. If I make money from them that’s nice, but it won’t be my driving force.
In Gumnut Magic, I will be releasing the rest of my ecourse modules throughout the year. I will probably release them each individually as a live course, which will then stay open for enrollments for people who want to do it in their own time.
I have also been working on some new ebooks all about running a creative business. As you many have noticed from reading this, I actually enjoy the business side of my work quite a bit! And just like with eco-printing, I would love to share what I have learnt so I can help other people who are just starting out. If there is anything specifically you would like to learn about, please leave me a comment.
I would also like to write another eco-printing ebook, which could be about mordants or soy milk binders or something else entirely. That may or may not happen, but again, if there is a topic that you are interested in learning from me in this format, please let me know. Ebooks tend to be a very big project, because of all the experimentation and research that has to happen even before all the writing and photographing and compiling. But I also find them a really satisfying thing to create and I love being able to provide something really useful.
I’d also love to make a few more Youtube tutorials. I am still very new to that space but it feels like an interesting thing to explore more of.
And overall, I want to structure my days and the whole year in a spacious way. With time to play, to explore, to experiment, to try new things. Time to tilt into one area of my business, and then step back and focus on another. The biggest thing I will be taking from 2019 into 2020 is the knowledge that this is a priority for me. Nourishing my creative self and having space and time, with as little pressure as possible. This helps me to keep this business sustainable and fulfilling. And in the end, that’s what matters most to me.
For a long time I have been looking at my collection of dried up paper daisies and feeling inspired to make some ‘natural tinsel’ with them. Paper daisies are some of our most spectacular Australian flowers, both in shape and colour, and because they last so well they could also make lovely house decorations beyond the festive season.
Although I usually celebrate the Summer Solstice at this time of year, I thought it would be fun to actually have a Christmas tree this year and honour some of the traditions I grew up with.
I made a simple Christmas tree from fallen sequoia branches gathered near my house. I was inspired by Tokopa’s fabulous version (find instructions here), which is far lusher than mine, although I do enjoy the simple, rustic charm of my one. Paper daisy tinsel seemed like the perfect way to decorate it, keeping it simple and natural.
Here’s some step-by-step instructions in case you want to try it yourself.
Natural flower tinsel tutorial
You will need:
A bouquet of paper daisies (or other flowers that dry out well, like rose buds)
Cut the stems of all the paper daisies. Cut a few metres of thread – you can lay all the flowers out on top of it to approximate how much you will need, or just guess. Thread your needle and push it through the front of the paper daisy to the back. Going in this direction stops it from getting squashed and breaking any petals. Pull the needle through the flower and push it to the end of your string. Tie it in place.
Keep threading paper daisies onto the string, leaving as much gap between each as you desire. You may want to tie a knot before and after each flower, to keep them in place.
Once you have threaded all of your flowers, tie the last one in place and cut off any excess string.
Congratulations – your tinsel is ready to be wrapped around your Christmas tree or hung from the ceiling. Handle it carefully to avoid tangling the string.
You can also push the flowers up against each other, leaving no gap. This creates a lusher, more tinsel like effect. It also requires a lot more flowers for even a short length of string!
I hope this might inspire you to use natural materials to make your own Christmas or seasonal decorations. Pin the below image to save this idea for later:
It is a common misconception that natural dyes only work on natural fibres like cotton, linen, wool and silk. While many synthetic fibres won’t work, the chemical composition of nylon means that it can absorb acidic and slightly basic plant-based dyes. And I have found that very striking eco-prints can be achieved on nylon through a few different methods.
It may seem incongruous to go to all the effort of creating natural dyes only to use them on synthetic fabric. But a big drive behind my work is the desire to make use of existing materials. It is far more environmentally sustainable to eco-print over old nylon clothing than new, organic cotton. The nylon already exists, whereas growing organic cotton uses huge amounts of water (even more water than conventional cotton, although at least without the synthetic pesticides).
There are plenty of old, unwanted nylon nighties and camisoles in second hand stores. Once refreshed with eco-print designs, they become far more desirable and can even be worn as clothing rather than underwear or pyjamas. I hope this post inspires you to think differently about nylon.
Eco-printing on nylon with an iron mordant
This top was my first experiment with eco-printing on nylon. I had no idea how it would turn out and was amazed by the clarity of the prints.
This nightie was eco-printed in the same way, although the leaf prints turned out more pale, in shades of beige and orange.
After eco-printing, I dyed this nightie in an indigo vat, which has created a beautiful blue background. Like eco-printing, indigo doesn’t tend to work on synthetic fibres with nylon being an exception. Notice how the eucalyptus leaf prints have resisted the indigo, while the background has taken it up well.
Eco-printing over a soy milk binder
Recently I have begun preparing nylon clothing with a soy milk binder then letting it dry and cure before eco-printing on top. Below is a nightie prepared in this way then eco-printed with eucalyptus leaves. I covered half of the back with leaves then folded the other half on top, creating an intriguing symmetrical pattern.
Again, the lace took up the natural dyes really well. There are also some darker background patches made by wrapping the fabric around a rusty tin can.
