Winter Sun

While a sunny summer day is nothing to scorn, and sun on a spring or fall day is sweet, a sunny winter day offers something even more special than in any other season. Perhaps it is the clarity of the light, the crisp long shadows or simply the relief after a week of overcast skies to see the crystal blue above us again. This week we have had several sunlit days. My heart has been positively singing, which I attribute to the cloudless skies, although I’m sure my ginseng morning energy boost drink probably helps a lot too.

We took some nice walks into the woods, through allées I have never actually been down before (probably because we had to trespass) and saw some pretty ruins.

As usual I collected some leaves along the way. I really can no longer go past a plant without having a good look. I still don’t know all the names of my local vegetation, but because of my new interest in eco-dyeing, I am learning. Anything that opens my eyes wider to the world around me is okay by me. I notice myself noticing and I like that.

There are various “recipes” for making eco-prints from plants. On YouTube you can find many ways to go about it. I experimented with a lot of them until I found the technique that worked best for me. Basically it involves scouring my fabric first and then dipping it into a mordant of alum and washing soda mixed with water for a few minutes. I put my plants into a bath of vinegar and water and afterwards into a bit of iron water. I wrap the plants in the fabric then steam it for an hour.

I did get a lot of bleeding when I followed this procedure last fall, so when I read something entirely new that suggested that soaking leaves in water for several weeks might solve this issue, it got my attention. Since my terrace was full of fallen leaves, I gathered them together at the end of December and put them in a big pot of water to soak.

During this week I tested out the new technique. My rose branches, for instance, were none the worse for wear after their extended soak. The theory is that the breaking down of the cell walls allows the color from the plant to release more easily and thus create more of a leaf outline rather than a pool of color. I arranged roses, berries and a few wisteria leaves onto a piece of cotton which had been dipped in iron water and allowed to “cure” for a couple of days.

This procedure involved boiling the bundles in plain water for 45 minutes.

After less than an hour, I lifted the steaming bundles from the pot and allowed them to cool. Then I unwrapped them.

The roses made a nice print, it’s true, although I don’t think the results were extraordinarily different than my usual technique. The berries printed as usual and the wisteria hardly printed at all.

I did think this little leaf and its branch printed very much more richly than usual. Of course it all goes to show, as I have already discovered, that each leaf variety responds differently, and the time of year can profoundly influence results. The nice thing about eco-dyeing is how much more there always is to discover about it.

Some Vagaries OF Eco-Dyeing

Eco-printing is a recent development in natural dyeing. As far as I’ve been able to discover, it was originally developed by an Australian textile artist and stylist named India Flint. On her website she takes credit for inventing the technique, but being a generous person, she has also shared her process widely, and there are now many practitioners, including myself. Basically the process involves taking leaves, flowers and other plant parts, rolling them up in fabric or paper and then steaming or boiling the bundle to extract a print.

One of the pleasures and goals of these prints is to bring out the beautiful natural colors of different leaf varieties, (which may have limited relationship to the actual color the leaf appears to be in nature). Many leaves print brown, so getting more unusual shades is a constant motivation for continued exploration.  I can never look at a leaf in the same way I used to do. I’m always wondering what new color result I will get if I put it into a pot. No new leaf is safe from my pruning shears!

If you search for images of eco-prints, you will see many examples of ones made from eucalyptus leaves which give a bright red color. For an eco-dyer, this is the top of the mountain. The results are just spectacular. But every single one of the bright red eucalyptus leaf prints seem to be from an Australian artist. I can not duplicate that color with either Californian or French eucalyptus leaves. And if you know anything about the history of the eucalyptus tree in California, which was imported in the late 19th century from Australia (where it is was known as the gum tree), you will be aware that it is one of those hopeful but naive experiments that turned into an environmental catastrophe. So it is no wonder that California leaves do not preform the same as native Australian ones. The trees themselves, a source of excellent hardwood in Australia, adapted in a totally different way to their California habitat. My friend Jen, from England, has told me the same is true for her experiments with English eucalyptus leaves. That red color eludes us. Above, you see my best results for French eucalyptus leaves, a nice yellow, but far from the extravagant color India Flint and her fellow countrywomen can achieve.

Still, the beauty of eco-prints is that they describe a place, and each place is different. It is for the artist to discover the treasures of her own location. So I hunt for leaves close to home and find my own interesting colors.

My garden is full of columbine, an old fashioned flowering plant I’ve been partial to for years, so it was natural to try steaming some of those leaves. In fall 2017 the color came out a lovely orange. This spring I was anxious to have the same result so when the plants began to emerge I put them in the pot again. But they did not yield the pretty orange,  not in the spring, not in the summer and not even in the fall of this year. Jen told me that word is  there was much less tannin in plants this year. Ah the mysteries of nature!

So to get my bright color fix, I turned my attention towards berries.

Virginia creeper berries were the source of many richly colored eco-prints I made in late September, as the berries were first beginning to appear. I loved the way that the blue color swam all over the page creating a large block of blue.

I tried some black berries I found in our local forest as well. I liked the results very much.

In November when I spent some time in Paris, I found another source for the Virginia Creeper berries. I brought them home expecting to get much the same results as I had in September. But that was not the case. No matter how many little bundles of berries I put onto my paper, they printed as individual points of color and never turned into large blocks as they had in September.

My latest experiment came last week when I discovered that the honeysuckle plants on the fence outside our house had grown berries. What color would they produce?

As it turned out, honeysuckle berries are not very generous in releasing color, but the leaves are a different story. The big surprise for me was that when I boiled a couple of pieces of paper, each with the branches in the same batch, for the same amount of time, clamped between the same boards, in the same steam bath, they came out completely different from one another.

The only difference between the two was the kind of paper I used. On the left is a print made on a piece of bristol, on the right, watercolor paper. The leaf color is certainly absorbed much better into the watercolor paper, but the colors of leaves and berries is rather more subtle and interesting on the bristol.

Eco-printing is curious and unpredictable. Because one can never really count on a particular outcome it remains for me a source of endless fascination.