Ah, November in Ohio! The leaves have donned their fiery hues, the air has turned nippy, and the geese are flying south. We find ourselves in the month of gratitude, where we celebrate our harvest, our families, and our traditions with the Thanksgiving holiday. The garden is preparing to sleep and the last of the edibles are being picked. But what about those inedibles? You might not have considered the creative potential of things like false indigo, maple leaves, chokeberry, or sticks.
This is where my latest project begins: botanical printing!
I’ve gotten very interested in dye for the last few years, experimenting with dying stained pants, toning down a very bright lime green fabric, even doing a little bit of work with real indigo. Now I’m doing an experiment with the plants in my own backyard and their potential as an artistic medium. Did you know you can make a contact print using leaves and other things? I didn’t either. That all changed when I visited an open studio space in Cleveland called 78th Street Studios, for you local art lovers. If you want to check out this amazing space and maybe do a little Christmas shopping, please check this website for some more information: http://78thstreetstudios.com. It’s a huge building and the art is amazing.
I was particularly struck by this one studio where the artist had made botanical contact prints on silk scarves using leaves. I was enchanted. I still regret not purchasing a scarf. However, it got me wondering if I could do that myself. It turns out, yes, I can! You can, too, just gather these materials:
From the house:
- Huge old stockpot dedicated to dye
- Rubber bands
- Fabric in natural fiber-linen, cotton, silk or wool
- Alum-used in pickling, see spices in the grocery store
- Rusty bits of metal or nails
- Copper pipes
- Onion skins
From the yard:
- Chokeberry, sumac, or other nontoxic berries with plenty of rich color
- Maple leaves, sassafrass leaves or other nontoxic leaves
- Kale, purple cabbage, or other dark leafy greens. Beets also work for pinkish or peachy hues.
- Flowers, if available, such as nasturtiums, catmint, roses, marigolds, geraniums, anything nontoxic with rich colors
- Eucalyptus (mine came from the grocery store)
- Walnuts from a tree (not the gtocery store) with the green or brown shell on
- Any other nontoxic plants- I used false indigo, ferns are ok, and there are no doubt many others.
I used a guide online so as to avoid poisoning myself and to get an idea of what colors to expect from what plants. These websites were helpful:
Both have great photos and information for you if you’re curious about how to do your own.
First, I washed my linen with some Dawn dishsoap to remove any residue from manufacturing. Then, once it was dry, I weighed it. I figured out what 5% of the fabric weight was so I could add that much alum to my water in the bucket. My fabric was about 12.44 oz, and my alum quantity used was .60 oz.
You need to soak the fabric at least overnight in the alum solution to prepare the fabric to accept the dyes exuded by your botanicals. Make sure you keep this away from pets and kids.
When I’d gathered my materials, I put on some vinyl gloves. Next, I took my still wet linen and spread it on my kitchen floor.
Then I placed my specimens all over it on the right half, scattered and overlapping in some places. Then I added some rust from part of a buried can lid I found in the yard (I have no idea how it got there, but my house has had a lot of owners, so who knows? I find weird stuff all the time.) Of course, you want to be wearing thick gloves when you handle rusty sharp metal, and you want to be very careful. Nobody wants a tetanus shot!
I rubbed it to get the rust to flake off all over the fabric and broke it very carefully into sections and laid it in there with the plants. Then I added some sticks. The tannins in the wood help the dye process along. Then, I carefully folded the fabric in half, lengthwise, and laid a larger stick at one end. Then, I rolled the bundle up. and secured it with rubber bands. When I got done, it looked like a wrapped mummy. At this point, I stuffed the entire thing in the fridge because it was time to leave for work. This is not standard procedure, it was merely convenient to keep it from drying out while I went about my day. I’m glad I live alone, as finding a mummy in the fridge may have freaked out any housemates looking for things to eat. Living with me is an adventure.
After an intermission of ten hours, I threw ten walnuts in the pot with water and set it on the stove to get hot and steamy. Once the liquid is simmering, the bundle goes in and you let it cook, covered, for about two hours. Warning: this will make the house smell kind of weird. It might be best done in warm weather, when windows can be opened.
I put mine on for two and a half hours. After that, take it out and wait. I left the bundle in the basement for five days. You want your vegetable matter to rot a bit, so it leaves color behind. On Friday, I unwrapped it, which is a very messy process, so get a tarp or go outside or something when you do yours.
I put it on the clothesline to dry and hours later I took it upstairs to see what I had.
When I did my big reveal, I was a little surprised by the lack of clear printing. I’m not sure if I got the chemistry wrong with my alum solution, or if it was the materials that I used, or maybe the time of year had an effect on the suitability of the plant materials. Maybe the fact my leaves were off the ground and not picked from the tree, where their chemical composition is different, affected my outcome. Perhaps I just didn’t use enough steam.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t get much of a clear imprint from anything. Just a few greenish and yellowish patches. The pinks from the chokeberry vanished completely after a wash, I’m sorry to say. The walnuts did color the fabric very well. It wasn’t this dark going into the bath, and you can see some lighter patches of the original color showing through. But the maple and sassafrass leaves, the catmint, the nasturtiums, and the rose petals left not a trace, or very faint marks.
The rusty metal printed some cool spots and I did get some really interesting squiggles and layered lines, a bit like a cartography map. I didn’t get what I was expecting, but I’m not disappointed, either. So while it did print, I think that it would be safe to say it’s a bit unpredictable. Perhaps if you do one, it might be better to purchase some of the chemicals mentioned in the websites I listed earlier and you will perhaps get clearer results than I did.
Everyone I’ve shown it to has asked, what will you make from this? The answer is I don’t really know yet. Sometimes I just like to experiment and see what happens and then a project occurs to me later. I may make it into a bag, or a gathered skirt, or a top, or maybe someday it will become a table runner or a pillow. It’s linen, so it can do a great many things. As you can see here, it’s very unique and whatever I end up doing with it, I will have to plan carefully to showcase that quality. Whatever it becomes someday, for now it is cat approved, as you can see my photography assistant, Ace, enjoys it very much. Perhaps when he is done playing with it, I will think about drawing some leaves or flowers on it with fabric paint at a later date to accent the botanical prints. I bet some line drawings in brown, olive and rose paint would look pretty good in some of the less interesting areas. We shall see! If I do that, or make something from it, I’ll do another post later so you can see it. In the meantime: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!