Printing With Nature's Amazing 'Colour Bug'

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Introduction: Printing With Nature's Amazing 'Colour Bug'

About: Welcome! Pleased to meet you, I am Barb; a Maker. I have been making things AND explaining how to make things for as long as I can remember. I was all about DIY before it was a popular term. I absolutely lov...

Yes, you read that right; it's a little bug that makes that amazing colour! Have you ever 'tasted the rainbow; of Skittles' - then you have already eaten some. Let me introduce you to the incredible colourful Cochineal!

It never ceases to amaze me what treasures that ‘Mother Nature' has up her sleeves!

In my recent obsession of eco dyeing and printing with natural materials on fabric I discovered even more wonderment! Combining some pre-dyeing with eco printing leads to a colour explosion. What you see here was permanently printed by nature; no hand or brush was involved...

Step 1: Make Your Dye

This tutorial is about Eco Printing; a method that uses nature's gifts to create permanent prints and also uses an all natural food-safe dye. If you have never heard about Eco Printing or want more info check my site.

On a recent trip to a small shop with all kinds of fibre and dyeing goodies I went berserk! I was on a mission to get some indigo but I found something else; some crazy small little bugs that give the most amazing gift of colour!

What you Need:

  • Fabric (silk works the easiest but other natural fibres can print)
  • Leaves (tannin rich like sumac, maple, rose, eucalyptus and more)
  • Cochineal (dried bugs)
  • mortar and pestal or coffee grinder
  • small pot
  • water
  • strainer, filter mesh
  • dowel or pipe
  • butcher's twine
  • cling wrap or plastic bag
  • large steaming pot

Cochineal is a female insect that grows on cactus in Mexico. It is known to give a huge amount of red colour called carmine for the small amount of matter. As little as 3% of the weight of fibre that you are dyeing can give good colour (calculate weight of material against weight of cochineal) 10-20% will give strong colour.

How to use Cochineal: The little dry carcasses (don’t worry, you can’t really see any arms and legs) can be ground up either in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder as this is a food safe colour anyway (I have heard some famous coffee company uses it for the pink colour). It grinds quite small so it can be used as is or strained out of the water. I have tried both methods with success. I use a scrap of organza as a fine mesh strainer similar to making tea.

Step 2: Dye the Silk

Once the dye water has been made I add my silk fabric or scarves to the pot and slowly bring it to a low simmer. You can dye any natural fibres but silk works the easiest. For more eco printing basics see here.

High heat can kill the colour so I bring it to a low simmer gradually. I hold the heat for about an hour and then let it sit and cool over night to set even more colour.

Put some gloves on a wring it out. Lovely strong pink! Note the dark specks? Those are the residue of ground cochineal. They may give some darker spots so you may want to strain the dye-water. I am not too concerned with perfect even colour.

Step 3: Bundling With the Leaves

The Bundling

I rely on my favourite leaves to print; sumac and maple. These were used fresh however dried can also work. As stated in the introduction you will need something to wrap the layers around. A pipe or piece of wood/rod can work, as long as it can be heated.

Step 4: Design With Leaves

Lay the silk flat and place the leaves. Many different leaves can print; it is a bit of experimentation. The fronts and back print differently so vary the pattern as you like. There are tannins in the leaves that will react to give colour.

Step 5: Adding a Mordant

The key is to have everything as smooth and flat as possible for defined prints.

Rather than soaking/dipping the leaves in an iron-water solution I use an 'iron blanket' here to help the reaction of the tannins and also as a mordant to make the prints permanent. Old cotton sheets ripped into strips are soaked in a weak rusty-iron-water and wrung out well. This way the iron comes into contact around the leaves rather than on them. It is then carefully laid over the leaves.

As a barrier to stop bleed-through a layer of plastic is placed above the iron blanket. (strips cut from plastic drop sheet plastic can be tailored to the right width) Flatten and smooth before rolling up tightly.

Step 6: All Tied Up

Once they are all rolled the bundles are then wrapped tightly with string and ready for the processing. The string will keep everything in contact.

Step 7: The Steaming

Be aware that this instruction shows how it has worked great for me however results may vary according to many factors. The iron-water strength, the leaves, the fabric, the water PH, all play some role in the final outcome. But that is what makes it interesting! It truly is magical and ONE OF A KIND!

The Eco Print Processing
I prefer to steam my bundles as then there is less water and also less darkening at the ends of the rolls. These have been steamed outside on a BBQ side burner in an aluminum lidded roaster. Make sure to check that the water does not disappear! I steam for about 2 hours. I can usually start to smell some odd aroma from the leaves ‘cooking’, hence I prefer exterior cooking.

When I unrolled my first Cochineal dyed piece I almost lost my mind with the amazing colours! am now hooked on Eco Printing. I can barely keep up with buying silk…
To allow a bit longer chance of picking up colour I sometimes place the steamed rolls in a blanket as they will hold the heat and ‘process’ even longer. Once cool they can be unrolled.

Go ahead… Do a ‘happy dance’! I am sure that I did! As an artist who has painted for so many years of my career this just astonished me so much. The variation of the pinks and purples and reds! I believe (no chemistry degree here) that it is all about the acid and alkali reacting with the dye. Many reds change according to acidity as seen with red cabbage. Cochineal however is not fugitive (meaning it washes out or fades) and has great lasting ability.

