What is eco-printing?

Kathryn Davey

July 18, 2023

Dye sources
natural dyeing
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I’m a author, self-taught designer & natural dyer sharing the beauty of natural dyes and plant based colour with anyone that's interested :) 

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Hi, I'm kathryn

silk scarf printed with natural colour & pigments from plants

How does it work?

Eco-printing is sometimes referred to as botanical printing, eco-dyeing, bundle-dyeing or steam bundling. Whatever you call it, it is the process of wrapping & steaming plant material onto fabric, to create a variety of beautiful patterns & prints. To eco-print, place the dye material on the fabric, fold and wrap it around a pole or tie it in a bundle & add heat. Next, you steam or submerge it in water. The heat, in combination with the mordant used, causes the colour to release & imprint the pigments on the fabric. In the process, the colours and shapes of the plant material directly transfer onto the fibre. This is commonly done with flowers, leaves, bark, branches & seeds.

A process with mixed results

As with the origins of natural dyes, there has been very little known about the beginnings of eco-printing. We find mentions of the process appear in texts that date back to the middle ages. The great Leonardo Da Vinci described the techniques he used to imprint a sage leaf onto a cloth.

I have had many students share their disappointment in trying this technique & my first few attempts weren’t great. Don’t lose hope if you’ve tried this & it hasn’t worked out! After experimenting with lots of different techniques & methods I have landed on a few simple considerations that result in beautiful prints every time.

silk scarf printed with natural colour & pigments from plants

How to get the best results

Primarily, this technique works best with animal fibres such as silk or wool although I’ve had some decent results on lightweight linen. To achieve the most vibrant colours from your dye plants, you must thoroughly scour and mordant your fabric accordingly. Some dyers have great results with seeds, bark & leaves, I stick to flower petals, dye powder & leaves or herbs that are rich in oils. I find this gives me clearer more defined results. Here are a few important considerations to keep in mind;

  • Fabric must be scoured & mordanted.
  • Stick to dye sources known for their success (see the list below).
  • Consider using 100% silk fabric.
  • Experiment with steaming your bundles instead of submerging them in water.

silk scarf printed with natural colour & pigments from plants

My favourite plants to eco-print with:

My favourite flowers to work with are marigolds & coreopsis. Additionally, I’ve had strong results from madder, cochineal, fresh turmeric and cutch.

  • Scabiosa
  • Hollyhock
  • Sunflower
  • Marigold
  • Hibiscus
  • Goldenrod
  • Black-Eyed Susan
  • Dyer’s Chamomile
  • Hopi Red Amaranth

As no chemicals are used in eco-printing this makes it a far more environmentally friendly way to imprint colour & patterns onto fabric. The process is relaxing & very satisfying. Untieing your bundles after waiting patiently for them to steam, is like opening a beautiful present on your birthday!

silk scarf printed with natural colour & pigments from plants

Join my September workshop:

If you’d like to experience the process & learn the techniques and methods involved, I am offering two workshop dates. We will experiment with a variety of dyes & colour sources, create a range of vibrant samples & make two bandanas to take home.

Join my next eco-print workshop, Saturday, August 12th or 16th Sep, from 10:30-2:30, at my studio in Harolds Cross, Dublin 6W.

If you have any experience with eco-printing, let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear what worked & what didn’t.

x Kathryn

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