MAKE: Eco-Printed Silk Scarf (a photo essay)
On an overcast and chilly June morning, I headed to the town of Trout Lake, which sits in the valley below Mount Adams, for the annual Fiber Fest which was held at the local grange hall. I had secured the last spot in an eco-print workshop taught by a regional fiber artist, Kathleen O’Hern of www.e10thtrilliumstudio.com. We sort of recognized each other but not sure from where. Master Gardeners? We were in different groups. Native bee group? Yes! Both avid gardeners, we attended training earlier in the year for a citizen science project on native bee populations. I explained that I had been excited about eco-printing (AKA botanical printing) since I purchased textile artisan India Flint’s book, Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles early last year. Kathy enthusiastically declared that eco-printing was the ideal craft for a gardener. I couldn’t agree more!
Eco-printing is defined as the process of placing tannin-rich leaves and colorful flowers on a fiber, rolling it tightly and steaming it for an hour or two. The designs are incredibly rich and dyers can alter the results using a variety of dyes, mordants and methods. Kathy is a natural teacher and was well-organized as she demonstrated, instructed and tutored her group of excited 16 students. Kathy wisely informed us that working with natural dyes and processes can be unpredictable; this is important to understand if you prefer consistent and reliable results. Natural dyes and botanical printing would likely prove frustrating to dyers who prefer predictability. My own initial experience with natural dyeing resulted in a bin of mud-colored yarns that I plan to overdye this summer. Dyeing is chemistry and many factors can affect the process. In fact, Kathy brought jugs of water from her house because she knew its pH and how it interacts with her dyeing and the grange water was unknown.
Kathy granted me permission to take photos throughout the workshop and this topic is best described with photos.
Kathy started with a quick review of the sample scarves she had displayed in the tent. (The gray skies and tent made photos without a flash a challenge.) She pointed out the type of leaves used and how well (or not) they printed.
Kathy demonstrated the process that we would be duplicating. The silk scarf had been mordanted with alum: mordanting is a chemical process used to help the dye attach to the fibers. We had a choice of dipping the plant material in iron water or covering the scarf with an iron blanket. Most of us opted for the iron blanket.
Iron (ferreous sulfate) is often used as a mordant and in this case, the iron interacts with the natural tannins in the plant material, creating distinctive prints of the leaves that have a high amount of tannins in them.
We had a diversity of leaves to choose from, and Kathy's knowledge about how well they print. Maple and sumac leaves print beautifully. Gingko leaves do not. Eucalyptus creates a brilliant orange when iron is used. I chose to do a full scarf placement but another method included a mirror image: place leaves on half of the scarf and then fold over the other half on top of the plant design. I don't think anyone in our group did that - it was too much fun playing with leaf design!
The next step is the most critical: rolling the bundle tightly. The scarf was placed on a same sized piece of plastic and then for most of us, topped with the iron blanket. A dowel is used to roll up the bundle. Keeping it taut is a little more challenging than it looks. In her demonstration, Kathy noted that despite its name of eco-print, it was not necessarily eco-conscious because of the use of plastic (a one-time use). I dug around for alternatives and in a FB group about eco-printing, many of the members used old sheets and other materials with no evidence of ghost prints, which are bleeds of the plant tannins onto the rolled bundle.
The second most critical step is wrapping the bundle with string or cord to maintain tight pressure on the bundle. As I began the wrapping which I thought was tight, Kathy strolled over to show me what she means by TIGHT! This is why I take workshops - it's little tips like this that can make or break a project and your patience.
The bundles were steamed for at least an hour. We attached name labels to them and set them by the two electric roaster ovens Kathy uses for steaming. Guess I will be hitting the thrift stores in search of electric roaster ovens...
The bundles were placed in the steamer, and we had about 1.5 hours to roam around the Fiber Fest. I directed my attention to the Shibori & Indigo dye workshop happening right next to our tent.
Indigo is a fascinating dye plant and shibori is a Japanese manual resist dye method - you won't be surprised to hear that I have already signed up for a workshop in October! I am captivated by botanical dyes and methods, and have decided I will pursue dyeing with plants as my retirement avocation.
Back to the eco-printed scarves, I somehow managed to be the first to unwrap my bundle while others watched and then oohed and aahed as my scarf was revealed. I then grabbed my camera to capture other unwrappings.
The scarves were still wet so we hung them where the sample scarves had been displayed. Kathy examined each scarf and explained to the group how some of the shadows and black spots that appeared on the scarves happened. This was quite helpful as her experience told her it was mostly because the rolling and/or the wrapping with string were not tight enough. In the end, it comes down to muscle power. Tautness is truly the determining factor in the success of your eco-print.
I adore my new eco-printed scarf!