Mordanting with cow’s milk

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 even blood. These emulate the results that you will get dyeing protein fibres (wool, silk, leather).

I have an eco-printing ecourse all about soy milk binders, which are great for achieving bright, long lasting eco-prints. In the ecourse, you can learn how to create a soy milk binder, prepare fabric with it, and then do several different projects with this clothing/ fabric. But similar results can be achieved using cow’s milk and I will share that method here.

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 technically binders not 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.

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.

 

How to mordant fabric with cow’s milk

 

Materials

  • Scoured cotton, linen or other plant based fabric
  • A large pot or bucket
  • 1-3 bottles of cow’s milk
  • Water

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).

Mordanting cotton with milk

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.

 

The difference between protein and metal mordants

 

Mordanting with milk versus iron on cotton

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.

Instructions for mordanting cotton with milk, for eco-printing and natural dyeing

Meditative drawing on eco-printed paper

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. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, the natural shapes and colours already present make it easy to be inspired.

Notanical line drawing over eco-printed, naturally dyed paper

Drawing elevates eco-printed paper into an artwork

 

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.

Drawing on eco-printed paper

Ideas for mark-making

 

If you have some eco-printed paper that you want to try drawing over but don’t know where to start, here are some ideas.

Begin by drawing outlines around each leaf, then let your thinking mind relax so your subconscious can take over. As you daydream, experiment with different types of lines and marks on different parts of the paper. For example:

  • squiggly lines
  • dots
  • light feathery lines
  • dark bold lines

Keep some areas simple and build others up to create contrast and detail.

Paper eco-print with simple line drawing

If you want help learning how to eco-print on paper so that you can try out these drawings, I have in-depth instructions in my Plant Poetry ebook.

An introduction to simple line drawings over eco-printed paper

Let me know below if you have tried drawing over your eco-printed paper, or whether this post has inspired you to give it a try.

Shibori eco-print woollen coat

I have been continuing to experiment with shibori and eco-print combinations. This coat was made with some of the precious eucalyptus leaves I gathered in Broken Hill. Their gum blossoms make the most incredible prints. The dark shibori-style patches were made with eucalyptus bark plus iron placed in the dye pot, which only the exposed parts of the bundle took up.

Gumnut Magic woolen coat eco-printed with eucalyptus leaves

Eco-print and shibori wool jacket. Naturally dyed with eucalyptus leaves and bark.

Gum blossom detail on wool eco-print

Gumnut Magic shibori and eco-print on woolEco-dyeing, eco-printing and shibori on wool

 

 

The Leaf Guide ebook: sample pages

I get asked often if the method I shared in my first eco-printing ebook, Gum Leaf Alchemy, will also work with other types of leaves beyond eucalyptus. I have spent many months experimenting with every leaf I could get my hands on, and now I can say for sure that yes it will! Most of the leaves I tested produced some kind of mark, though some were definitely better than others. I have collated some of the best and most interesting results into a new ebook, The Leaf Guide.

Eco-printing ebook: A guide to 25 plants for eco-printing on cotton

This ebook covers 25 plants that eco-print well on cotton. For each plant there is a photograph of the leaves and any other distinguishing features such as flowers or seed pods, as well as samples of the eco-prints they produce.

Grevillea leaf eco-print, from The Leaf Guide ebook

Grevillea (above) and maple (below) are some of my favourites prints in the ebook. They give such strong and distinctive results.

Maple leaf eco-prints on cotton, from The Leaf Guide ebook

There are also examples of different pieces of clothing and fabric dyed with mixed leaves, and information about using fresh, dried and soaked leaves.

Shibori eco-print on cotton

If you find eco-printing on cotton difficult, or want to expand your repetoire beyond eucalyptus leaves, this ebook will help you. It can be purchased here.

Native Australian leaves eco-printed on cotton by Gumnut Magic

 

Eco-prints and shibori on wool

Eco-prints and shibori on wool

Combining shibori and eco-printing methods can create dynamic designs that have both structured and organic elements. To create this design, I used woollen thermal garments, eucalyptus leaves, wooden boards and string.

Wool eco-print bundle

The eucalyptus leaves were placed onto wool, which was then folded up using a simple shibori accordion fold. The garments were pressed between the wood boards and tied tightly to hold the shape. Then these bundles were boiled in water for about 2 hours. I added eucalyptus leaves and iron to the water, to dye the exposed bits of fabric.

Shibori eco-printing with eucalyptus leaves

Here you can see how the exposed wool has picked up dark colours from the dyebath, while the wood has masked the inner bits of fabric. This creates strong contrast against the leaf prints.

Eucalyptus leaf eco-prints on wool

Beginning to unwrap…

Shibori eco-prints on wool by Gumnut Magic

This is the back of the final design. I love how this way of folding creates many lines of symmetry, and some bits of the fabric get more exposed to the dyebath than others.

 

Eco-printing with autumn leaves

I’m continuing to gather leaves and do tests for my new ebook, which will cover a wide range of leaves that eco-print well on cotton. This tshirt was eco-printed with 8 different types of deciduous leaves, using the method described in Gum Leaf Alchemy. The leaves have produced a range of greens and blues.

