What is Eco-printing?

Eco-printing (or Botanical printing as it is also known) is a process by which the colours and shapes of leaves or other natural plant material such as bark, seeds or flowers are transferred onto fabric or paper. The plant material is combined with moisture and heat (and in some cases mordants) to transfer the colour and shape onto the target fabric or paper – natural alchemy!  

Eco-printing is far more environmentally friendly than many of our modern dying/production methods as few, if any, chemicals are used, and the best results are achieved on natural fabrics – better for you and better for the planet.

The history of Eco-printing

There is very little written about the history and formation of eco-printing in comparison to many other crafts. Like rag-rugging it may have been an occupation of the poor and therefore largely unrecorded other than in oral history.

Also known as Botanical printing, what little is know about the history of this medium can however, be traced back to middle ages. Discorides, an ancient Greek pharmacologist, first described the techniques and, as interest in scientific study and herbalism grew, they were used to record/illustrate books. Famous writers such as Leonardo Da Vinci also described techniques for botanical printing and produced some examples including a sage leaf. However, knowledge and use of these printing techniques appears to have faded over time. Ismal (2016) suggests this was largely as a result of the discovery of the first synthetic dye by William Henry Perkin in 1856. This would seem to be intuitively correct as more uniform and predictable results are achievable with synthetics and this would have been desirable at a time when the western world was moving to mass production and marketing just after the Industrial revolution.

I’ve not been able to find any reference to the historical use of plants to make prints in te Ao Maori, although a variety of barks and leaves were (and still are) used to dye muka (flax fibre).

The first formalised record of plants being used as natural dyes for wool was a book published in 1941 by Amy Hadfield Hutchinson called “Plant dying”. Much of the scientific material in Hutchinson’s book came from botanist Lucy Cranwell who was working at Auckland War Memorial museum at the time.

Botanical printing did not re-emerge in popular culture until the early 1990s when artist, India Flint started working with eucalyptus and fabric. Flint is credited with reviving and developing the process now widely referred to as ‘eco-printing’.

Today eco-printing seems to be increasing in popularity world-wide and a search of Facebook and the internet turns up artists working in this medium from the UK, Australia, Canada, Spain and Israel as well as a few within NZ. All of these artists have similarities and differences including one which focuses on the spiritual aspect of eco-printing and the experience of being in nature.

This increasing popularity may be linked to the current world-wide zeitgeist regarding environmental issues and the search (by some) for more sustainable ways of working and living. Eco-printing is far more environmentally friendly than many of our modern dying/production methods and the best results are achieved on natural fabrics. Whilst not a total panacea (there are issues with cotton production and the use of pesticides/slave labour to name but one consideration) this art form is far more sustainable than many.

I’m now following some of these other artists to see how practice varies across the world and what I might learn from the similarities or differences.

Why buy an eco-printed item from JUST US Art at the Fox?

Many of the items you will see in the shop here are upcycled garments which have been given a new life through the eco-printing process. Others are hand-made with eco-printed cotton or are natural silk which has been rescued from water damaged bolts of fabric. Some items may also have been dyes using natural plant pigments. Most plants have been sourced from the gardens and surrounding environment here at the Fox. A few which we don’t (yet) grow have been bought from sustainable sources.

When you buy an eco-printed/naturally dyed item from The Flying Fox you are supporting a slower way of creating which respects the natural environment and the materials used. Each piece is a unique and artisan creation. Each print varies according to the plant material, the place it was grown, the fabric, process and time of year – you will not see another exactly the same!


Ismal,O.E.(2016) Patterns from Nature: Contact Printing,-In%201941%2C%20there&text=Native%20plants%20had%20long%20been,a%20red%2Dbrown%20with%20time.