The Alchemist


Wendy Feldberg’s eco-printed textiles

As a fiber artist and devoted gardener, I had long been curious about natural dyeing but did not feel the need to dye a lot of cloth or fiber or to obtain the even coloration usually sought by expert dyers. In summer 2011, India Flint’s book ECO COLOUR: botanical dyes for beautiful textiles introduced  me to a contemporary approach to the venerable traditions of natural dyeing  that focused on colored mark making and textile surface variety. I found this approach very appealing since mark making and complex surfaces  are characteristic of my art textiles.

My basic art process has been to lay down marks on textiles with print and/or paint and/or stitch, responding intuitively to successive layers of colors and marks, always seeking to express with the  cloth some response to nature. I also appreciated  eco-printing’s  connections to nature  (especially gardens)  and felt they could enrich the narrative content of my work since the beauty in natural forms is the chief inspiration and source of content in my art.

Eco-printing on cloth  is a form of direct or contact printing that extracts natural dyes from plant materials, depositing them as prints onto the substrate. Plant materials (sometimes rust-making metals, too) are securely wrapped in a  pre-mordanted textile, the bundle is tied tightly with string, then steamed, simmered or soaked in water (or other natural dye), in or out of the sun, or even composted for a time, to extract the dye. A delightful variety of form and color characterizes the resulting print.

Eco-printing is a kind of alchemy, more art than science, and therein lies its principal attraction for me. Many factors, often in mysterious interaction, influence the final print: the age of the dye plant, plant growing conditions, textile fiber (cellulose or protein), choice of mordant (e.g., alum,  iron), choice of dye assistants (e.g., baking soda, a copper pot), dye processing temperatures,  etc.

While the challenge of juggling variables is a large part of the pleasure in eco- printing, other benefits abound. It is creative activity that involves me in slow processes: deliberate, thoughtful, meditative, kinetic,  engaging body, mind and spirit in harmonious cycles: growing my dye plants from seed in the garden, gathering them in season, breathing in their perfumes as they simmer in a fall dye pot, stitching the printed cloth, still fragrant in January when snow covers the dye garden.If sometimes, in my little world, I am too anxious about what may lie around life’s next corner, eco printing offers me enjoyable uncertainty, letting me  carry out “senseless acts of beauty” and celebrate the random as well as the ordered beauty in nature.

To eco-print  linen, cotton or silk ( e.g., a 12″ x 24″panel ) I follow some basic (but easily varied ) steps:

First, I scour my cloth by washing it well in hot water and Synthrapol or other detergent.Next, I mordant the cloth by soaking it for 24 hours in water and 25 percent alum to the weight of my cloth. (alum as a mordant for silk; tannin and alum also with cotton or linen). Then I rinse the cloth, lay it out wet, then cover 50 percent of the surface with plant material: leaves, stems, seed heads, blooms and/or roots.  I roll the cloth over a piece of copper pipe, tree branch or bit of rusty iron, tie  up the bundle with cotton string, place it on a steaming rack in on old covered aluminum turkey roaster and steam the bundle for an hour at least on a hot plate outside or on the kitchen stove, or until color shows through distinctly. (Usually, I lack the self discipline to wait even until the bundle cools before unwrapping it.)I keep a pen and paper handy for notes and refer to them to write labels for each cloth. I record dates, textile type, mordants, plants used, extraction method, results obtained, etc.

Eco-printing is a process that rewards experiment. More detailed information about eco-printing, natural dyeing and dye plants is on my blog