Introduction: Eco-Printing With Rust & Vinegar

About: I like to make things! Particularly with fiber and sculpey.

Eco-printing is a method of bundling leaves and other plants in fabric, and steaming the bundle(s) to print their natural pigments onto the fabric. You can buy kits and special chemicals to do this, but you can also try it out with household materials. It's not the most reliable or permanent dye job in the world, but boy is it ever fun!

You'll get better results with wool and silk, but this tutorial is all about using cheap materials that you've probably already got lying around the house. With that in mind, you'll need:

  • fabric for printing on (I used cotton rags)
  • freshly collected plants
  • vinegar
  • old nails, or other rusty scrap metal
  • dowel rods, or straight-ish sticks, slightly shorter than the diameter of the pot you plan to steam them in
  • string & scissors
  • a jar
  • a large pot, and spare pots/buckets
  • RUBBER GLOVES! SAFETY FIRST! (seriously, the iron can be really nasty stuff)
  • plastic wrap (optional)

Step 1: Make Iron Acetate Solution

The cotton fabric has to be treated so that it takes up the natural dye. You can either purchase suitable chemicals for doing this really properly (for more permanent results) or you can make your own iron acetate solution with rusty metal, vinegar and water. It will take about a week for the homemade version to sit and reach potency, so you've got to plan ahead and do the first step well before you do the rest of the actual eco-printing. But the upside is that once you make it, you can store the iron acetate indefinitely.

You'll need:

  • rusty nails (or other rustable scrap metal -- steel wool should work)
  • vinegar
  • water
  • large jar

Put a handful of the nails (or rusty whatever) into the jar, and fill the jar with a ratio of 2 parts water to 1 part vinegar. Seal the jar, and let it sit for a week or more. That's it for this step!

If you want, you can strain the nails out of the resulting liqueur so that the liquid is easier to work with. I did this after my jar had been sitting for over a year and certainly wasn't getting any stronger.

Step 2: Gather & Pre-soak All Materials

About a day before you plan to do the printing, go out and collect plants to print with. Leaves work well--I've had the best success with oak and maple--but experiment with whatever you can get your hands on (flowers, bark, etc). It's a very experimental process, and results will vary a lot. Whatever you choose, you want it to be fresh and somewhat "juicy." Autumn leaves may look pretty and bright, but they've lost much of the liquid that makes them good for dyeing when they're green.

Once you've got your fabric and collected your plants, pre-soak everything overnight (separately) to get it ready for printing:

1. Put the plants in a tub of 2 parts water to 1 part vinegar, and let soak.

2. Put the cotton fabric in a separate pot (this can be the same pot you plan to use for the steaming step), and cover it with 2 parts water to 1 part iron acetate solution. Bring this to a simmer for a half an hour, and remove from heat. Let it cool in the pot overnight.

Step 3: Assemble Your Plants & Fabric for Printing

Place your cotton fabric on a flat surface, and put some extra iron solution in a spare bucket. Take leaves from the tub where they've been soaking, dip them into the iron solution, and arrange them on the fabric however you like.

If you put some face up and others face down, they might give you different results. You can also try skipping the iron dip; iron affects the color of natural dyes, making them 'sadder' (that is, leaning toward greens and grey-purples rather than colors on the warmer end of the spectrum). So undipped leaves might give you different results, but since you're treating the entire fabric with iron, you probably won't see too much of a difference.

The point is, take risks and experiment! This is very much a trial-and-error process.

Step 4: Roll & Bind Your Prints

The next step is to get your print ready for steaming. Take a dowel rod (or a straight stick, which works just as well) and place it to one side of your fabric. Gather the fabric edge with the dowel rod, and roll it up as tightly as you can. You want the leaves to press against the fabric, so the fabric can take up as much of their pigment as possible. Once you have a tight roll, tie a piece of string to one end, and wind the string tightly around the bundle, from top to bottom. Tie it off. You're ready to start steaming.

Note: If all of the dimensions of your fabric are longer than the dowel rod, you can fold the fabric before you roll it. Do this very carefully, of course, so your arrangement doesn't shift too much out of place in the process.

Optional: If you don't want the prints to bleed through the layers of the roll, cover the whole thing with plastic wrap before you roll it.

Step 5: Set Prints With Steam

Take your bundle(s) and arrange them in a pot to be steamed. You can use an actual steamer, but ideally not if you plan to use that same steamer for food. I like to use an extra dowel rod to lift the fabric bundles out of the water (see pictures). First, prop the extra dowel rod diagonally against the side of the pot. Then, use one of your bundles to cross it down low in the pot like a 't.' Then, if you have any more bundles to steam, prop them in a triangle formation on top.

After your fabric bundles are arranged in the pot, pour some water in the bottom of the pot and bring it to a boil. Place a lid on top to keep in the steam, and continue boiling for an hour or two. Check it periodically to make sure the water doesn't boil off entirely; add more water as needed.

Step 6: Reveal the Results & Finish

After an hour or two, turn off the heat. Let it cool for a bit, and then remove the lid from the steam pot. When everything is cool enough to handle, take out a fabric bundle and cut the binding string. Roll out the print on a clean surface, remove the dye materials (and plastic, if you used it), and reveal your finished print!

Hopefully, it will be a beautiful natural eco-print that you'll want to show off to all your friends. But if the results are less than spectacular, don't worry, it happens to the best of us. Many of my early attempts have been duds, because I didn't know what would work and what wouldn't. The good news is, you can dump your fabric right back into a bucket to soak, and print right over it with different plantstuffs that will hopefully yield better results. If at first you don't succeed, try and try again!

Once you have a print that you're happy with, rinse it (gently) and hang it to dry. Keep in mind that natural dyes tend to fade relatively quickly, so enjoy it while you can. Don't wash it too vigorously or too often, and keep it out of direct sunlight as much as possible.

Happy printing!

Fiber Arts Contest 2017

Participated in the
Fiber Arts Contest 2017