Maple leaves are high in tannins and so are well-suited to the eco-print process. Tannins help natural dyes bond to fabric and often also impart colour. Tannin levels increase over the growing season. So maple leaves picked in autumn will print more vividly than those picked in spring.
The different sides of maple leaves produce quite different effects. I like the delicate details of the sky-facing side of the leaves:
But the earth-facing side will produce darker prints and be more colourfast:
Before eco-printing, I soaked the maple leaves for a month to get rid of excess tannins, which bleed when combined with the iron mordant. The soaking process helps produce clear, crisp prints. Find out more about which leaves can be used for eco-printing on cotton and how to prepare them with my ebook, The Leaf Guide.
Eco-printing on paper is a fast, easy and satisfying way to get started with this wonderful craft process. You don’t need much in the way of special tools or equipment and you can experiment with the plants growing around you.
This tutorial shares a particularly simple yet effective method for eco-printing on paper, using a tin can and whatever paper you already have. It’s my favourite method for paper, because it is so easy to get interesting results. The effects you get will depend on your local flora, the paper you use and many other variables. Have fun experimenting!
Materials for eco-printing on paper
Mordant- iron soaked in vinegar
Leaves and flowers
Tin cans (rusty if possible)
Method of eco-printing on paper
Select and prepare your paper. I like to use cotton-rag watercolour paper that I buy at art stores. It has a beautiful texture and doesn’t tear easily when wet. But you will get some sort of result on any paper. Even basic paper like printer paper can give stunning results.
Cut your paper to the desired size. For this tutorial I cut narrow strips that can be wrapped around the tin can. You could also make small cards.
I mordanted my paper using a similar technique as that described in my eco-printing on paper ebook – giving the paper a short soak in water with a dash of iron-vinegar. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the mordant. You can let the paper dry after mordanting, or continue with the process. But if you are using a rusty tin can, you can omit the mordanting process and just let the rust work it’s magic.
Gather plant matter. For my paper prints, I’ve been exploring a range of both native Australian and introduced flowers and leaves. Most were gathered fresh, though some had been soaking in water for a few weeks. When choosing plants to use, look for interesting outlines, and leaves or flowers that will press fairly flat. And please avoid any toxic plants as you will be touching them and breathing in their fumes!
Arrange the leaves on the paper. Leave some gaps and spaces so that the outlines have more chance of being visible. You can also try experimenting with layering materials for a different effect. Try sprinkling crushed onion skins over the paper, to add extra colour.
Roll the paper around the tin can. If you are using a rusty can, the paper in contact with the rust will print darker than other sections. When you have rolled all the paper around the can, tie it with string or fabric strips to hold it in place.
Place your paper bundle in a dye pot (a cooking pot dedicated to dyeing only, to avoid food contamination) and cover with boiling water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 1 hour. If possible, do this step outside or open doors and windows to ensure good ventilation.
After the bundle has cooled down, it can be left overnight, or for a few days, to allow the natural colours to continue to develop. Or you may choose to open it immediately. Unwrap slowly and carefully to avoid ripping the paper. If some of the leaves seem stuck, don’t pull them off. Instead, submerge the paper in some water and rub them gently.
Allow your eco-printed paper to dry, noticing how some colours shift or fade in this process. Then enjoy your beautiful paper- use it for cards or scrapbooking, or display it as an art piece. And if you didn’t get the results you were after, keep trying!
More techniques for eco-printing on paper
If you are interested in learning more techniques for getting good eco-prints on paper, check out my ebook Plant Poetry. It’s a comprehensive guide which includes many examples of specific plants to use, comparisons of results on different types of paper, and special effects such as soy mordants, dye blankets, iron blankets and discharge printing. Check it out by clicking here and take your paper eco-prints to the next level.
I also have some more free tutorials for eco-printing on paper:
Although iron is my trusty favourite mordant- easy to make, relatively low toxicity, and easy to dispose of- I have been experimenting with alum lately. My first results of eucalyptus on alum were not very promising. Fluro yellow is not my favourite colour. But then I tried double-mordanting, combining both iron and alum. I hoped that the saddening effect of iron would help tone down the brightness of the alum and bring in more subtleties. And it worked beautifully!
