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Blog

Eco-printing

Elizabeth McTear

There are a multitude of ways to use natural dyes: immersion, block or screen printing, painting, etc. Lately I've been experimenting with eco-printing, sometimes also called contact printing. It's a labor-intensive process where I wrap, bind and steam plant materials directly into the treated fabrics, usually for hours at a time, to create a permanent print. I've seen a lot of interesting and exciting examples of this method, but they were also not quite my particular style. I was aiming for something that felt connected to antique botanical charts, or the pressings of flowers between journal pages. I wanted something nostalgic and romantic, but also evocative of scientific botanical illustrations from the 1800s, particularly the nature printed seaweeds by Henry Bradbury (I have a collection of these prints I found on Ebay several years ago). 

A nature print bookplate by Henry Bradbury via panteek.com

A nature print bookplate by Henry Bradbury via panteek.com

After a lot of experimentation and failures, I finally started to consistently pull clean prints that fit my aesthetic goals. To get to this point, I tested several kinds of fabrics and tweaked a lot of the chemistry involved, such as the percentage of and delivery method of various kinds of mordants, the water pH, and balancing the need to protect the silk from becoming brittle from various mordants while drawing out the desired colors from the plants. 

Final eco-printed pillows, featuring eucalyptus and willow leaves using various mordants. 

Final eco-printed pillows, featuring eucalyptus and willow leaves using various mordants. 

Close up detail of the print on raw silk. The silk remains strong and soft. 

Close up detail of the print on raw silk. The silk remains strong and soft. 

Small batch yardage hanging in my backyard. 

Small batch yardage hanging in my backyard. 

Fresh yardage pulled from the steamer, showing the plant material on the left and the impression on the right.

Fresh yardage pulled from the steamer, showing the plant material on the left and the impression on the right.

Leaves exhausted of their colors on my work table. They can now be composted for our garden. 

Leaves exhausted of their colors on my work table. They can now be composted for our garden. 

A set of smaller pillows I made from eco-printed silk. 

A set of smaller pillows I made from eco-printed silk. 

I currently have one eco-printed item available in the shop, with more items to come: http://www.honestalchemy.co/new-products/leaf-print-table-runner

Eco-printed raw silk table runner in the shop.

Eco-printed raw silk table runner in the shop.

Growing a Dye Garden

Elizabeth McTear

One of the major reasons we purchased our house last year in Germantown, Philadelphia was for the large backyard. Both my husband and I are gardeners, and for years all we could grow in our shaded patch at our old apartment were decorative plants.  But the amount of land we now own, with south-facing full sun exposure, means big new plans for our green thumbs. 

As it stands, our yard is large enough to accommodate a patio, a large veggie and herb garden, and a large dye garden for me. Additionally we will have a fire pit with a second seating area, for summer nights with beers and stargazing, which is a rarity living in a big city. However, my first objective this year was to start seedlings for plants appropriate for dyeing but not necessarily readily available at a plant center or nursery. I sourced seeds from various reputable sites: Strictly Medicinal SeedsSeed Savers ExchangeThe Woolery, and Companion Plants.  I set up an indoor growing center  and started planting. 

That is, after doing a large amount of research and planning. 

A couple books I found to be especially helpful in my quest were Rita Buchanan's A Weaver's Garden and Betty E.M. Jacobs' Growing Herbs and Plants for Dyeing

The plants I have growing in the garden thus far are:

  • safflower
  • yarrow
  • hopi black sunflower (pictured above, left)
  • marigold
  • calendula
  • indigo (pictured below, left)
  • madder
  • dyer's chamomile
  • hollyhock
  • dyer's woodruff
  • woad (pictured below, right)
  • borage (pictured below, center)
  • bronze fennel
  • hopi red dye (pictured above, right)
  • joe pye weed
  • coreopsis
  • cosmos
  • purple basil
  • wormwood

Some things have grown more vigorously than others, some have been snacked on by enterprising groundhogs and raccoons, and others have had a stunted start, though that could be due to the later spring chills and heavy rains this year. I've taken to generously sprinkling cayenne pepper on the vulnerable plants and it has helped discourage hungry critters.  I've found that having rounds of seedlings going is key, as things will be lost, but also the volume I'll have to harvest will require regular renewal of plants. And while I don't plan on dyeing exclusively from the garden (it's big, but it's not a several fields big and I'm not a full time farmer), I'm aiming for this to be a source of education and inspiration, which it already has become. 

A goal of mine is to open the garden up for workshops, to teach curious artists how to unlock and enjoy the secrets that seemingly mundane plants hold for us if we employ enough expertise and patience.