9 Tips and Tricks that I have learned which can help beginner eco printers succeed in making beautiful, leaf printed fabrics
The very first time I eco printed some cotton and silk, the final results were somewhat disappointing. My black walnut and maple leaf print were very faint and hard to see.
At that time, this was still a fairly new technique and there were not too many articles or tutorials showing you how to draw out the natural dyes and make great prints.
Since then, I have learned so much more about this unique dyeing method and my subsequent printed fabrics have turned out a whole lot better with bolder, clearer prints.
While eco printing, by its nature, is a bit of a crap shoot, there are a few things that you can do to increase your chances of success.
So, I am going to share with you all of the tips, tricks and hints that I have learned over the years and maybe save you some disappointment.
Note: These eco printing tips and tricks are specifically for fabric and not paper, leather or other materials. You can find more info on how to eco print on paper in this tutorial.
A little disclaimer . . .
If you have been researching this natural dyeing method online, you may notice a difference in the advice from one dye artist to the next.
That doesn’t mean anybody is wrong, it simply means that we all have our own way of doing things.
The best way to figure out your favorite methods, is to just practice, practice and practice some more. Try out every technique you find and see if it works for you.
These particular eco printing tips are simply the methods that have worked for me.
My 9 top hints, tips and tricks:
1. Choose the best fabric
Naturally, the fabric you decide to use depends a lot on your personal preference. As you practice and get experience, you will more than likely lean more toward one material over another.
Some dyers prefer to use silk while others (like me) would rather work with cotton or linen.
Whichever fiber you choose, you will want to start with a white or light colored fabric that has a fairly tight weave.
Open weave cloth (such as silk chiffon) does not show the leaf prints quite as clearly as more dense fabric.
These flour sack towels are my favorites for eco prints.
How do different materials accept eco prints?
- Protein fiber fabric, in general, works better for all natural dyeing methods which includes eco dyeing or printing. This refers to any animal fiber such as silk, wool, alpaca, mohair, etc.
- Cellulose or plant based fibers (cotton, linen, bamboo, etc.) can also be used but require more careful mordanting to bring out stronger deeper colors and make your fabric more colorfast.
- Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic are normally not recommended for this technique, however I have had some success.
In general, synthetics don’t hold up to high heat as well as natural fibers and are fairly unpredictable in how they accept natural dyes.
Having said that, I have accidentally made some nice prints on polyester handkerchiefs that I was using as a barrier.
CONCLUSION: What fabric is easier for eco printing for beginners? Silk, wool and other protein fibers
2. Prepare the fabric
Regardless of which type of material you have, there are a few things you need to do to prepare your fabric to accept the dye and make it more color and lightfast.
Scour or Deep Clean (Cellulose Fabrics)
Making sure that your cotton or linen fabric is completely clean is a step that people often skip but it is super important for getting the best prints possible.
My favorite cloths to use are vintage, recycled or thrift store fabrics. But keep in mind that even if they have been machine washed, they are still not thoroughly clean.
There could be grease and sweat stains which tend to resist washing. Greasy stains will also resist taking your eco prints or any other natural dye.
Brand new, store-bought fabrics also need to be scoured. Why? Because, most manufacturers pretreat their cloths with some kind of sizing and starch to keep the wrinkles down and make the fabric look better overall.
This sizing creates a barrier between the cloth and the dye. Thorough scouring will remove any pretreatments.
Note: Wool fabrics, in general, do not need to be scoured and you can actually damage them in the process.
Raw wool should be washed but if you are brand new to eco printing, I would recommend you stay away from that and stick with pre-washed wool.
Also, I usually do not deep clean my silk fabrics. They are fairly fragile and lose their luster and shine easily.
Use a Mordant
Mordanting is important regardless of whether you use protein or cellulose fibers. The type of mordant and mordanting process will vary depending on the fiber content of your material. The only time you do not really need a mordant is if you use tannin heavy plant materials such as black walnuts, sumac, etc.
