How to wash or scour fabric for eco-printing and natural dyeing

Before eco-printing or natural dyeing, it is a good idea to wash the fabric first. New fabric is often coated in waxes, oils and pectic substances that will inhibit the take up of dye. And even secondhand fabric can require pre-washing, for reasons that we will explore. Here I’ll go through a lazy method, a compromise method and a more thorough method.

The lazy dyer’s method – do nothing

The simplest method is to use old clothing or fabric that you know has been washed lots of time. Old white clothing from your wardrobe, secondhand clothing or old bedsheets are all suitable. The absolute simplest approach is to take these and use them as is, trusting that they have already been pre-washed.

The pros of the lazy dyer’s method is that you don’t have to do anything! Just take some fabric and get started.

The cons of this method is that sometimes there are pitfalls. Quite literally in fact, because the armpit of tops are sometimes stained with sweat or deodorant that appear invisible until you dye it. There’s nothing worse than unwrapping a beautiful eco-print …

… only to discover staining has appeared under the armpits!

This is the most common problem, but sometimes there are stains or oil marks on other areas of the fabric that aren’t obvious until you dye it. And of course sometimes clothing bought second hand is actually brand new and never washed. I used to never wash or scour second hand clothing before eco-printing and sometimes I would get great results and sometimes I would get terrible results, from the same set of leaves and mordant and cooking method. I puzzled over it for a long time before finally realising that the washing (or lack of it) was the variable factor.

So to avoid potential disappointment, I recommend washing all fabric before you dye it. This can be done in a simple way, or more rigorously through scouring. Let’s explore both options.

The compromise method – simple washing

If you want to pre-wash your fabric, but still keep things simple, I suggest putting your fabric in the washing machine on a hot wash with a mild detergent, and do an extra rinse cycle at the end to ensure that there are no traces of soap left in the fabric. If you are using new fabric or clothing, I recommend washing them several times first. You don’t need to do a specific load for them, just add them in anytime you are already doing a hot machine wash. Just avoid using any detergent with whiteners or brighteners – stick to a basic one.

The pros of simple washing are that, well, it is simple! If you’re already doing a load anyway, why not just throw your white clothing in too, especially if it is second hand clothing that you are only washing ‘just in case’.

The cons of simple washing are that sometimes it isn’t thorough enough, especially if you are using new clothing or synthetically dyed clothing that you want to eco-print over.

The thorough method – scouring

When using old clothes, this simple method of washing is enough. But if you are using new fabric and want to wash it more thoroughly, you can try scouring your fabric. Scouring is a special type of deep washing used to prepare fabric for natural dyeing.

In the instructions below, you will see that there are several options for scouring ingredients. It’s easiest to start with dishwashing liquid and washing soda as they are available from supermarkets. Synthrapol and Orvus Paste can be bought from specialist cleaning or dye suppliers online, and soda ash is available from hardware or pool stores.

The pros of scouring are that it is the most thorough method so you know for sure that your fabric is now ready for dyeing with.

The cons of scouring is that it requires some special ingredients and is a bit more work to set up and clean up compared to using the washing machine. You’ll also need a very large pot if you are scouring a lot of fabric.

Scouring steps

Step one: To scour, put your fabric in a large pot and cover with water. Make sure that the fabric can move freely as if it is too crowded the scouring will be uneven.

Step two: For every 250g of cotton, add in:
• 2 teaspoons (10 ml) of dishwashing liquid OR 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of a pH neutral scouring agent such as Synthrapol or Orvus Paste.
• 8 teaspoons of washing soda (40g) OR 4 teaspoons of soda ash (20 g).

Step three: Simmer for about 1 hour. The water will turn a yellow brown colour as the waxes and oils are removed from the fabric.

Step four: Let the pot cool down and then rinse the fabric well in warm water.
This method can be used for any cellulose (plant based) fibres but is not suitable for silk or wool.

Once your fabric is washed

After washing your fabric, or even if you are going with the lazy dyer’s method and doing nothing, you still need to prepare your fabric with a mordant or binder. There are endless ways to do this depending on your style of dyeing and the results you want to get. If you want some help getting started, I explore iron mordants in my Gum Leaf Alchemy ebook and Soy Milk Binder in this one.

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Pale eco-print results: Troubleshooting the cause

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.

Do cooking times matter?

I also get people asking if maybe they haven’t cooked their bundle for long enough. While I recommend cooking plant fibre bundles for 1-2 hours and then leaving the bundles in the pot until cool, from past experiments I know that even after 15 minutes of cooking, much of the colour will have transferred from leaf to cloth. If you have cooked your bundle for an hour or so and results are very pale, then cooking them for longer will not bring out more colour. There is something wrong with your fabric, mordant or leaves.

What to do with pale results

  • 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.
  • Use them to make moons: pale, splotchy results make a wonderful base for shibori moons.

I hope this has given you some ideas for troubleshooting pale results.

Want to learn more? If you are still new to eco-printing, find clear and detailed instructions for eco-printing on cotton and paper in my eco-printing ebook bundle. Or if you are ready to go deeper, check out my range of ecourses.

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