Printing and painting with natural dye extracts

As part of the one-year natural dyeing course at Ditchling Museum I taught an experimental session on using natural dye extracts for fabric printing and painting. This is not an area in which I claim to have much expertise, so I was interested to see what my students would be able to achieve.

The following notes are from the information sheets I prepared and gave the students. I also recommended them to look at Helen Melvin’s useful booklet: Colours of the Rainbow: Painting Fibres and Fabrics with Extract Dyes    This is available from Helen at Fiery Felts, to which there is a link on my home page.

We used only gum tragacanth as a thickener and experimented with different degrees of fluidity, depending on which process we were using. For example, the consistency of the paste required for block printing differs from the consistency required for screen printing. We also found that block printing worked best if the thickened extracts were applied to the block with a paintbrush, rather than pressing the block into the dye solution. Application with a brush enabled students to cover only the areas for printing, whereas we found that dipping the blocks in the dye solution tended to blur the images because the dye spread into the areas between the carved design.


Making up dye extract solutions (NB See also section on Thickeners below) 

Use half a teaspoon extract to 50mls very hot water but use less (¼ tsp) for cochineal & logwood & more (1tsp) for cutch & madder. NB With cutch, madder, myrobalan, quebracho & lac/madder mix to a paste with cold water before adding hot water. If you intend to thicken the extract solution, use 15mls water and 35mls gum tragacanth thickener solution, instead of 50mls water.

For colour changes 

Dissolve 1tsp ferrous sulphate in 100mls very hot water and strain through a coffee filter paper. Then paint this over the dye. To change madder red to orange, logwood purple to grey & cochineal pink to red, dissolve 1tsp of cream of tartar in 50mls hot water & paint this over the dye.


Fabric should be mordanted first or the mordant solution can be brushed onto the fabric. Mix 10gms alum sulphate (animal fibres) or ¼tsp aluminium acetate (veg. fibres) with 100mls hot water. Brush the solution onto the fabric, and steam it for 30 minutes. Note: for deeper colours the mordant solution can be brushed on several times before steaming the fabric. Alternatively, the dissolved aluminium acetate mordant can be mixed with the dye solution, using 1/8 tsp for every 50mls of boiling water. Dissolve the aluminium acetate first in the boiling water then add the extract to it & dissolve completely before applying the mixture to the fabric. If using alum sulphate, dissolve it using 5gms per 50mls of boiling water.


With all the thickeners careful mixing is crucial. With gum arabic use water at room temperature and sprinkle the powder on the surface of the water, whisking as you do so. Continue whisking until the solution is glossy & not lumpy.

Gum tragacanth – use to thicken dye extracts. This is the most expensive of the thickeners & also the best. Use as follows: Mix 1 tablespoon of gum tragacanth with 250mls of boiling water and liquidise or hand whisk until glossy. The mixed gum tragacanth thickener can be kept for 6 months in the fridge. To thicken dye, add 15mls water to the dye extract & 35mls gum tragacanth solution. To thicken left-over dye solutions, add 1 tablespoon thickener to 2 tablespoons dye. Stir vigorously with a glass rod or whisk until smooth.

Gum Arabic – use with dye extracts & mordants. Use 10 to 12gms per 100mls dye or mordant solution. Mix very carefully & thoroughly. Gum arabic is less expensive than gum tragacanth but does not give such good results. However, it is fine for tests & experiments.                                                                                                                         

For further info:

Mordant printing 

Put 25mls gum tragacanth solution into a pot & add ¼tsp ferrous sulphate or aluminium sulphate. Mix very well & then print or stencil using this solution. Then brush on dye solution using a household paint brush. With iron mordant, black can be achieved if tannin-rich dyes are used, for example walnut, pomegranate & myrobalan.                                                                                                                                                     

Making a surface for printing or stencilling     

Use 2 or more layers of bubble wrap, depending on thickness, & fasten it down with masking tape. Put a layer of clingfilm on top then the fabric and fix down with masking tape. Then fix the stencil over the fabric, again with masking tape, & brush on thickened dye.

Printing or stamping     

Place the thickened dye mixture into a shallow dish. Press the stamp or printing block into the dye solution & press lightly onto kitchen paper to remove surplus dye. Then press firmly onto the mordanted fabric. Alternatively, print on the thickened mordant solution and then print or paint on the dye.

Setting the painted, printed or stencilled natural dye extracts   

Allow the fabric to dry then wrap the fabric in clingfilm making sure no two painted surfaces come into contact with one another. Start by laying the clingfilm under the fabric before you start to paint then cover the first few inches of painted surface with another layer of clingfilm & begin to fold the fabric on top of itself. Then steam the fabric for 30 to 45 minutes and allow the fibres to air cure for a further week before washing. Alternatively, air cure the fabric for one month before washing.

This is one of the prints made by Helen Gibbs

Screen print by Helen Gibbs

Painted and stitched piece by Susan D’souza

Block prints by Susan D’souza