Chemistry in art

Published 7:03 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Eco-printing isn’t rocket science, but “there’s a bit of chemistry involved,” says Anne Garland.

In fact, the art form is very much like a science experiment — there are many variables that can affect the results.

The term refers to a series of techniques for transferring the image of leaves and flowers onto fabric using their natural tannins — chemicals plants produce as a defense mechanism to make themselves unpalatable.

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Some eco-printers achieve more distinct prints by soaking the leaves and/or the fabric in tannin or iron or copper oxide — substances that can be made at home by soaking rusty nails or old keys in a mixture of water and vinegar for a week or two.

The leaves or flowers get sandwiched between two pieces of treated fabric, which is then rolled onto a dowel rod so the leaves press tightly against the cloth. The dowel is then steamed or submerged in a pot of water, which draws out the tannin onto the fabric.

Garland is the owner of the circa-1899 Nelms House at 308 Main St. and one of four eco-printers with work on display inside. She started experimenting with the process last fall, learning from tutorials she found on the internet.

Once steamed, the leaf and flower patterns and colors will bleed through the pieces of fabric, leaving ghost-like images — unless you add a third layer known as a resist or barrier to get a clearer image in the original pattern you arranged.

It’s at least a two-day process from laying out a pattern to the end result.

“I let most of my stuff sit overnight,” Garland said.

The resulting textile prints can be turned into scarves, tote bags, placemats, table runners, napkins and towels.

“I’m more of a functional artist, so I like to take whatever I make in fabric and turn it into something people can use,” Garland said.

Garland further specializes her work by using plants native to Virginia, such as wild quinine, which aren’t typically used for eco-printing — hence the need to experiment.

“I was just experimenting to see what results I could get with native plants,” Garland said. “Obviously, there are certain plants in general that eco-printers use because they know — there are many people using them, that they make wonderful prints — but I didn’t know.”

“Learning and experimenting with variables is part of the creation process,” she added.

Prints made with the copper oxide solution typically come out reddish brown, while those made with the iron oxide turn a purplish gray. Garland sometimes adds additional color to her prints using pigments extracted from native plants such as elderberry, river birch and native holly — a process known as eco-dyeing.

Many of the native plants she uses come from her own garden in the Nelms House’s backyard, accessible via a small patio off the kitchen. In the kitchen, one can find pots of pinecones and avocado pits on the stove in the middle of the dye-making process. The avocado pits are not native, but “I just thought it would be fun to try that,” Garland said.

Animal-based fabrics like wool and silk absorb the plant tannins and dyes much better than the vintage cotton and linens Garland prefers to use, so her preparation process includes using a mordant or soy milk as a protein binder to ensure the colors adhere to the fabric.

Most of Garland’s work is on the first floor of the house. Upstairs are the works of her three guest eco-printers: Sarah Tremaine, Lotta Helleberg and Jill Jensen, all of the Charlottesville area. Tremaine specializes in a Japanese form of eco-dyeing known as Shibori, which Garland described as a technique similar to tie-dyeing.

Garland plans to offer half-day, full-day or two-day workshops on eco-printing for small groups of friends or family with advance registration. No specific dates are scheduled yet, as this will depend on interest. All supplies will be provided. For details, Garland asks those interested to call 757-334-9568 or email