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A Beginner’s Guide to Eco-Printing: Learn How to Create Art with Natural Materials!

25th January 2023

In 2019, I discovered the art of eco-printing while on a week-long camping trip to the coast of Algarve in Portugal. Despite writing an article about my experience at the time, I never got around to publishing it until now, four years later!

During our trip, we came across a small village called Alté. It was so charming that we decided to make a stop and explore the  village. As we were strolling through the narrow lanes of this charming village we stumbled upon an artist’s studio, Gadjodilo, where the artist (Vanessa) used local plants to create unique designs on organic cotton fabric and produce beautiful clothing. I was immediately drawn to the technique and the potential of nature.

Watercolor sketch on location- Alté, Portugal 31.10.2018

Though I attempted to replicate the process at home several times, I eventually discontinued due to the inconvenience of working in a limited space in our apartment. This blog post details my method of eco-printing using minimal supplies, making it a great starting point for those new to the process.

What is eco-printing?

Eco printing is kind of a natural dyeing technique that uses leaves, flowers, and other plant materials to create patterns and colors on fabric or paper. The process involves bundling plant materials and fabric together, then steaming or boiling the bundle to transfer the color and patterns from the plants to the fabric. The exact method and materials used can vary depending on the artist, but the result is a unique, one-of-a-kind print that captures the beauty of nature.  It also allows artists to work in harmony with the seasons, using materials that are grown, found, shared, or responsibly foraged. Eco-printing not only links contemporary fiber art to respect for natural environments but also to the recovery of lost dye- and plant-knowledge, and an appreciation for the creative process carried out from the heart.

The origin of eco-printing

Eco-printing is a relatively new technique that has been developed in recent years, but it is based on traditional methods of natural dyeing that have been used for centuries. The specific term “Eco-printing” as it is known today was first coined by Australia based artist India Flint in early 2000s. India Flint is credited with being the pioneer of the technique and her book “Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles” helped popularize the method.

What makes eco-printing unique?

The most distinguishing feature of eco-printing is the use of renewable and sustainable natural materials, which results in each print being absolutely unique and irreproducible. The plant type, leaf age, and mordanting procedures used determine the patterns and hues obtained. Eco-printing is a rewarding creative process that allows you to connect with your natural environment and learn more about the local flora.

Eco-printing with local flora-Spring season

Process of eco-printing

Begin by looking for leaves and flowers that have left impressions on the ground since these will provide a colorful print. When eco-printing, it’s essential to choose your fabric carefully. Silk or wool is a great option for beginners as they absorb the dye easily. Once you have gained experience experimenting with different plants, you can explore using plant-based fabrics.

Required equipments and supplies

The supplies required for eco-printing can vary depending on the specific technique and materials being used, but some basic equipment that is often used include:

  • Fabric: The fabric to be printed on, such as silk, cotton, or wool.
  • Natural materials: The natural materials that will be used for printing, such as leaves, flowers, and bark.
  • Mordant: A substance used to fix the dye to the fabric, such as alum, iron or tannin.
  • Dye pot: A pot or container to heat the fabric and natural materials in, usually a large pot or a pressure cooker.
  • Rolling pin or press: To press the natural materials onto the fabric.
  • String or rubber bands: To bundle the fabric and natural materials together before dyeing.
  • Scissors or pruners: To cut the natural materials into the desired shape.
  • Protective gear like gloves, mask and apron: To protect your skin and clothes from the mordant and dye.
  • A heat source: to heat the dye pot, usually a stove or a hot plate.

Safety precautions

it is important to follow safety precautions during the process to protect yourself and the environment.

  • Always wear gloves and a mask when handling mordants and dyes to protect your skin and lungs from potential irritants or chemicals.
  • Use a well-ventilated area or wear a mask while steaming the fabric to avoid inhaling fumes.
  • Keep the natural materials and dyes away from children and pets.
  • Do not dispose of any remaining dye, mordant, or natural materials in a way that could harm the environment.
  • Be aware of the plants you’re using and their toxicity, some plants can be poisonous or allergenic.
  • Follow the instructions on any chemical products and use them in the recommended amounts.
  • Clean the equipment thoroughly after use and store it in a safe place. Do not use them for cooking. 
  • Always check the fabric for any signs of wear or damage before printing to avoid any accidents.

By following these recommended safety precautions, you can enjoy the creative process of eco-printing while also protecting yourself and the environment.

List of natural materials for eco-printing

The natural materials that are most commonly used for eco-printing can vary depending on your location and the time of year.

Some examples include:

  • Leaves: Maple, eucalyptus, oak, sumac, and ferns are some of the most commonly used leaves for eco-printing.
  • Flowers: Many flowers can be used for eco-printing, including roses, pansies, marigolds, and violets.
  • Bark: The bark of certain trees, such as birch, cherry, and willow, can be used to create unique patterns on fabric.
  • Berries: Berries such as elderberries, currants, and blackberries can also be used for eco-printing.
  • Other materials: Some other materials that can be used for eco-printing include onion skins, avocado pits, and herbs like sage or mint.

Step-by-Step process:

As a beginner, my approach to the process of eco-printing is as follows:

  • Gather materials: Collect plants and other natural materials that you would like to use for your eco-printing project. Some popular choices include leaves, flowers, berries, and bark.  

    Maple leaves

  • Preparing the Fabric/paper: My first eco-printing project was on handmade paper. I prepared the  paper by drenching it in  water.  
  • Preparing the natural materials: Soak the collected natural materials (such as leaves or flowers)in a 10% alum solution. The alum on the leaves and flowers will allow the natural dye to adhere on the cellulose based paper.
  • Arrange the materials: Arrange the plants and other natural materials treated with mordant on the paper. You can use a variety of techniques to create different designs, such as layering or bundling the materials. In my project, I simply layered the paper. 

    Walnut and Sycamore leaves

  • Wrapping: After arranging the plants and materials, tightly press  the paper layers between two wooden pieces or something similar to provide support,  and tie a string around it firmly to keep the materials in place. One can also use rubber bands.
  • Steaming or boiling: Gently ‘cook’ or steam the eco-printing bundle at medium heat for about 30 minutes, depending on the type of plant and the desired intensity of color one can increase or decrease the length of time. Use heavy weights  to keep the bundle submerged under water. 
  • Unwrapping: After  boiling (or steaming) , remove the layers of leaves, flowers, and other materials to reveal the eco-print on the paper.

Eco-print of European walnut leaf

Eco printed 100% cotton paper

  • Final washing: Finally, the paper is washed to remove any remaining mordant and allowed to dry.

Remember that the process is all about experimenting and understanding how different plants react to various surfaces, so the outcome may differ from what you had in mind. With perseverance and patience, you will be astounded by the unique and stunning results that eco-printing can produce. It is critical to gradually and methodically approach eco-printing and acquire knowledge and abilities safely and responsibly.

After testing it on paper, I tried this technique on a piece of silk fabric with spectacular results. I also experimented with cellulose-based fabrics without using mordants, and the results were intriguing.

Bundle Dyeing for Beginners: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Beautiful Fabric Patterns

Final thoughts

Eco-printing is a beautiful and creative way of dyeing  a surface of your choice using natural materials to create a unique one-of a kind piece, where each piece tells it own story.  It is a form of meditation that brings you closer to nature. The process of collecting leaves, flowers and other materials, preparing them, and then printing them on fabric or paper is a slow and mindful process that can be very relaxing.

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