Eco-Artists & Coloring Cloth with Plants

I've been interested in the creative processes and aesthetics of artists who work with natural dyes. Velma Bolyard's blog led me to India Flint's eco-dyeing and Jude Hill's spirit cloths/quilts. I look to their work for inspiration: that spark to making things. Patti Smith writes in her book, Devotion (Why I Write), "That is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action" (92). While I do not make work that looks like theirs (and each of them works quite differently from one another) Velma, India, and Jude make art that calls me to action. 

All three eco-artists have aesthetics grounded in the natural world and natural colors and seem to live in rural areas, a world away from me. As I've spent the last two years more intensively working with textiles, the impulse derived from the artists to color the cloth led me to some experimenting with natural dyes. 

Eyeing a beetroot, I tried boiling it with cloth and linen thread. After a few hours, I didn't notice much color, so I added a fistful of teabags, and let it steep a few more hours. I removed the beet slices. But after I fished out the cloth, I looked at the pot of tea and decided to put another cloth in. I left it overnight.

Top: first batch (beetroot, teabags; muslin cloth and linen thread)
Middle: second batch is slightly paler and less pinkish (leftover mixture from above with beet slices removed, more teabags added; muslin cloth, linen thread)
Bottom: undyed muslin for contrast

They look a little like Eva Hesse colors, references to skin and the body. I'll probably layer some letterpress printing on them; printmaking is another impulse. I put the cloth aside, thinking I'd better get India Flint's book, Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles. If you want to dive deep into the world of natural dyeing, this is the book! It's encyclopedic and rich in information, but she encourages testing and experimentation as part of the learning and enjoyment. Tea, as I found out, is a good mordant, or substance that helps the color bond with the cloth. 

I liked the idea of "cold-bundled eco-prints:" rolling up plants or metals in wet cloth and tying them in bundles. India writes, "When your curiosity can no longer be restrained, open the bundle" (157). I'm so curious, that as a child I planted carrots and started pulling them up the minute I saw green to see what the carrots looked like, so I suspect slow-dyeing is not something I will be able to do longterm. But I decided I would give myself a week.

On December 24th, I cut strips of muslin and dampened them. I rolled up:

silver dollar gum leaves (eucalyptus)

live oak leaves and leaf litter

Japanese maple leaves

and rusty screws 
(from disassembling a garden table several years ago) 

I tied them with raffia, wondering if that might add to the ultimate effect. Raffia is made from palm fibers.

I let the bundles sit overnight. My fingers were itchy; I really wanted to see what was going on. The next day, I realized the cloth might need a mordant, and then I read that eucalyptus leaves work better in hot water, so I brewed four cups of Irish breakfast tea and poured the tea over the bundles. 

December 29, 2017. Five days. Okay, I would wait until New Year's to open them. Er, maybe New Year's Eve Day. Maybe sooner? Like a chrysalis, each started becoming more translucent as it developed.

December 30, 2017. Six and a half days. The rust bundle was nearly air-dried. I just had to peek. And unroll.

Ironed dry.

I like the contrasts. Lightest: plain cloth that didn't absorb either tea or rust; Slightly darker: the tea; Darker: the spread of the rust; Darkest: dark rust spots. I might do this again. I can reuse the rusty screws. Now I'm curious about tin can circles.

Hmm. The eucalyptus bundle also looked promising.

Removed the raffia.

Turns out the leaves functioned as masks, preventing the tea from bonding with the cloth.
No color from the fresh leaves at all.
India's book goes into detail about the needs of eucalyptus.
I was impatient.
And I liked the experimenting part.

I really like the stripes where the raffia was bound tightly. I may try that again.

Still wet.

Rinsed and ironed dry. Ghostly.

Unlike my previous tea dying, these cloths didn't really need rinsing as no color was released. Two more bundles to go. I can see if you do this all the time you'd have bundles in different stages, and you'd get to open them regularly, too.

December 31, 2017. The live oak leaves and leaf litter and the Japanese maple bundles sat one week. Here comes the Japanese maple.

 Ironed dry. 

Patterned end where the raffia was.

Fairly pale. Can kind of see the leaf patterns.

How about the oak?

Some dirt and mushy leaves to wash out.

Little leaf patterns! With my (lazy) method, the oak has great potential.

Smaller cloths and/or possibly pressing flat instead of bundling might make this particular process yield clearer prints. But I'm fine with these as textures. 

I know I'll find a quilt for all of them together.

eucalyptus and oak, mine and neighbor's

India's prints are much brighter and clearer.
More to learn. Hooray!


Lynda Shoup said…
I loved this post. The more I see ecodying, the more I want to try it. Your reflections about the difficulty in waiting long enough to have the color take to the bundles made me imagine how it would be with me - checking every half hour or so to see if they are done. Perhaps not the medium for someone like me. I love the results. While some of the more contrasting results are amazing, the soft, subtle result is lush. I really enjoyed reading about your process.
Penny said…
Try using silk, no need for mordant with eucalyptus. Steaming for a few hours and leaving as long as possible before opening and magic can happen. Using cotton try using soy milk as a mordant, or sea water. So much fun.
Alisa said…
Lynda—I think the only way for us impatient people to do this is to make two of everything, or make a new bundle every few days so we have rolling gratification. I've already collected some onion skins and tins cans, so I see I am not done!

Penny—Sounds good! Thanks so much! I've been looking at the silks available from Dharma Trading and am pretty sure I'm going to order some. I promised myself not to buy new materials until I have a project in mind, though. But I'm ready! Since I have so much cotton, soy milk sounds like it might be fun to play with, too.
Debbie said…
Silk noil works well, India gets good results from eucalyptus because she is in Australia, I have never got more than brown from them, oak leaves are good as they have natural tannin, rusty nails can be added to any bundles. I don't use mordants per se but do soak in soya milk for plant fibres. Just keep experimenting its such fun.
Alisa said…
Thanks, Debbie! Good to know about which silk as there are so many. Really enjoying this process.