Eco-Dye in Autumn


 here and (t)here i am leaving small offerings to place

textile pieces immersed/interred in country

that will in due course be retrieved

–India Flint

Remember gathering fall leaves and ironing them between two sheets of wax paper? I have never outgrown my childhood fascination with that process. First, it involved a walk outside to find special elm, oak and maple leaves. Then an arrangement of leaf colors and shapes was created on paper that, with a pass from a hot iron, would melt and retain the composition like stained glass. That same sense of excitement was rekindled recently with Robbin Firth’s class Eco Printing with Pre-reduced Indigo, Tannin and Natural Dyes at the Textile Center.

To prepare for the class I read India Flint’s book Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles. Australia-based Flint is a leading personality in the eco-dye world. She is known for developing a distinctive form of dying and printing on cloth using, in her words, “leaves, flowers, bark, stones, water, minerals, bones, the discarded artifacts and hard detritus of human inhabitation, the local weed burden.” The eco-dying method involves bundling natural materials in cloth and then transformation through dye and steam. The colors and prints she achieves are earthy and beautiful. Flint has gained celebrity status as an artist who not only sells and shows her work internationally (including the 2012 University of Minnesota, Katherine Nash Gallery show, Landscape of the Mind), she also teaches much-in-demand “masterclasses” in eco-dying all over the world. It’s a thing.

I dabbled with some kitchen mordants and backyard dye stuffs while reading Flint’s book. I tried a process she calls hapa-zome where I basically took a mallet and pounded a blossom onto silk imparting a squish of pink color. Overall, despite good instructions, I can only report fleeting success. That is to say, I coaxed some color onto cloth but failed to hold onto any of it. In the jargon of dyers, my colors were fugitive, escaping my efforts to make them vivid and permanent. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Some art is temporary.


Robbin Firth showing her eco-dyed scarves.

I was encouraged when I met our instructor Robbin Firth and saw her eco-printing work. She showed us samples of the silk scarves we would make in her class. The leaf prints on the fabric were so clear and distinctive they looked like drawings. Firth is a popular fiber artist and educator, known widely for her work in felt and dying. She teaches at the Textile Center and at her own HeartFelt Silks retail and teaching studio located at the Seasons on St. Croix Gallery in Hudson, Wisconsin.


Our indigo dyed scarves drying.

The method we would explore in class involved dying with indigo and other botanical dyes and then pairing them with different mordants and modifiers to produce a range of colors while also adding prints from leaves. Robbin explained that we would be using the 2-ply method to create four different scarf designs. I have done my best to recount some of what I learned but there was a lot to follow. It makes one appreciate the expertise of artists like Robbin. There is so much to know about dyes and plants and how to handle them in the right proportions and with safety.

Fabric                                                                                                                                                 Silk: Our materials fee covered, among other supplies, four silk scarves. I recently visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and saw how silk was manufactured in an 1810 Connecticut mill. A nearly microscopic tendril of silk is pulled by hand from a cocoon onto a reeling and winding machine. I mention this here because it adds to one’s sense of wonder when handling silk to realize that it takes 3000 cocoons to produce a pound of the lustrous fabric. Most of the silk used today comes from China. Online sites like Dharma Trading Co. sell silk scarves for dyers. 

Mordant                                                                                                                                                  Aluminum acetate: I learned that dyers usually weigh their fabric (dry) to determine weight of fabric (WOF). That helps in calculating the amount of mordant (color fixative) and dye to use. Robbin shared a chart in one of her handouts. Indigo doesn’t need a mordant. We used aluminum acetate as a mordant for the other two scarves dyed with tannin and fustic.


A scarf pulled from the indigo vat is green before it oxidizes into blue.

