Updated: Aug 25, 2022
You may have heard of botanical contact printing, or ‘eco’ printing .. but if you’re new to it, you may be wondering what it’s all about.
Maybe you’ve had your head turned as someone walked past with a gorgeous scarf or dress printed with leaves and flowers, and wondered where they got it.. or you’ve seen a gorgeous framed print of leaves and wondered how it was done?
So what IS botanical contact or ‘eco’ printing?
Well, it’s a process which, put simply, draws on nature’s magic.. it is what it says on the tin .. plants printing by contact with fibres, be it cloth or paper. Didn’t know plants could do that? Read on, my friend …
Botanical contact or ‘eco’ printing uses heat and moisture to release natural pigments from leaves and flowers and transfers the pigments to make prints. The heat and moisture can be applied by steaming, or by immersion in a bath of simmering water with or without dye stuffs.
Often, a metal salt [most commonly iron and/or alum] is used as a ‘mordant’ to fix the pigments in the fibres, or a ‘binder’ such as soya milk can be used. These mordants or binders are either added to the fibre by soaking, or metal ions are released from the pan in which the prints are processed [or even a combination of the two].
It all sounds very simple and straightforward. In many ways it is, but like a lot of things, the devil is in the detail: in this case, the practice of printing and the plant matter and fibres used.
This blog discusses the botanical contact printing process and what’s special about it. My next blog will give 10 Top Tips for success.
Where did botanical contact / ‘eco’ printing come from?
India Flint is regarded by many as the ‘mother’ of ecoprinting. In her book Eco Colour, she describes watching her Latvian grandmother revive tired clothes with onion skin dye or tea, and dyeing eggs with leaves and onion skins at Easter. It was experimenting with the egg-dyeing traditions using eucalyptus leaves on cloth which led India discover ‘ecoprint’ in 1999.
Others including Irit Dulman, Caroline Nixon and Nicola Brown,  to name but a few [from all of whom I have learnt so much], have built on India’s discovery. Some have added colourful natural dyes to the process.
Nine special features
In a world where the textile industry is responsible for:
· massive carbon emissions from the production and use of synthetics;
· water pollution from pesticides used to increase cotton yields;
· appalling working conditions in unregulated factories
· over a million tonnes annually of clothing waste, much of which is incinerated
and as human made global environmental disaster feels all too near, botanical contact/eco printing, and its sister process of natural dyeing, have nine very special features:
1. they use only natural fibres, which are renewable
Whether from animals [silk, wool] or plants [linen, hemp, cotton, paper] natural fibres don’t involve irreplaceable raw materials such as oil, the basis for many synthetics. That said, it’s important to note that cotton, particularly, can be environmentally damaging and resource-hungry, and the working conditions in its production are not always good. Moreover, some animal fibres such as mass produced silk and wool are extracted with pretty cruel practices. Using both plant-based and animal fibres, we need to be discerning about their source and extraction, the environmental and social conditions under which they’re produced, but it IS possible to find ethical, environmentally friendly sources.
2. they work brilliantly on upcycled/recycled fabric!
Well worn clothes, household and bed linen [scoured before use] can take plant pigments particularly well. I’ve upcycled many a tired-looking T shirt with some leaves from the garden and a dash of iron solution. Upcycling our clothes with botanical contact prints can extend their life and prevent them going to landfill. A shocking 10,000 items of clothing are sent to landfill every five minutes, whereas wearing something for an extra nine months can reduce its carbon footprint by 20-30%.
3. they use naturally occurring pigments
Because they use naturally occuring pigments, they avoid the use of chemically derived products.. tapping instead into nature’s bounty of water soluble pigments and tannins. Not all natural pigments are used.. not all are water soluble. That’s why some leaves and flowers print better than others [more of that in my next blog!].
4. they use natural processes
applying heat and water as steam or an immersion/dye bath, drawing on the metal in iron or aluminium pans as mordants and using the interaction of metal salts and plant pigments to fix the pigments and create different hues. Bundles and stacks of fibres and foliage for printing can be steamed over water alone, or old bits of iron can be added, to help fix the pigments. Dye baths in which we immerse bundles and stacks can similarly just contain water, have some old iron thrown in, or natural dye [I love to print papers this way]. A classic ‘dirty pot’ for simmering bundles and stacks will likely have onion skins, vinegar, old bits of iron and eucalyptus.
5. they use local vegetation, even weeds!
There is nothing more satisfying than walking out of the front door, picking some leaves from one of my favourite trees or plants and using them to print there and then. The prints created can have a special meaning .. this is not exclusive to eco printing, I know, but it’s a special feature nevertheless. Furthermore, pretty mundane leaves [eg sycamore] or weeds [eg dandelion] can just spring to life in a botanical/eco print.
6. they are individually and lovingly hand made.
By definition, there is no mass production. Unique and one-of-a-kind pieces are individually designed and created, with a huge dollop of love. This is a highly engaging process.. almost addictive, many of us joke. We love it with a rare passion, and that translates into the original thought, care and creativity which underpins each piece. These are one-off pieces which are great as special gifts. When you buy one of our creations, you’re buying a little bit of us.
7. they are full of surprises!
For me, this is a very special aspect of botanical contact/eco printing.. whilst we have a pretty good idea how a print may turn out, on the basis of experience, opening each bundle of cloth or stack of papers always has an element of surprise.. and let’s be honest, there are good surprises and not-so-good surprises, but the not-so-good ones can often be reprinted to make gloriously complex prints. There is nothing, just nothing, quite like the anticipation and excitement of unrolling that bundle, or dismantling that stack.. it’s one of my most favourite parts of the workshops I run.. watching the students’ faces as they slowly reveal what they have created. VERY special indeed…
8. botanical eco printing brings us close to nature
Taken together, these very special features of botanical contact / eco printing bring us really close to nature. I now see my local environment so differently.. I marvel at the beauty of leaves and trees which I used to walk past without noticing, I’ve ‘discovered’ some really treasures which I’d walked the dog past for years! I see weeds in a completely different light .. willowherb is a stonker of a printer! Those ugly brown dead buddleia flowers, often growing wild, are a source of the most beautiful yellow dye. I just love my foraging trips .. I marvel at nature’s secrets, her hidden glory just in my own urban neighbourhood, never mind beautiful parks and countryside.
9. it’s a wonderfully mindful activity
All of this is such a gloriously mindful activity.. identifying, collecting and appreciating the plants, the rhythm of preparing, working with and bundling the fibres, the ritual of unbinding and unbundling the printed results, the surprises as we see what nature has created with our help. Believe me, there’s no better way to spend your time.
So having given you a whistle stop tour of the nine special features of botanical contact ‘eco’ printing, my next blog will give you Top Tips for success.
I hope this summary has answered some of your burning questions, but no doubt it’s also prompted questions. Email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to answer them directly and in a future blog.
Thanks for reading. Do keep in touch .. my next blog will be here soon!
By Maggie Naturally
12 August 2022
 Website https://www.indiaflint.com and her blog https://prophet-of-bloom.blogspot.com.  Flint I . Eco Colour. London: Murdoch Books  Website https://iritdulman.com  Website https://www.handmadetextilesbycaroline.co.uk.  Website https://www.nicolabrow