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.

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.

Design Challenge

This week was my daughter Emily’s birthday. The last time we saw her she mentioned that she would like to have some kind of art work for the wall above her bed. To surprise her, I got to work on something to fill the bill. I decided to make a wall hanging from linen with cyanotyped birds. The weather has been so beautiful the last couple of weeks that conditions were excellent to create lots of blue birds. I could print all morning long for days at a time without a cloud passing by to obscure the sun processing.

I printed out various sizes and varieties of birds onto transparency to use as my negatives. I also made positive versions as well, so that I could make white birds on a dark ground and dark birds on a white ground. I discovered quickly that photographic images of birds were not as pleasing as simple abstract bird shapes, so I colored in all the bird details with a sharpie.

I also tried tea dying some of the cyanotyped images, which I never really attempted before. It involves mordanting the cyanotype in sodium bicarbonate and then soaking the cloth in a strong tea bath. It worked very well.

But I decided I wanted the finished piece to be monochrome. I made lots of various images and then tried to piece them together in a pleasing way. I didn’t have an ultimate plan. It was a process of moving things around until the individual images came together in some kind of cohesive or logical whole. At last I came up with a design that seemed to work for me, although it’s really hard to look at something on a table which is ultimately destined to be on a wall. I never feel fully confident with my choices.

I arranged the cyanotyped bird images on top of some hand dyed blue cotton fabric which I sewed together on the machine. It was much easier to look at the collage on a blue background than on the white paper template I had begun with. I decided to sew the birds to the blue cotton, allowing the background to show through in spots. I pinned it all down and sewed the birds by hand.

Once it was all together I began to think about doing some sashiko stitching on top to dress it up, but ultimately decided it would detract rather than add to the total. I also tried placing a few spots of color here and there, but determined that the blue was better on its own. So even if I was still a little uncertain, we made stretcher bars and stapled the finished piece on to them. The wall hanging is about 5′ X 1.5′. Once it was all completed, I felt disappointed. Something about it just bothered my eye.

I decided that it had something to do with the placement of the large while rectangles. I tried adding a few scraps and very soon found a simple solution that seemed much more pleasing to my eye. By adding just two small blue pieces, the design suddenly seemed much better to me.

Of course stitching those two pieces on was quite difficult since it was already stretched onto the wooden frame. Rick and I had to stand one on each side and pass the needle through one stitch at a time.

There must be a design principle here, but I couldn’t articulate it.

In other news, we have begun doing our spring cleaning… spring really does seem to have arrived here. These days it’s like being in Portugal or California in mid-February, completely unusual for our part of France. Rick helped me hang my basket collection from the downstairs kitchen ceiling, something I have wanted to do since 1983 when I saw a photograph of Martha Stewart’s restored Connecticut Farmhouse kitchen in Entertaining.