Make it at home: Eco printing
Sara Maycock is a weaver and dyer with lots of experience of creating and using naturally based dyes. In this blog, she shows you how to make eco prints using plants and a few simple pieces of equipment.
Eco printing is a form of natural dyeing where dyes are extracted from plant material direct on to paper or fabric – creating an imprint of the plant in some way. It is very unpredictable – what you see is not always what you get – which makes it exciting and disappointing in equal measure! The best way to approach it is to be experimental and curious about possibilities – a beautifully vibrant colour can be a total wash-out. Equally a drab looking leaf can produce an unexpectedly vibrant result.
Either way, it is the natural world giving up its secrets and allowing us an insight into the complexities of nature, so be prepared to go with it and accept whatever outcomes you produce. They’re all valid and a great way to produce a botanic record of your garden as an alternative method to drawing and painting. The images are also not always going to be sharp, as the dye bleeds into the wet paper during the boiling process so the results can vary from sharp through to impressionistic!
You will need:
• 2 plain bathroom tiles about 6” x 6” – these are used to trap the paper and plant material between them. The tiles keep the paper from disintegrating during the boiling process and maintain the contact between plant and paper so that a print is produced. Anything non-porous and flat will do the same job – metal plates or whatever, but it does need to withstand boiling water.
• At least 4 bull dog clips or similar which are big enough to clamp the tiles containing the paper and plant material tightly together – ideally 6 or 8 clips if you have them. The tighter you can fix them, the more successful the result.
• Pieces of cartridge or lining paper (used for wallpapering) per print, cut to the size of your tile. You could use any paper that is reasonably substantial and won’t fall apart on boiling, but do avoid a shiny surface as this could adversely affect the absorption of the plant dye. Photo mount board cut to size works well but I would reserve this for when you feel more confident with the process.
• An old stainless steel pan with a lid – into which the tiles will fit comfortably with the clips around the edges.
• Tap water
• Newspaper or old towel
Collect your plant material:
Choose interesting leaf shapes, coloured flower heads – but nothing too bulky as they will be pressed flat by compressing them between the tiles. They can make interesting 3D impressions in the paper as part of the process if they’re not totally flat. Again – experiment!
As usual when working in the garden be careful when selecting and handling flowers and plants as some can be poisonous or irritants, for example the sap of the rue plant can burn or cause a rash. So if you are not an experienced gardener check what you are picking first.
Layer as follows:
• one tile placed smooth side up
• a piece of paper the size of your tile
• plant material carefully laid out
• second piece of paper
• second tile smooth side down
Once you have this ‘sandwich’ of layers, clamp them tightly together with the bulldog clips around the edges.
You can process several layers of plant material within one pair of tiles. Just separate each plant layer from the next, with an extra piece of paper to avoid the images bleeding into each other – again it’s trial and error and relies on bull dog clips being large enough to grip the package together.
Alternatively – if your pan is deep enough and you have enough tiles and clips you can process several single ‘packages’ in one go. I have a large fish kettle and can do nine in one go.
Fill the pan with cold water to generously cover the pair of tiles, cover with the lid and heat until boiling, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for an hour.
Once finished, there’s no need to wait – but BE CAREFUL OF BOILING WATER – pour it away carefully and wait for the tile package to cool a bit before unpacking it for the big reveal!
The paper between the tiles will be saturated, so peel it back carefully and gently remove the plant material to reveal the image – and then lay the paper out to dry on newspaper or a cotton towel (basically something absorbent) – you may want to put something heavy on top to help the paper to dry flat, but be cautious of the paper sticking.
You will get a positive and a negative image – two for the price of one! – which will have subtly different qualities. Here are a few of the eco prints I have made with flowers and plants from The Weaver’s House garden, including the famous dye plant woad.
USE OF MORDANTS (fixatives) in the dye pot: Improves the fastness of the dye and also alters the dye tones:
Alum – can improve the clarity of the results – gives a yellowish cast
Iron water – saddens/darkens the results – an acquired taste
⚠ Be careful as some mordants are poisonous! ⚠
Here are some eco prints I have made on an old blanket during lockdown.
There are lots of on-line resources if you search for eco-printing, including this fantastic video:
Thanks to Sara of The Weaver’s House and Weavers’ Workshop for providing the information and images.