The alum has brought out these beautiful oranges and yellows from the eucalyptus leaves, while the iron gave more depth and detail:
The colours vary according to how much alum and iron are used, and the particularities of each piece of cotton too. It is important when eco-printing to be open to the different possibilities and to embrace the results you get. Each print is a gift from the leaves, so be grateful.
This onesie was bit of a failure originally. It had pale, faded grey prints, probably from not being scoured properly. The alum and iron mordanting prepared it well for a second round of eco-printing, and it was transformed into one of my favourite pieces so far. Aren’t the gumnuts exquisite?!
To do this double mordanting, I scoured the cotton, gave it a short dunk in one mordant, let it dry and cure, then dunked it in the other. Then I eco-printed the fabric in my usual way, using the instructions I share in my ebook Gum Leaf Alchemy.
All dyed fabric will fade eventually, from washing and sun exposure. Eco-printed cotton does fade more quickly than synthetically dyed cotton but there are a few ways you can reduce this to enjoy your fabric for longer.
I find that machine washing eco-printed fabric is fine, although I recommend hand washing for very special items. More important is to use a mild washing detergent. Most washing powders and liquids are too harsh and will quickly strip off the natural plant dyes. I use soap nuts, which can often be bought from health food stores or co-ops. Simply soak the soap nuts in boiling water for a few minutes, then add this liquid to the washing machine.
UV rays in sunlight will also fade dyed fabric over time. After washing eco-printed clothing, dry them in the shade or at least turned inside out. Bring them in as soon as they have dried and store in the dark. Also, try to avoid wearing eco-printed clothing if you will be in direct sun all day.
I have some eco-printed clothing that is still looking quite good after a couple of years of gentle wear. Once they become faded, clothes that have previously been eco-printed also tend to re-dye well. Re-mordant the fabric then dye as usual. Faint traces of the previous print can be seen on the cotton sample below, providing a lovely ghost effect.
I get asked a lot if the method I described in my ebook will work for non-eucalypts. These samplers are a good example of the results you can get using different types of leaves. Following on from the first experiment I documented, these leaves were left to soak for about 2 months before I used them, and it really made a difference! Some of the leaves printed better than others, but I really enjoyed seeing how so many different types of leaves, some native to Australia and some introduced species, can produce such clear and beautiful prints.
I sandwiched the leaves between two different pieces of cotton, to observe the difference in the prints produced from each side of each leaf:
These prints are of the ‘sky-facing side’ of the leaves (where applicable). Most produced a lot of colour, and the leaf outlines and veins are crisp and clear. They are printed onto a yellow woven cotton, which has created beautiful green hues for many of the leaves, in contrast with the bluer prints below.
These prints are of the ‘earth-facing side’ of each leaf, on a white stretch cotton. Some still printed very clearly, especially the maple, oak and blackberry leaves, while others produced only faint outlines.
I was recently interviewed by the lovely Skye Scott from The Studio Fae Project. Skye is currently teaching herself floristy and she interviewed me about my process and challenges in being a self-taught eco-print artist. I really enjoyed reflecting on my journey so far. You can read the interview here.
I’ve recently been naturally dyeing some solid colours, rather than eco-printing. I’ve been aided in my experiments by Rebecca Desnos’ beautiful ebook. She inspired me to try dyeing soy-mordanted cotton with avocado seeds (avocado stones/pits). When I first put the fabric in the dye bath I didn’t quite believe it would do anything. The dye looked quite pale. But I left the fabric in the pot for a day and a half and it slowly turned this vivid pink!
I tried eco-printing over this fabric but didn’t have much success. But I was able to use it as a dye blanket to create a beautiful resist effect on some watercolour paper. I covered some iron-mordanted watercolour paper with gum leaves, then laid a piece of my avocado-dyed cotton on top, pressed it between 2 tiles and boiled for an hour. Some of the avocado dye transferred to the paper and the pink turned to purple in reaction with the iron.
You can Pin the below image if you want to come back to this later.