Dyes                                                                                                                                        Indigo: We started class by mixing our natural dyes for the day. Robbin had already started a vat of indigo (she prefers to use PRO Chemical and Dye pre-reduced indigo for ease of use). The vat was warmed and then Robbin demonstrated activating it by adding thiox (thiourea dioxide) and soda ash, stirring it carefully to get it to the bright green color with a shimmery “flower” on top that means it is ready to dye. Robbin also uses pH strips to test the vat’s readiness.

Fustic: Robbin mentioned that she purchases her dyes from Botanical Colors. According to their website, fustic is the very definition of the color khaki. This tree bark dye was used in WWI to add dull brown color to soldiers’ uniforms. When it is used on silk, it gives gold to orange tones; when over-dyed with indigo it produces greens. 

Tannin from a gall nut: Gall nuts from the oak tree are an interesting source of dye. The so-called nuts are really the tree’s protective excretions (like liquid band-aids) that harden in spots where insects have punctured a branch to deposit eggs. These excretions are rich in tannins which are ubiquitous in the plant world–wine, tea and many other foods get their dry or bitter edge from tannins. When used as a dye, gall nut extract will give silk a beige color. It also works as a mordant (dye fixative). Dyers also use gall nut to “sadden,” color, a lovely dyer’s expression for darkening or dulling color. 

Modifier                                                                                                                                            Iron (ferrous sulfate): Iron was the magic ingredient that would react with the tannin in the leaves helping them imprint with a charcoal sketchy outline. Iron also acts as a mordant and modifier (or color shifter). Many eco-dyers add scrap metal pieces to dye bundles to introduce the effect of iron which saddens colors.

Leaves                                                                                                                                                        Wild geranium: Robbin pointed out that fall is the best time to gather leaves. She bags lots of them and keeps them in her freezer. They are rich in tannins now which is what helps them print on fabric. For proof of the process, look for fallen-leaf prints on the sidewalks this autumn. We worked with a selection of leaves Robbin brought in as well as some wild geranium she gathered along University Avenue. It was remarkable later to see the variety of effects the class members got despite using similar materials.

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1) A leaf arrangement on an indigo scarf. 2) The leaves sandwiched between indigo and a tannin dyed scarves. 3) Topped with plastic and rolled on a dowel. 4) The bundle ready for steaming.

Once we had our dyes simmering, we dipped two scarves in indigo and one in fustic and the last in the tannin dye. While we waited for the scarves to soak we left the dye lab for the workroom where we each had a long table upon which to compose with our leaves. Robbin had brought big bundles of eucalyptus, greveillea, wild geranium and other leafy stems.

When the scarves were ready, we spread our leaf compositions out on one of our indigo dyed scarves (right side up). Then we sandwiched those leaves by laying one of the other scarves (fustic or tannin dyed) on top. They would share leaf imprints. We then rolled out thin painters plastic over the top of both scarves and tightly, smoothly rolled up the layers of silk and plastic around a two-inch wooden dowel. We then secured the bundle with a cloth bandage and rubber bands.


After the steam and ready to unfurl.

Then came the big steam. The bundles went into a big double boiler/steamer for several hours. Some of us passed the time running errands or doing handiwork. Then came the unbundling of our little totems at the end of the day. We stepped outside and unrolled the scrolls of silk, each revealing unique variations of colors and leaf prints. The pressing together of silks meant that indigo mixed with tannin and fustic to create a wide variety of color shifts–from indigo blue to mauves and shades of lavender, green and gold. Some leaves imparted color, others just shape and shadow. 


I was a bit disappointed in my results compared to some others. My leaf imprints were fairly pale and did not change color much. However, Robbin emphasized that tight, smooth rolling gives the best results. I need to practice that technique. Also different leaves gave different effects and I used a limited palette for simple designs. In retrospect I should have loaded on more variety just to see the differences in effects. I was dazzled when we all put our finished scarves together on a table. 


It is worth mentioning that I gave my four scarves several good rinses once I got home. They shed quite a bit of dye, brightened and the prints stood out more distinctly. They are beautiful. And absolutely colorfast. I captured the fugitive.













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