Eco-Dyeing on Silk

I had quite a lot of plant material left over from our holiday, including two generous bouquets of flowers; roses, mimosas, daffodils. I dried many of them, as I discovered last year to my surprise that one can still extract color from dry plants. Some of the fresh flowers and leaves, however, became subjects for silk eco-printed pieces I have been creating over the last two weeks. I was able to make so many prints of various sizes, that when sewn together (using some pieces done over the last year), I had a large quilt of about 3 X 5′.

Silk is wonderful to dye with, but a bit of a pain to sew with. It’s hard to make everything square, but Rick, who is very meticulous with such things, helped me make a good rectangle.

The way the eco-dyeing process works is that you soak the fabric in a basin of water which has a couple of tablespoons of both alum and washing soda. This is an effective mordant for the silk (or cotton and paper, for that matter). The plants are soaked in a bath of half vinegar and half water. Just a few minutes of soaking both for the fabric and plants is sufficient. Before arranging the plants onto the silk fabric, I take the plant pieces out of the vinegar water and dip them into a bath of iron water (made by soaking rusty nails in vinegar and water for a month or so). The fabric is then rolled tightly around a stick or a bottle and tied with string so that the plants and fabric have maximum contact. The bundle is placed in a pot of boiling water, not submerged, but suspended above the water, so that the whole thing can steam for an hour. It is that simple.

Here are a few details from the quilt. I love how the results can almost seem photographic.

The roses were white, but they printed a golden yellow with blue outlines.

This hobby is rather addictive because the results are always such a surprise. All variables, the weather, the time of year, the quality of the soil, the exact plant specimen, the fabric or paper used, all will change the results, and sometimes quite dramatically. In Australia eucalyptus leaves print red but in France they print yellow. In the late fall maple seeds print purple, while earlier in the season they print rusty red.

Silk is the best medium for eco-dyeing, in my experience. It takes the plant images in the most detail, but of course it is expensive, so I feel as if I have to use my results in some kind of project, rather than just adding them to the stacks of eco-dyed materials I have in drawers. In this case, I intend to make a large wall hanging, which will involve doing some quilting onto cotton batting with some beautiful silk embroidery thread I have ordered.


Earlier in the week, we had occasion to go to Vendôme, a forty minute drive southeast from us. It was a chilly day but rather pretty nonetheless. The Loir River (baby brother to the larger Loire River), which passes through the town was high and lively. I caught a photo of these fishermen on the banks, trying their luck. Vendôme is a very elegant town.

Starting This New Year

For the first time in my life, we did not celebrate Christmas this year. For our family in California, the price of flights to Paris for New Years was less than a quarter of what it would have been for Christmas. I thought I was sentimental about trees and ornaments, but it turns out I’m not. Christmas passed without much notice and with no regrets for Rick and me. Instead everyone arrived on New Year’s Eve and spent the first week of 2020 with us at Maison Conti. New Year’s Day has always been my favorite moment of the year anyway, so I found it an especially nice time to come together.

Let’s begin by talking about the food. Most of the family loves to cook, and all of us like to eat. The main celebratory meal we had together was on the 1st. It included the essentials, such as oysters, foie gras and roast beef.

But there were a few surprises too. Emily, being a vegetarian and an excellent cook, always has something special to share for our meals together. This time it was a galette made with a crust of ground nuts, topped with avocado purée and mushrooms. I have added a link to the recipe as I highly recommend this dish. It was spectacular.

We bought some beautiful côtes de boeuf from our local shop. They directed us to cook them over an open fire, so we turned our downstairs fireplace into an indoor barbecue.

We had several organized activities planned for the holiday, but most free time was spent walking, sitting by the fire, reading, chatting and doing crossword puzzles.

The weather was mild but not bright and sunny.

In the past we have often done some crafts projects together during holidays. One year, inspired by Calder, we made lo-tech mechanical toys. (Calder had a fabulous collection of handmade puppets which he used to create magical circus performances for his friends.) We have often done sewing projects. This year we decided we would make a book together, and I was left to arrange it. I prepared all the pieces in advance, so that we could put the journal together in a reasonable time frame.

Since I have had so much fun with eco-dyeing, I decided to begin by having everyone make a title page using this technique. I collected leaves and asked James to bring me some eucalyptus from the U.S., which he kindly did. Eucalyptus is one of the best leaves for this process.

I chose to show them how to create a little book that binds the pages together with elastic so that pages are easily added and removed.

Everyone seemed pleased with the results. Each had a unique book well put together. Each cover and the decorative inner lining pages were different one from another.

Several people have told me since that they have put their little books into daily use.

Another project we did together was some canning. We made pear chutney, lime pickle and pickled vegetables.

One day we decided to show Daniel the first house we bought in France, which is about an hour northwest of Montmirail. We visited the old haunts on a very chilly day.

In those early days, we literally lived in the middle of a forest beside a little stream. The old house has fallen into some disrepair these days. It is really a little paradise in summer, but not so much in winter. It’s hard to picture now the life we lived there, especially at this time of year. We used to roam the woods looking for fallen branches since there was only a small fireplace and no central heating.

After everyone had gone back to their own homes, ours got very quiet. Still, it has given us some time to get a few things done around the house and to start projects of our own. I’ll share some in future posts.

Using Plant Prints

Wall hanging quilted with a traditional Sashiko stitch design

Printing with plants is a magical process and it can get quite addictive. Over the course of a few years I have used a lot of fabric and paper to imprint plants. I have a large stack of both. I like to be able to put these prints to some kind of practical use. Some eco-dyers make clothing with the fabric they dye, but I tend to prefer to make wall hangings.

With a stack of my recent mordant experiments, I recently made an accordion book which I can use as a resource to remember effects I have gotten from various plants.

