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dye printing on cotton fabric

Posted on Apr 21, 2011 by in natural dyes | 9 comments

A few weeks ago I attended the second class in a series on natural dyes taught by Rebecca Burgess. (My post on the first class is here.) It was a beautiful Spring day at Commonweal Garden, the site of many great classes offered by the Regenerative Design Institute. We gathered excitedly in the green house to dye our cotton fabrics in the vats of native Toyon and California coffeeberry that had been aging for the month since our last class.

Once the fabrics were dyed and while they were drying in the sun, Rebecca demonstrated how to make inks from natural dyes. Her method is to leave the plant matter in an old dye bath and let it stand uncovered for several weeks or months, so that the liquid becomes stronger and thickens as it evaporates. An alternate method to to boil lots of plant matter in a small amount of water to get a strong color.

an old dye bath that has been left sitting for a few months to thicken and strengthen

Then she strains 3 cups of the dye liquid into a blender and adds 2 tsp. of sodium alginate, which is a natural thickener made from brown algae that is available at craft stores. Experiment with the ratio of liquid to sodium alginate until you get a thick ink that doesn’t drip.

We carved designs into pieces of linoleum block and brushed them with a variety of inks that we made: Black walnut, Toyon and Oak gall. Some students also used leaves they collected to make prints with the ink.

Janis printing with a natural dye thickened with sodium alginate

student samples of natural inks from Black walnut, Toyon and Oak galls printed on fabrics

In the photo above of prints made by some of my fellow students, the fabrics on the left are dyed with Coffeeberry and printed with Black walnut ink; the fabrics in the center are dyed with Toyon and the top one is silkscreened with oak gall ink, the bottom one printed with Black walnut ink and Toyon ink (lighter color); the fabrics on the right are undyed cotton printed with Black walnut ink and Toyon ink (lighter color).

My test print (in the photo below) didn’t come out as sharp as I would have liked, and I learned that with this technique it’s better to have a less intricate design.

My test print of Black walnut dye on cotton, which doesn’t look sharp enough to me. More experimentation is definitely needed.

We also unwrapped the fabric that we had placed leaves in and rolled and secured with rubber bands, and then left soaking in iron water or oak gall water. My results (below) were really unusual, and I want to experiment more with this technique.

eco printing with Eucalyptus and Bay leaves rolled in fabric, bound with rubber bands, and soaked in iron water for a month, and then later dyed with Toyon after the leaves were removed


  1. Hello Dustin
    Love the photo collection of student work – nice!

    • Thanks, Janis! I didn’t take many notes during the class, so I hope I identified the ink colors correctly. Do you remember which dye produced the dark brown in your sample?

  2. Hi Dustin, I can’t find my notes from class but for some reason “black walnut” comes to mind. I could be way off, or completely correct. Best thing would be is to email Rebecca.
    Hope to see you Sunday, it looks like the weather will be lovely!

  3. What a lovely compilation of your group effort! I really like how the eco-printing came out.

    • Thanks, Birdsong! I am looking forward to experimenting further with the techniques we learned about in the class.

  4. Read through all your blog, and I can’t help but be most intrigued by this entry. I love inks and painting with them, and the prospect of making my own is sort of amazing. You wouldn’t happen to know if the ink made from boiling down the dye keeps without molding, would you? I’ve read around, and it seems like adding a little rubbing alcohol would keep that from happening, but I’m not sure if it would affect the ink.

  5. Hi,
    I am sarfraz from pakistan, and i am
    Working with my brother, we dye natural
    Wool ( protien fiber ) for carpets
    With natural dyes, and now we are experimenting
    Cotton, silk, linen with natural dyestuff.
    We have more then 300 colour’s range,
    I want to learn more about natural dyes,
    Kindly add my e.mail for updates.
    Mobile. +92336-123-456-3

  6. hi, deare friends,

    wonderful works… amazing, pls include me to yur group i am a free lance designer in textile industry. i visited some of veg-dye-units and very few in india are incluse ayurveda in dyeing of textile materials in ecofriendly manner.


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