This is one of the methods we will be exploring in my new eco-printing ecourse, the Soy Milk Binder Module. We will also be eco-printing on cotton and other plant-based fibres, using a variety of techniques in combination with soy milk binders. Enrolments for the live course are now open, but you can join anytime and will have ongoing access to the course materials.
Discharge eco-printing is a method that has been mostly developed and refined by Irit Dulman. She has some very useful information about this technique on her blog. It is a type of eco-printing where fabric is dyed a solid colour, then leaves are placed on top. When the bundle is cooked, some of the leaf acids and other compounds react with the solid dye and ‘discharge’ it, leaving a leaf print surrounded by colour.
As with other types of eco-printing, most people seem to do discharge printing on wool and silk. But because I prefer using plant-based fibres, I have been experimenting with this technique on cotton. This is my most successful piece so far.
I used logwood dye for the background, which has created a rich earthy purple. And I used 2 varieties of geranium leaves to create the discharge prints.
As you can see in this video, one variety creates far clearer discharge prints than the other. But I am happy with both, because I wasn’t going for an even, uniform appearance with isolated, clear leaf prints. I like the moodiness of this tope, which reminds me of night skies and fireworks and magic.
I am still very new to this technique. But here is what is working best for me so far: First I mordant my fabric with aluminium acetate, then soak it in a warm dye bath until it is the colour I want. I choose a leaf with good discharging potential (Irit Dulman shares many examples of these on her blog). Generally the back of the leaf discharges more, but I like to use both sides and see the different effects. After placing the leaves on the dyed fabric, I fold it up, clamp it between tiles and cook as usual.
El ebook le guía a cada paso del proceso, desde elegir y preparar las hojas hasta desenrollar los paquetes y ver qué colores han surgido. Mi objetivo es ayudarle a obtener estampados claros y brillantes en algodón, tanto si es nuevo en este oficio como si ya tiene experiencia con el ecoestampado en lana o seda. Haga clic aquí para obtener más información.
[For the English speakers: I am very happy to announce that my eco-printing on cotton ebook is now available in Spanish. I have been working with a wonderful translator to make it happen.]
But there are different factors affecting the quality of iron mordants. Here’s three pieces of cotton cut from the same piece of fabric and eco-printed with the same eucalyptus leaves, but with quite different results:
The difference between each sample was the quality of the iron mordant used. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Sample 1: A poor quality eco-print
The mordant on this piece had been diluted with water a few days before eco-printing. It was a strong mordant that I was trying to dilute. The results are very pale and fuzzy:
The problem is that the vinegar is a vital component of the mordant because of its acidity. When water is added to iron mordant, it raises the pH and changes the iron from a dissolved form to a solid form. This is sometimes quite visible, it looks almost like the mordant has curdled. In this state, during the mordanting process it stays suspended in the liquid rather than bonding to the fabric.
This process is not immediate (otherwise it would not be possible to put iron mordant into water to mordant fabric). But it will be visible if you save any leftover mordanting water for a few days or longer, especially if it was quite strong. You will be able to observe the iron separating into small clumps and settling at the bottom of the container.
So, the moral is don’t add water to your mordant. If you have an overly strong mordant, you can either use less of it or add vinegar to dilute it.
Sample 2: A mediocre eco-print
The mordant on this piece was very old, and had been soaking for over 2 years. Although the mordant itself looked great, very dark and strong, the prints are fairly washed out, without the crisp detail I sometimes get on cotton:
The reason for this is that vinegar will lost its acidity over time, creating a similar problem to adding water to a mordant. Ideally you will be using your mordant regularly, and topping it up with more vinegar each time. If you have a very old mordant (unused for 6 months or longer), try adding new vinegar, letting it rest at least a few days before you use it again. If you still get disappointing results, you may need to make a new mordant instead.
So here the lesson is that the colour and darkness of the mordant won’t necessarily predict results. And that it is important to keep topping up your mordant with vinegar.
Sample 3: A high quality eco-print
This last piece was made from a mordant that was only 2 months old but contained a lot of rusty metal so was a good strong colour. There is crisp vein detail on each leaf and lovely blue dots dappled across the brown leaf prints:
These are optimal results for eco-printing on cotton – crisp, detailed and dark. The pale prints still look nice but will fade much faster.
This sample shows that iron, vinegar and the right amount of time (not too little, not too much) are all you need to create a great iron mordant.
Other iron mordant considerations
Often people think that the brightness or paleness of a print is caused by using more or less mordant. But actually, other factors are far more important. How well the fabric was scoured, how much pigment is in the leaves, and the quality of the mordant can all drastically impact the results you get. The fabric will only absorb a certain amount of mordant, and a small amount is surprisingly potent. So even when using homemade mordants that aren’t measurable, it is not easy to drastically over- or under-mordant your fabric.
One final mordant variable is when you have used up the liquid of a mordant, but have iron sludge at the bottom of the jar. Once you top it up with fresh vinegar, you need to let it sit for a few days or longer otherwise it will also give pale results.