Eco-Printing: Natural Dyes From Native Plants

by Emma Duffany

What do you get when you wrap cabbage, sumac, bloodroot, onion skins, blueberries and spruce twigs in a square of fabric and boil it in water? A hot mess?  Well, yes.  But also beautiful red and gold silk scarves or linen patterned with leaves and glowing in all the colors of forest trunks.  This is called eco printing.

Last Friday, Velma Bolyard, a local fiber artist, visited our house and taught us how to naturally dye fabrics using wild things found in the nature of the North Country.  We have been collecting onion skins for several weeks because they impart a subtle yellow glow onto fibers.  Velma also brought with her bloodroot, a native spring flower that she had collected and frozen the previous year.  Other supplies included furry reddish orange clusters of sumac berries, and a slightly wilted red cabbage.  We raided the house for other materials and came up with loose tea, frozen blueberries, coffee grounds, leaves from our house plants and we also ventured outside to collect oak leaves and spruce boughs.

As Velma was demonstrating how to dye the first piece of cotton, she explained that there is no right way to go about eco printing.  There are no hard and fast rules about what materials will create what colors or patterns, even she with years of experience, is excited and surprised by the serendipitous patterning on her finished creations.

Creating an eco-print requires pressure and heat to impart the color permanently into the weave of the fabric.  To do this we made dye bundles out of cotton, linen and silk fabric stuffed full of our natural goodies.  We wrapped these bundles tightly around pieces of old copper pipe and rusty drill bits; the metals act as a mordant to bind the dyes to the fabric.  We each made a silk scarf for ourselves and several cotton and linen squares that we will sew together and hang on the walls for decoration.

Spread out on our big kitchen table was a colorful array of natural dying materials and swatches of recycled pillow cases, old pants from family members and thrift store bed sheets just waiting to absorb the colors of our creativity.  After showing us the process, Velma let us dive in to see what our imaginations could make. 

Here are the steps we took:

  1. Lay a fabric piece of any size onto a flat surface.
  2. Select natural dye materials from your collection and rip, cut, scatter and smoosh them in any pattern you choose all over your fabric swatch.
  3. Fold fabric in half (this can be rather tricky because the items will want to flee from the premises but keep calm because the more chaotic their arrangement the better) and place metal rod at one end.
  4. Roll fabric very tightly onto the rod, smooshing everything together.
  5. Wrap thick string tightly around bundle and tie securely.
  6. Place bundle in a large soup pot with enough water to cover your bundles
  7. Add to the water all the extra sticks, berries, skins and leaves, and gently boil for three hours.
  8. Take off heat and leave bundles in pot for at least one week so that the fabric can soak up as much color as possible… the longer the soak the more vibrant the colors!

Once we had cleaned up and set the dye pot to boiling, we made an excursion into the nearby woods to collect dyeing supplies for more eco prints next week.  Velma guided us in finding wild strawberry leaves peeking through the snow and little puffy fungi.  We also gathered pine needles, lichen, moss, apple branches and a few precious green ferns still clinging to life by the roots of a tree.

Our dye bundles are currently soaking in pots in our kitchen and we are excited to see what they will look like at the end of the week.  Perhaps the onion skins will turn them yellow, or we might be surprised by nice spring green.  The cabbage leaves could turn the linen one color and the silk another.  Maybe the spruce needles will give a pattern to the fabric or simply appear as an indistinct blob.  It will remain a mystery until we unwrap the bundles this Friday. We are dyeing of anticipation!

~Heron and Emma Duffany