Eco-printing on cotton with autumn leaves

How to eco-print on paper

Eco-printing on paper is a fun and easy way to introduce children to the wonders of natural dyeing or to get started with it yourself. Here’s a tutorial for one particular method, using autumn leaves. Autumn leaves print particularly well because they are high in tannins and carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments, which all give colour. But you could also try this process at any time of year, with any leaves that you have around you (results will obviously vary).

Materials:

  • Strips of watercolour paper
  • Wood blocks or tiles to press the paper between
  • String
  • Autumn leaves- especially red and purple. I used maple, liquidambar and claret ash

Eco-printing on paper tutorial

A simple method for eco-printing on paper

 

Step 1

Fold your paper into a concertina booklet, slightly smaller than the blocks or tiles you are using. Wet it lightly, then arrange the leaves on each page.

Plant dyes on paper

Step 2

Fold your paper up with the leaves inside. You can also put a leaf on the front and back covers. Then press between the wood blocks or tiles.

Eco-printing on paper

Step 3

Wrap your wood blocks with string to hold the bundle together. You want firm pressure so that each leaf is pushed into the paper, to make a clear print. With tiles, you can clamp them together with bulldog clips.

Wrapping eco-print paper bundles

Step 4

Once your bundles are wrapped, put them in a pot of boiling water and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour. It is always best to use a dedicated dyepot, not one you also use for cooking. If the wood blocks float, weigh them down with a rock.

Eco-print bundle

Step 5

Let them cool, then carefully unwrap, remove the leaves and let the paper dry.

Autumn leaves eco-printed on paper

If you want to learn further eco-printing on paper techniques, or find out about more types of leaves that will give good prints, have a look at my eco-printing on paper ebook, Plant Poetry. Or if you want to return to this project later, you can pin the below image.Eco-printing on paper tutorial using autumn leaves and watercolour paper. Step by step instructions.

 

Deciduous leaves eco-print

I’ve been busy testing a range of different leaves, using the eco-printing method described in my first ebook. Although that ebook focuses on eucalyptus leaves, which are still my favourite, the method works well for many other leaves. This is a sampler of mixed deciduous leaves: oak, blackberry, cotinus (smokebush) and two types of maple. I am going to be compiling all of my tests into a new mini-ebook, a guide to different leaves that print well. It will cover a mix of native Australian and foreign leaves, focussing on those that grow in temperate climates. I hope that this will help readers who don’t live surrounded by eucalyptus trees, or who just want to try new leaves.

Eco-printing with mixed leaves: maple, oak, blackberry, cotinus

Eco-printing workshop

Last weekend I ran my first full-day eco-printing on cotton workshop. I had a lovely group of enthusiastic women join me at my house to explore the theoretical and practical aspects of this method of natural dyeing.

We spent the morning talking about choosing and preparing leaves and fabric and making a mordant. I demonstrated a few ways to place leaves and wrap bundles, then it was their turn. It was so interesting to see the different ways everyone arranged their leaves.

Arranging eucalyptus leaves on cotton for natural dyeing

We put our bundles on to cook while we enjoyed a shared lunch. Then it was time for the most exciting part of the day- unwrapping! We took turns unwrapping our bundles, and there were many exclaimations of joy at the beautiful leaf prints that had emerged on our fabric.

Eco-printing on cotton workshop

Again, it was so lovely to see the different results everyone got. We each dyed two pieces of clothing and many of us got quite different colours on each piece.

Eucalyptus leaf eco-printed clothing being unwrapped

Everyone left with wonderful prints, but more importantly with the knowledge to be able to go home and continue this on their own. I had a great day and am looking forward to teaching many more workshops. To see what I have scheduled, check out the ‘workshops’ tab on the menu.

Learning how to eco-print on cotton: everyone’s beautiful results at my workshop

Eco-printing on paper with St John’s Wort

St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an incredible plant. It can be identified by crushing the flower buds, which will release a beautiful deep plum liquid. This colour comes from hypericin, which gives an indication of the plant’s dyeing potential and is also one of its medicinal constituents.

Crushing St John’s Wort to release Hypericin

The flowers and top few centimetres of each plant can be soaked in alcohol or oil to create herbal tinctures and oils. Over time, the hypericin in the flowers will turn the liquid a lovely deep red colour. Some of the medicinal uses include taking the tincture for depression and anxiety, and using the oil externally on aching muscles, cuts and tension headaches.

St John’s Wort herbal medicine

St John’s Wort can be used to create a dye bath, as Jenny Dean describes in her wonderful book Wild Color, but my very favourite use for it is eco-printing on paper. Pressed between pieces of watercolour paper, immobilised between 2 tiles and simmered under water for about an hour, it will produce a beautiful clear print with yellow and olive green leaves and blue and green flowers.

Eco-printing on paper with herbs

The paper can also be mordanted with iron, which has the typical ‘saddening’ effect on the plant dyes. The example below shows prints from the same plant which was pressed between iron-mordanted and unmordanted paper.

Mordanting paper with iron for eco-printing

I hope this has inspired you to explore some of the dye potential of this very special ‘weed’.

How to eco-print on paper with the natural dyes of St John’s Wort