It’s all in the detail

Eco-print; feijoa leaf on silk. Image: Su Leslie 2019

This week’s Lens-Artists Photo Challenge ask us to focus on the details, so I’m going to take you on a wee journey through a very cool fibre art process I learned recently. This is not a lesson in technique (I’m a total novice here), but a glimpse at some of the processes and outcomes. (1)

A couple of weeks ago, I did a workshop (2) on eco-printing — a process which transfers colour and shape from plants to another material (generally textiles or paper).

The theory

The basic principle is fairly simple. Many plants contain chemicals that will, under the right conditions, leach into other materials. Plant dyes are usually made by boiling leaves, bark, roots, fruit and/or flowers and then immersing fabric in the liquid.

Eco-printing eliminates the first stage; instead bringing plant and fabric into direct contact. The actual transfer process can apparently take place without water or heat — but takes weeks rather than hours to achieve. It is more usual to bundle plant and fabric together and either steam, or immerse in simmering water.

A disclaimer

Eco-printing is not for anyone who wants a precise result. It’s a process with so many variables that every piece made will be different — even if they use the same plants from the same source in the same water-bath.

The fun is in the detail!

Basically the same plant material; the same fabric, “cooked” at the same time. Image: Su Leslie, 2017

For someone like me — traditionally driven by results rather than process — that knowledge was oddly liberating. It meant I could simply PLAY.

Olive, feijoa, bracken fern, onion skin, layed out on silk. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

The chemistry bit

Some plants — eucalyptus in particular — make excellent dyes while others need a little chemical help to release their colour into fabric. The “chemical help” is known as mordant. Mordants are often (but not always) metal salts. The one we used in the workshop was iron-based — made by soaking rusty nails and steel wool in vinegar. After a week or so, the liquid can be mixed with water and the plant material dipped or soaked in it before being laid on the fabric.

A jar of rusty nails; otherwise known as iron mordant. Image: Su Leslie, 2016

Silver dollar gum leaves (Eucalyptus cinerea) give bold colours and definition without an extra mordant. Image: Su Leslie

Detail; silver dollar leaves on silk. Image: Su Leslie


The transfer of colour and outline from plant to fabric happens when the two are in direct contact. The method we used to achieve this is called bundling.

We laid out assorted leaves, stems and bits of bark on our silk fabric, rolled these up, tied them and put them in simmering water to “cook” for at least an hour. The longer you leave the bundles, the darker and more intense the colours.

Happy with the layout. Image: Su Leslie

Practicing at home. Tied bundles ready for the pot. Image: Su Leslie

Slimy mess. Once the bundle is cooked, the leaves are removed to reveal what’s been imprinted. Image: Su Leslie

Finished product

Finished scarf. Image: Su Leslie

Finished scarf. Image: Su Leslie

Detail, finished scarf. Image: Su Leslie

(1) If you are interested, online resources abound (of the usual variable quality). I’d suggest you begin here. India Flint is widely credited with “inventing” the eco-print process.

(2) The workshop was taught by artist Birgit Moffat

66 thoughts on “It’s all in the detail

  1. Oh, I LOVE this. Your results are beautiful, and the process is appealing too. Who knew that a drawerful of rusty nails could be useful? I’m going to follow up all your links later: I’m interested!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think this is wonderful! Your creativity is limitless.
    That scarf turned out to be so chic.
    Considering the complicated process, it is really a work of art to be mastered by a patient heart and eager mind.
    Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is really interesting! I’ve taken a few fiber classes and loved how the instructors guided us through the process and even helped with the creative aspects. Not sure I could do something like this unsupervised. Your scarf and images of the process are all wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Because it’s so “experimental”, I found it really easy to play with the techniques once I got home.
      I generally work better on my own because I’m less self-conscious; though I have to say that Birgit created a really positive environment for everyone to learn and express ourselves.


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  5. This tugs at me. I was wondering as I was reading your post where to find information about what kinds of plant materials work best and if flower petal would work. I’m thinking of things like iris and hibiscus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Birgit said flowers don’t work as well for eco-printing, but do make good general dyes. The India Flint book says that colour can be extracted from flowers using an ice method in preference to heat.


  6. Now this is the sort of creative art that I would love to have a go at. A sort of grown-up, sophisticated tie-dye! Now I am sorry I threw that bucket of rusty nails (complete with rusty water) away. Your finished scarf is gorgeous and glamorous and more to the point – unique ๐Ÿ˜š

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jude. I’m sure there’s lots of brilliant foliage around your way. And you don’t need a lot of rust — a bit of steel wool in vinegar works.

      Note: silk and wool work better than cotton as they are animal fibres and there is some sort of protein thing happening that makes the natural dyes adhere to them better.


  7. A-MA-ZING stuff, nearly completely natural and stunningly beautiful. That’s exactly the kind of scarf I’m always going for and paying fortunes for….
    Did you know (just a little a-side) that mordant is French and means ‘biting’ – but also aggressive which obviously your vicious mix is… interesting, isn’t it? When I say Je suis mordue de…. it means I really, really am a fan/love/bewitched with…. Same thing for biting into your breakfast roll, or a dog getting at you…. it’s all biting.
    Was thinking that there’s a similar process (if not as lengthy) for decorating easter eggs with grass, leaves, blooms. And with an edible result too.


  8. Oh my God!!! This is just soooo beautiful!!! I’m totally in love with the colours and textures and everything! The concept too is amazing. What a wonderful and adventurous thing to do, play is the right word! Your scarf is just so beautiful, Su! Do you know if you can only print silk or would other materials like yotton work as well?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I knew this would be a creative process that would interest you. It is so much fun, and produces endlessly variable results. It’s also a great exercise in letting go and just playing.
      It is possible to print on cotton, bamboo, linen, etc too but plant-based fibres require some extra preparation in order for them to take up the dyes. Protein fibres (animal hair, wool, etc) seem to absorb the dye much more easily. I haven’t tried anything but silk (and a little bit of loose wool roving), but this article might be helpful

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m already thinking about which plants, leaves, flowers to use! I think the skin of purple shallots would be awesome!
        And wouldn’t it be awesome to colour your own wool? I love sheep and wouldn’t mind keeping them, sheer them, “steal” their milk for making cheese – LOL! Might be even easier than trying to buy untreated wool around here!!
        I think I’ll try it with silk first then. And thanks for the link! xo


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