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 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.
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 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