It is a small object d’art in its own right.

One of my favorite plants to print is bergamot (also known as bee balm), which is an invasive volunteer in our garden. It has literally taken over several of our beds. Of course it is also an edible plant, from the mint family, and, as its name suggests, a supporter of bees and butterflies. It produces my favorite images, so I guess it goes to show that sometimes nature knows better what to offer the garden than the horticulturist herself.

Hello Summer!

View from our upstairs window, a swallow swooping past

This week our hemisphere tilted its maximum towards the sun. We had our longest day, which in our part of the world means that it is light from 5AM until close to midnight. From now we move inexorably towards winter again…but in the meantime, the long, languid days bring that sense of well-being that comes with the various bird songs I hear outside my window as I write this, the warm weather and all the happy travelers who come to our door.

Painting the front doors of the Maison Conti

We have had five Japanese artists staying with us this week. They have been a sensation in our town, as they seem quite exotic and attractive to the locals. The artists have been traveling around France with their painting supplies and portable stools, making many watercolor sketches. Their routine is rigorous. They were off right after breakfast, took only a short lunch break and worked again all afternoon. They made paintings in every corner of the village.

Left: California Poppy. Right: Canterbury Bells

My time in the atelier is somewhat curtailed during our busiest months, but I did manage to collect some garden flowers and eco-dye them onto paper.

View from the back window, village cat resting on the castle wall

Summer always brings a renewed interest in cooking, and dare I say, in eating. We have so many fresh ingredients and our wonderful window herb garden gets used at practically every evening meal.

Moon rising over the village

A nice bonus to this first week of summer was a full moon.

Wall Hanging

After several months, I finally finished my silk wall hanging, which I first stitched together last winter. I had bought some backing and some silk thread but did not get around to actually putting it all together until this week. I had thought I would do much more needle work on top of the ecodyed silk rectangles, but in the end, it seemed unnecessary. I quilted it very simply and put a blanket stitch around the perimeter and that seemed enough. The fabric is so beautiful, soft and shiny, that in this case, less seemed more.

I’m happy with the way it hangs in our entry.

I am ecodyeing our local plants as they come into bloom. Here is a poppy dyed onto paper.

Projects from the Garden

When spring arrives, trees leaf out, flowers come into bloom and more possibilities present themselves for work in the atelier. I am happy that nature, the garden and the studio are intertwined. I appreciate the seasonality of my projects. This week I finished sewing together squares of leaf prints, cyanotypes on cotton. They were created in April, mostly from our little Japanese maple tree. I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the results, but it shows me a path that can easily lead to other more successful creations.

It’s the time of year when our peony gives us a profusion of huge red flowers. We had several large bouquets around the house last week. Once the blossoms began dropping their petals, I eco-dyed one of them onto paper and got a very lovely print.

Gathering (and printing) plants

We have had some Australian artist friends/clients staying with us during the last week. They have been coming every two years since we first opened the Maison Conti in 2008. Wendy is a very clever illustrator, who has made some wonderful etchings over the years in our atelier. Margot encourages, critiques and runs the press for Wendy’s creations. They make a good team. We always have a lot of fun with them when they come.

On one of the days of their stay we took them on a tour of the Perche, which they had never visited. It was a glorious day with extravagant spring flowers and green fields of many shades to delight the eyes.

Such outings always give me itchy fingers, and I couldn’t help myself from collecting a few leaves and flowers along the way to bring back home to my eco-dyeing station. I was happy with my results. The color that is extracted from the plants is often such a surprise. A deep purple tulip I gathered from our own garden turned turquoise blue and a bright yellow and orange gaillardia made a deep blue impression.

We had a happy week in and out of the atelier.

Wendy and Margot admiring a typical French country shop.

May Flowers

Inspired by the season and the garden, I’m back to etching. We have an entire wall of pink clematis in extravagant bloom at the moment, as well as a lavendar wisteria which covers the front of the house. Yellow roses are in bloom and the climbing roses are budded up and waiting for their moment. Peonys and Iris’ punctuate their corners of the landscape.

After enjoying an enormous bouquet of soft violet colored lilacs in our entry, as the blooms began to fade, this branch was eco-dyed and gave a soft blue shade

May has brought some rain, wind and cold, following a glorious and sunny April.

Experimenting with Mordants

pink clematis flowers, clematis leaves and Japanese maple leaves mordanted in alum/washing soda

Over the last eighteen months while I have been experimenting with eco-dyeing, I adopted certain habits that usually work well for me. I like a routine that I can follow without having to think too hard about the steps I’m taking. My process has become natural and easy for me to quickly set up. I mix up a mordant of alum and washing soda in water, soak my plants in vinegar water and dip them in iron water before steaming them on the stove for an hour. I can be fairly certain of what the results will be with one plant or another. However, trying something new always leads to discovery, so I try to mix it up.

I’ve read a certain amount about mordanting in soya milk. This has always seemed like more trouble than it was worth to me, until I read that soya mordant generally makes the color of the plants brighter, whereas the alum mordant brings out more detail. I decided to do a little experiment to see if I could detect a difference between the two methods.

I used the same paper and plants for both techniques (pansies of two colors and a Japanese maple leaf). I dipped the plants in vinegar and iron waters as usual and steamed them together in the same bundle for exactly the same amount of time. The results were striking.

The alum mordant created a nice ghost image of the purple pansy and a very nice outline of the leaf. I like the pink color very much. The orange pansy is less detailed, but the color is distinctive.

The soya mordant certainly did give richer color and some reasonable detail as well, however the color is not absorbed into the paper since the soya leaves a slick surface. I got that marbling effect, which I describe as the color swimming on the surface. I don’t necessarily like it less or better.

The fun of eco-dyeing is, of course, that you never come to the end of experimentation!