- Silk is mordanted with Aluminum Potassium Sulfate
- Sheep wool, alpaca, mohair etc. can be mordanted with Aluminum Potassium Sulfate
- For cotton and other cellulose fabrics, you will use some combination of Aluminum Acetate (AA), Soy Milk, Wheat Bran, etc.
This article will not go into the details of mordanting each type of fabric but here is a website which shares step by step guides on how to mordant most fabrics.
CONCLUSION: How do you prepare fabric for eco printing?
Deep clean or scour any cellulose fabrics. Mordant all fabrics using the fiber appropriate substance and method.
3. Pick the right leaves
In general, the easiest type of plant materials to get good prints contain tannins. Some of these can even be used successfully without using any mordant at all. These are usually the ones I tell people to try first.
Some leaves and trees that contain tannin: Black Walnut, Oak, Maple, Eucalyptus, Birch, Willow, Sumac, Laurel and Grape.
Following is a list of the leaves, flowers and other plant materials that I, personally have used successfully for eco printing on fabrics:
- Maple (red and green)
- Black Walnut (leaves and stems)
- Willow Oak
- Staghorn Sumac
- Wild Grape
- Tulip Poplar
- Eucalyptus (leaves, stems and berries)
- Roses (leaves and flowers)
- Nasturtiums (leaves)
- Four O’Clock (leaves and flowers)
- Garlic Mustard
So far, my best prints have come from fresh leaves picked in Spring, Summer and Fall. However, if you need to gather your leaves but don’t have time to use them right away, you can store them for later use.
- Pick fresh leaves or flowers and then press them in between newspaper or old phone books, then place the bundles in airtight bags. When you are ready to use your dried leaves, place them in water for an hour or more to reconstitute.
Whether or not a certain leaf gives a good print depends on many different factors including the material of the fabric and any mordants used.
So, if you don’t get a great print the first time, try something else! That particular plant just may need a different method.
Hint: The back of most leaves creates a better print than the front.
CONCLUSION: Which leaves make the best eco prints? Leaves that contain tannins such as willow, maple, oak and black walnut
4. Prepare the leaves
As with everything else to do with eco prints, what you do to your leaves prior to use, is strictly a personal preference and a lot of trial and error.
In my experience, I normally have good results from soaking my leaves (fresh or dried) in warm water for an hour or more. Some dyers prefer to use white vinegar but I have not noticed much difference.
As I mentioned above, always soak any dried plant material in either water or vinegar to reconstitute the dyes within.
CONCLUSION: How do you prepare leaves for printing? Pre-soak your leaves in warm water for one hour or longer.
5. Use a color modifier
What is a color modifier? In a nutshell, it is a substance such as iron or copper that you can use to change the color of the print or dye.
There are several different ways you can use them. First, you can dip your fabric in a modifier solution and/or you can also dip the leaves in the modifier before printing.
You can also dip your fabric in it after printing to shift the final color.
- Ferrous Sulfate aka Rust Water aka Liquid Iron tends to make any natural dye deeper and darker. It ‘saddens’ the color.
- Copper Sulfate aka Copper Water will brighten some colors and bring out yellows and greens in some dyes.
Both are consider dye modifiers. You can make your own rust water or liquid copper with this recipe but it is impossible to control the strength of the iron or copper with this method.
I am all about DIY and making your own rather than buying but in this case I recommend to beginning eco printers that you purchase the Ferrous and Copper and keep detailed notes about how much you use in your experiments.
CONCLUSION: How can you make stronger prints? By dipping your fabric and/or leaves in a solution of liquid iron or copper modifiers.
6. Use a barrier
Another one of my tips involves using a barrier. What does that mean?
Basically, a barrier is a sheet of plastic or a second piece of fabric that is placed on top of the layer of leaves before rolling. This helps to prevent bleed through of the dyes and can give you clearer outlines.
Note: While I really do not like to use plastic, it does make for a very good barrier between the layers and keeps the dyes from migrating.
Whenever possible, I repurpose old plastic bags and sheeting for my barriers.