Step 8: Where the Magic Happens

When I unrolled my first Cochineal dyed piece I almost lost my mind with the amazing colours! am now hooked on Eco Printing. I can barely keep up with buying silk…

To allow a bit longer chance of picking up colour I sometimes place the steamed rolls in a blanket as they will hold the heat and ‘process’ even longer. Once cool they can be unrolled. Go ahead… Do a ‘happy dance’! I am sure that I did! As an artist who has painted for so many years of my career this just astonished me so much. The variation of the pinks and purples and reds! I believe (no chemistry degree here) that it is all about the acid and alkali reacting with the dye. Many reds change according to acidity as seen with red cabbage. Cochineal however is not fugitive (meaning it washes out or fades) and has great lasting ability.

Compost the used leaves and wash the fabric in a PH neutral soap like 'Dawn'. Let it dry naturally.

Step 9: Admire Your Gift of Nature

Once dried and ironed you will not be able to stop looking at it. The range of reds and pinks to purples... awesome!

Step 10: Wear Your Scarf

Oh, by the way, my apologies to the little cochineal fellows (actually it’s the females, figures)! 'Take comfort in the fact that your ‘colour’ shines on for many years to come and we will be in constant awe of your amazing abilities! Thank you!'

And thank you to my readers for joining me… and for more of my journey in the amazing world of Eco Printing see more here

If you love nature and unique projects I am willing to share with you here

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    28 Discussions

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    cynnel

    Question 4 weeks ago

    YOur scarves are beautiful. I've been trying to dye silk according to your instructions and am wondering if the KIND of leaf is important. I've been experimenting with ferns and grapeleaves and some others that grow in the yard, but I'm not getting good results, the leaves hardly show. Is there something about maples and sumac that works better than the stuff I'm trying?

    I'm frustrated because I don't know which variable is not working in the process. I'll not give up tho, I have ideas about what to try, but thought I'd ask--maybe you have a suggestion for me.

    Thanks!

    1 more answer

    Thanks! Yes! there is a lot of 'behind-the-scene' chemistry/science happening with the tannins in the leaves and the iron mordant. I have tried the grape leaves and ferns and did not get much print from them either. The great thing is that you can repeatedly dye the scarf. The other variable is the iron water. I would tend to find that out by having it print way too black. The stag horn sumac and the silver maple (not all maples work) are my go-to favourites. Depending were you live your choices are different. Certain Eucalyptus print red/orange! Rose leaves also print quite well. That is why it is such a magical art form, it keeps you on your toes. There are some resources out there like India Flint and others. I did/do a LOT of reading and experimenting!!! Don't give up and good luck.

    Those scarves are out of this world! Voted for you. :)

    1 reply

    Thanks! Sadly it seems that votes and views does not seem to make any impact on judging! Starting to wonder if there is any rationale on the judging. So strange! (not just a sore loser but I'd like to know considering the amount of effort that goes into posting a thorough tutorial)

    Great instructable, such fab colours, and I like your use of big bold
    leaves to create the patterns, works well with such vibrant colours.
    Good luck in the comp!

    1 reply

    Each specie of leaves has different colour potential as well as their shapes. It's like mother nature is painting... It is not just the shapes but also the chemical make up that produces the leaves. Sadly, many (including the judges) don't quite appreciate the science and technique involved to get a great print. Most who have 'cracked' the code only sell the info. Enjoy it now... as it may just vanish.

    Thanks, I'm known to be REALLY stubborn, until I get it the way I like...

    Whhhhaaaattt!! I learned so many things reading this. I love the whole process. :D

    1 reply

    Oh yes! when I discovered it I was obsessed... An that is only one of 'tons' of options! It's mind-blowing since it's all natures chemistry.

    I am awestruck at how beautiful the results are. What a great testament to nature.

    1 reply

    It's one of those things... when you find a 'treasure' people like to keep it to themselves. I will admit is does take a few tests to get things the way you like.

    But like my mother always said; if it's too easy to get it's probably not worth much...

    I agree, they are wonderful little creatures!

    This is funny cause I just today found a bag of cochineal bugs in my studio that I had forgotten all about - what weight silk are you using and what is it called. I have seen habitoi and chiffon and gauze but don't think that is what you are using - the weight of your scarves looks wonderful - and yes I voted for you! Your enthusiasium is wonderful and contaigous.

    1 more answer

    Oh lucky to find those!!! A little does a lot! I used habitoi, hand hemmed. I'm happy with them! I teach post secondary so I need to be enthusiastic... ;-)

    When you have dyed the silk do you let it dry be for you put the leaves on and the wet sheets?

    Then you roll it up with a layer of plastic on a pipe, it looks like there is something on it when you tie it!

    Is there something wrapped around it before you tied it? These questions may sound drum

    But I have never tried to dye anything before thanks!

    1 more answer

    I don't let it dry, keep it damp. The layer of plastic is on top as it rolls. That stops the prints from bleeding through layers. There may be extra plastic or cloth at the end of the roll. My intent is to keep it damp so that there is more steam generated during the processing.