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Friday, 7 October 2016

Contact Printing with Dye Plants onto Canvas

When dye plant flowers and leaves are rolled in fine silk, their colours penetrate through the fabric while it simmers, so an intense colour, such as the deep orange of a coreopsis flower will appear in a repeating pattern, a little paler on each overlying layer of the roll. Dye plant prints on rolled up silk scarves form a palimpsest of all the leaves and flowers within the roll. Experimenting on cotton shirts, I found the thicker weave prevented dye from an individual leaf or flower from seeping through much more than one layer, so once unrolled, a print looked nearer to the original lay out of the plants, less complex, more controllable.  
Well, controllable in principle.  In practice, a heavy linen shirt I dyed contact prints on earlier this year ended up with lovely sharp images of coreopsis sprigs and madder root - if you were looking at the inside of the shirt.  Rather than wear it inside out, I cut sections of the best bits and put them in picture frames, thinking the linen weave looked much like an artist's canvas.

Reading up on this, I learned that canvas is a strong, coarse, unbleached cloth made from plant fibres such as hemp and flax, so it is much the same sort of fabric as linen, only heavier still.  Turning some stored fleece out of an old canvas shopping bag, though it was a bit grubby and one of the seams had split, I decided to wash and mend it purely because it was a plain bag with no printed logo, just natural coloured canvas.  That was early last August, when I had a wealth of fresh dye plant material to pick and a pot of aluminium acetate solution left over from mordanting those shirts. When I have measured out 10% of the weight of wool or silk to make an alum mordant, only half the alum in the pot gets used up, so I can successfully mordant half as much fibre again, using the same solution.  Turned out the same applied to my 5% of aluminium acetate for mordanting the weight of the cotton shirts - simmering the used solution again with one canvas bag in the pot mordanted it perfectly well.


In order to get contact prints that would show best on the outside of the bag, I turned it inside out and put madder roots and flowering dye plants inside - coreopsis, yellow cosmos, dyers chamomile and side shoots of weld.  The bag was rolled around a section of plastic down pipe and tied up with string that had been soaked in iron solution.

Simmered for an hour or two, dangling from the cooker hood into an afterbath of yellow cosmos with alkali, to make the lowest section a rich terracotta, the roll was then turned the other way up, simmered in an afterbath of chamomile and left to soak overnight. Once the sodden canvas had dried out in the sun, it could be unrolled and turned back the right way out.

Though the fabric wouldn't steam iron smoothly, even after a good rinse and a run through the washing machine, the plants had printed strongly and fairly cleanly onto the canvas.  I knew this was definitely a big bag success when my daughter promptly packed it to take away on a trip to Amsterdam.  I bought some more plain canvas bags, mordanted them and went into production, dyeing three at once.  In the process, I've had another lesson rammed home.  People write that you have to wait til plant contact prints have 'cured' and some say ecobundles should be left for weeks. 
Not being good at waiting, the bag on the left was unrolled and rinsed while still damp, just so I could show off to a visitor.  Next to it is a bag which was allowed to dry out completely before unrolling.  I have become somewhat more patient since spotting the difference.

Now the dye plants are being allowed to run to seed, the nights are finally growing cooler and if I don't use up the last Japanese Indigo plants sharpish, there won't be any blue left in them. One last project from September. Curtain fabric, 20% linen and 80% cotton, proved heavy enough to keep contact plant dyes pretty much exactly where the plants were laid, with only minimal
bleeding through layers when rolled, yet was soft enough to take precise prints and also iron nice and flat afterwards. Dipping side shoots of weld into a jar of iron solution made them print clear greens instead of yellow.  I used this fabric to re-cover an old Lloyd Loom trunk for himself's birthday. Now it holds all the cycling paraphernalia he had cluttering up the house. 


7 comments:

  1. Woah! Absolutely gorgeous, I would take that bag anywhere too. My favorite part is the curly brown 'roots ' and long green stalks. Its like from an ants perspective looking up into a jungle of flowers. Loved your vest too from the previous post, I've been dyeing some scarfs to do the same thanks for showing us!

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    1. I do like the idea of an ant's perspective - could I possibly eke a little colour out of the fading autumn plants .... got to be worth a go. Thanks.

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  2. Oops eyeing not dyeing, I have food colouring but still looking for good pots or a second microwave :)

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  3. Absolutely fantastic. Make sure the daughter does not walk off with the chest cover it is like a painting or needlework. Helen

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    1. Ah no, I shan't see her unless I visit Canada - she is living there til May.

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  4. How stunning! Especially the last photo.... I haven't tried this kind of dyeing, but clearly, I need to. Now to go find the plants to use.... good thing I am off work tomorrow.

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    1. If you can't find intense dye plants growing in your garden or locally, have a look at seed catalogs for anything with 'tinctoria' as part of it's Latin name. Plenty of dye plants are annuals and will give you great results next summer.

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