Contact printing using plant materials is often called eco-printing, which is a term coined (in her book “Eco Colour”) by India Flint, who developed this technique initially from her work with eucalyptus leaves. Inherent in the philosophy behind the eco-print as practised by India Flint is the acceptance of the changing conditions of life and therefore also of the printed cloth, which is the result of patterns made from living plants.
The technique seems deceptively simple and indeed, if used in its most basic form, by wrapping leaves and other plant materials tightly into a fabric bundle, which is then steamed or simmered in a dye pot, it is relatively easy to produce prints of varying degrees of attractiveness. Some of these basic prints can be pretty but at other times the final results just look like amorphous blobs and stains, which can appear dirty and messy.
However, in the hands of skilled practitioners this technique becomes much more complex and is a method of creating clear imprints of leaves and achieving other beautiful decorative effects on fabrics, clothing and papers.
Some traditional natural dyers have expressed fears that the results of eco-printing may not be light- and wash-fast and that this could bring natural dyeing into disrepute. I must admit that initially this was my concern, especially as some of the plant materials that may be used for this technique are known to have poor fastness properties. However, as I learn more about the contact printing technique it becomes clear that, if properly and carefully carried out using appropriate materials, this method of patterning fabrics can produce light and wash-fast designs, which can be very beautiful. It is also apparent that many of the more experienced eco-printers use their knowledge of traditional natural dyeing methods as the basis for successful contact printing.
Contact printing is not the same process as traditional natural dyeing and in each process the same colours will not necessarily be achieved, even when the same plant materials are used. For example, some red and pink flowers, such as those of pelargoniums or fuchsias, tend to give rather disappointing yellow or brownish colours if used in the traditional simmering method of dyeing, but may give pinks and reds when used in contact printing.
In general, the best results from contact printing tend to be achieved if the fabric is mordanted first, usually with alum or tannin, or treated beforehand with soy milk, and if the cloth is wrapped around pieces of iron, tin cans or copper piping and then bound round very tightly. The tighter the bundle is tied and the longer one allows the bundle to mature before opening it, the better the results are likely to be. This is not a technique that can be rushed if one wants really good, clear results. The more time that is allowed between each step, the better and the faster the results will be. Time is of the essence and an intrinsic part of the process.
Recently, I was lucky enough to meet Fabienne Dorsman Rey, who is a talented and highly skilled creative textile artist, renowned for her work in the field of eco-printing and for her beautiful stitched pieces and delicate folded paper books. Fabienne is an inspirational and generous teacher and, after talking with her and looking at examples of her work, it soon became clear that I am merely a novice with rather limited experience in this approach. Indeed, the more I learn about the different contact printing techniques, the more I realise how much I still have to learn. Fabienne is also an experienced natural dyer and her work builds on and develops from her knowledge and expertise as a traditional dyer. In addition to gathered leaves and flowers and other plant materials, she also uses the more traditional natural dyes in her work, which is further enhanced by the subtle use of stitching and embroidery, giving her pieces added texture, depth and meaning.
Below are some images showing some of Fabienne’s work, including some prints on papers
“Pods of Tenderness”
More about Fabienne and her beautiful work can be found on Facebook (Fabienne Dorsman-Rey) and here: http://exhibition-fromtheinsideout.blogspot.nl/p/fabienne-dorsman-rey.html
After meeting Fabienne I was inspired to experiment further with the contact printing technique on fabrics and papers.
I used silk scarves, pieces of cotton and wool fabrics which I first mordanted with alum. I spread out the leaves and other plant materials on one half only of the fabric, added some iron nails or similar metal pieces, sprayed the fabric with clear vinegar then carefully folded the other half of the fabric over the top. I then rolled each bundle very tightly around either a piece of wooden dowelling, a section of copper piping or a large iron bolt and tied the bundles firmly with string. I decided to experiment with papers too, so I spread leaves and flowers between layers of various kinds of paper and then placed these papers between very stiff card, before tying them round tightly. I steamed the fabric and paper bundles for about an hour in a bamboo vegetable steamer, purchased specifically for this purpose, and then allowed them to mature for about a week before opening them up. Thicker bundles may need a longer simmering period and it is important to experiment to find appropriate steaming times for each type of material.
The photos below give some idea of what I have achieved so far. Many of the leaf prints are still not clearly enough defined and there is certainly room for improvement in this area. I think I also added too many plant pieces to some of the fabrics and this has made the designs too cluttered and “busy”. For my next experiments I will try adding some of the bundles to different dye baths, rather than steaming them.
Two bundles ready for the steamer
Bundles of steamed fabrics maturing before being opened
Contact print on wool fabric using mainly rose leaves and wrapped round an iron bolt
Contact print on cotton using eucalyptus and blackberry leaves with some iron nails added
Three silk scarves drying on the line
Silk scarves printed with eucalyptus leaves
Silk scarf printed with wisteria and eucalyptus leaves
The design on this silk scarf reminds me of a lion’s head but I can’t remember which plant materials I used
Silk scarf printed with ivy and hypericum leaves (I think)
Some printed papers