I’ve been curious about mordanting with blood ever since I read India Flint’s passing reference to it in Second Skin. I’m not a squeamish person and I have ready access to a cruelty-free form of blood each month with my menstrual cycle, so I thought I would give it a go. I wondered if it would give similar results to other protein mordants, or whether the particular properties of blood would effect the results.
To prepare the fabric, I simply soaked it for about an hour in the water I had soaked my cloth pads in. Then I lay it flat to dry and let it set for about a week before eco-printing.
The mordant definitely worked, although the prints were fairly light. Next time I would try to use more blood and soak the fabric for longer to create a stronger mordant. I might also try a series of ‘dipping and drying’ as is done with soy mordants, and see if this gives more vibrant results.
I prefer eco-printing on cotton rather than wool for a few reasons. Cotton clothing is easier to find at op-shops, and in a wider range of styles, than wool. Upcycling clothing that already exists feels like the most ethical way I can do a lot of eco-printing, so it makes sense to go with what is readily available. I also love the wider range of colours and textures that I can get on cotton. Eucalyptus leaves mostly print solid colours on wool, whereas prints on cotton often have extra details like blue dots.
When I was writing my ebook, I wanted to show the difference between wool and cotton eco-prints. I did a range of small samples with the same leaf sandwiched between one piece of wool and one piece of cotton. It was so interesting to see the different colours that came from the exact same leaf on the different types of fabric. All of these photos show the wool on the left and the cotton on the right.
Some of the mordant on the cotton did transfer somewhat onto the wool, seen most starkly in the dark borders around the leaves and gumnuts above, so I can’t expect the same results with these leaves on unmordanted wool.
I was especially excited to get some more insight into which leaves dye best on wool. Lots of the eucalyptus leaves here in the Blue Mountains dye quite pale, especially without any mordant. I noticed that I got beautiful bright oranges from silvery-blue leaves, while the greener leaves dyed pale yellows on the wool. Almost all of my local gumtrees have dark green leaves, so I guess it’s lucky I’m not often wanting to get bright prints on wool!
Even more interesting, the leaves that dyed orange on wool consistently dyed brown on (iron-mordanted) cotton, while the leaves that dyed pale yellow on wool dyed blue or blue-green on cotton. I know that some green eucalyptus leaves do dye brilliant reds or oranges, but my local ones don’t seem to have the right chemical components for that.
I still have a lot that I want to investigate about different types of gumleaves and what factors influence which colour they dye, but this was certainly a useful experiment and a very good way to get to know more about my local leaves.
I’ve been working exclusively with gum leaves for the past few years. I love everything about them- their shape, their smell, the amazing range of colours and textures I can get from them. But I’ve decided to spend time this year experimenting with other types of leaves to eco-print with. I’m curious about how well the method I described in my ebook will work with different leaves.
For this first experiment, I did a leaf walk around Hazelbrook, gathering from a wide range of native and introduced plants. I collected 2 leaves or small branches from each plant, so I could compare the difference between using them fresh and letting them soak for a while.
The leaves were placed on mordanted cotton, wrapped into bundles then boiled for about an hour. Some leaves would do better with lower temperatures, but I was processing eucalyptus bundles at the same time and they definitely need boiling to properly release their colour.
The bundle I did with fresh leaves had a few promising prints, especially the dark blue maple leaves at the top, and some quite nicely outlined grevillea leaves (at least I think that’s what they are, I didn’t take notes as I gathered!). Overall, many of the leaves produced indistinct prints and bled out a lot of colour which turned the fabric quite dark.
I let the extra leaves I had gathered soak in water for a month before repeating this experiment. I got many more clear leaf prints this time. Some of the colours were quite incredible when I first unwrapped the bundle. The two ferns were almost light aqua, a colour that I haven’t seen in an eco-print before. All the colours have dulled a bit since unwrapping. Next time I might try leaving the bundles for at least a few days before unwrapping, to let the colours develop further.
The top left print is from acacia leaves, either black wattle or similar. The bottom right print is a grevillea leaf, and the others I’m not sure about.
Along with more maple leaves, I was delighted to get this clear fern print. I’m excited to try more things with different fern varieties as they have such distinctive shapes. I have a selection of local fern leaves currently soaking, ready for future experiments.