CONCLUSION: How can you get clearer prints? Cover the leaf layer with a sheet of plastic or other fabric to make a barrier.
7. Make a dye blanket
A dye blanket is similar to a barrier in that it also creates a layer in between the leaves and the back of your print fabric.
A dye blanket, however, is usually a piece of fabric that has been dipped in some kind of dye beforehand. This dye is then transferred to your main fabric during the heat processing creating a ‘background’ of color.
Note: A dye blanket can also be dipped in iron or copper instead of dye which also shifts the final colors.
CONCLUSION: How do you add more color to your printed fabrics? By using a layer of fabric dipped in dye or liquid iron on top of the layer of leaves.
8. Roll or bundle tightly
Potentially my most important eco printing tip is to make sure you roll your bundle up as tightly as possible. A tight roll ensures good contact between the cloth and the plant material resulting in clearer prints.
My preferred tool for rolling my bundles are thick sticks but larger pieces of PVC pipe, which are smooth, also work well.
CONCLUSION: How to make well defined leaf prints? Rolling your bundles very tightly ensures good contact between the plant material and the cloth.
9. Apply heat correctly
To process your bundles you need to apply heat. This is usually done in the form of either steaming or simmering.
Most of the time, I lightly simmer my materials for at least 2 hours or longer, not a rolling boil, but an easy simmer. This is just the method that has worked well for me.
It is my understanding (and correct me please if I am wrong) that silk should not be processed at a very high heat and does better with steaming than simmering.
I do not have that much experience with silk so if anyone can enlighten me on this, please let me know.
When the bundles have cooked for the appropriate amount of time, turn off the heat (remove them from the water, if boiling) and let them sit overnight to cool completely. The longer they sit, the better the prints and colorfastness.
Note: Some people have successfully printed using a microwave, Instapot or steam press machine but personally, I have not tried these tools.
CONCLUSION: How do I set the dye? Steam or simmer the bundles for two or more hours to set the dye in the plant materials. (I like to leave them overnight)
And, there you have them, my own personal eco printing tips and tricks.
Please remember that all dyers have their own way of doing things so you may see different recommendations on other sites. What works for one person may not work for another.
As I continue my experiments and learn new things, I will add to this list so make sure you bookmark this page and stay tuned!
Also, if you know of something that I have missed, by all means let me know.
- What fabric is easier for eco printing for beginners?
Silk, wool and other protein fibers
- How do you prepare fabric for eco printing?
Deep clean or scour any cellulose fabrics. Mordant all fabrics using the fiber appropriate substance and method.
- Which leaves make the best eco prints?
Leaves that contain tannins such as willow, maple, oak and black walnut
- How do you prepare leaves for printing?
Pre-soak your leaves in warm water for one hour or longer.
- How can you make stronger prints?
By dipping your fabric and/or leaves in a solution of liquid iron or copper modifiers.
- How can you get clearer prints?
Cover the leaf layer with a sheet of plastic or other fabric.
- How do you add more color to your printed fabrics?
By using a layer of fabric dipped in dye or liquid iron on top of the layer of leaves.
- How to make well defined leaf prints?
Rolling your bundles very tightly ensures good contact between the plant material and the cloth.
- How do I set the dye?
Steam or simmer the bundles for two or more hours to set the dye in the plant materials.
Can you eco print on polyester?
If you have researched this technique at all, you have probably read that you cannot print on synthetics like polyester. Technically, I guess you really should not be able to.
That being said, I have successfully (although by accident) printed leaves on some polyester hankies that I found at a dollar store.
They were only meant to be a barrier to keep the colors from bleeding through but showed a maple leaf and some black walnut leaves beautifully!
How do you mordant cotton?
There are a few different ways that you can mordant cellulose fabrics such as cotton. Personally, I have had good success with soy milk where you soak your fabric in a half soy milk/half water solution, let it dry and repeat two or three more times.
A more common cotton mordant is Alum (Aluminum Acetate) along with a Tannin. This is a great article on the different mordanting methods.