Eco-printing on cotton

Discharge eco-printing on cotton with logwood and geranium

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.

Geranium leaves eco-printed onto logwood dyed cotton, creating a discharge effect

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.

Discharge eco-printing on cotton

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.

Discharge eco-printing: Geranium leaves and logwood on cotton

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 alum, 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.

Examples of a cotton top dyed with logwood and discharge eco-printed with geranium leaves

Living Colour: Eco-printing on Cotton Ecourse

I am delighted to announce the release of my new ecourse, Living Colour, which explores different techniques of eco-printing on cotton. It’s my way of lovingly guiding you through the process if you are too far away to attend a workshop. We’ll be creating our own wardrobe of living colour, using the natural dyes in plants.

Learn how to eco-print on cotton with Louise Upshall from Gumnut Magic

Eco-printing newbies are welcome as we will cover the basics of preparing leaves and fabric and rolling bundles. But we will also explore some things that I haven’t shared in any workshops yet, such as combining eco-print and shibori methods, and using a soy binder. You can view the trailer and curriculum or register now over at learn.gumnutmagic.com

Wrapping eco-print bundles

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.

How long to boil eco-print bundles

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).

Comparing different boiling times for eco-print bundles

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.

A comparision of cooking times for cotton eco-print bundles

Shibori eco-printing on cotton

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.

Liquidambar leaves eco-printed on cotton with iron and alum mordants

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.

Cotton naturally dyed with eucalyptus leaves and bark

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.

Creating a geometric grid overlaid with eucalyptus leaf eco-prints

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.

Rose leaves eco-printed on cotton by Gumnut Magic

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.

Examples of cotton clothing naturally dyed with 2 different techniques: shibori and eco-printing

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 with maple leaves

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.

Tannin rich maple leaves eco-printed on cotton

But the earth-facing side will print the most colour and be more colourfast.

These samples were printed with the method described in my ebook. I soaked the leaves for a few months to get rid of excess tannins, which bleed when combined with the iron mordant. The soaking process helps produce clear, crisp prints.

 

 

Combining iron and alum mordants for eco-printing

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!

Double mordanted with alum and iron

The alum has brought out these beautiful oranges and yellows from the eucalyptus leaves, while the iron gave more depth and detail.

How to mordant cotton

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?!

Mordanting cotton with alum and iron

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.

I haven’t yet tested to see if it makes a difference to do either the iron or the alum first. It is definitely worth continuing to play with this combination!

Combining alum and iron mordants to eco-print on cotton

Good leaves to use for eco-printing: experiment two

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:

Green eco-printed leaves

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.

Blue eco-print leaves on cotton

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.

 

Eco-printing on wool versus cotton

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.

Eco-printing on wool versus cotton
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.

Eco-printing on mordanted wool

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.

Eco-printed wool and cotton colour comparisons

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!

Bright orange and brown gum leaf eco-prints, from the same leaves on different fabric

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.

Gum leaf and gumnut eco print experiments

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.

Comparisons of eucalyptus leaves eco-printed on wool versus cotton