How to sun print fabrics with leaves – explorations in sun printing

How to sun print fabrics with leaves - explorations in sun printing

As a lover of colors, dyeing or printing on textiles is something that I have been wanting to do again and again during my crafting journey. Back when I was a knitting and sewing person, I dabbled into dyeing fabrics with chemical dyes that you throw into the washing machine and dyeing sock yarn with Koolaid and later natural dyes.

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Before that, there was silk painting in 6th grade – when everyone in the family got a hand-painted silk scarf. I still don’t know if they REALLY liked it or acted like they would in order to make me not feel bad haha.

The simple act of putting color on a piece of fabric, thread or paper is pure magic!

What is even more magic is, when your color develops right in front of your eyes from a transparent mass to a real stunningly beautiful pattern.

What is sun dyeing?

For the original sun printing, you paint on the surface you want to dye with a special photo reactive paint. Then you’ll cover specific areas of the surface with translucent or solid items and expose it to the sun. Then, you’ll wash off the excess paint.

As a result, the areas that were blocked out from the sun by the items you placed on the surface will stay undyed, while the rest of the surface gets dyed over.

My experiments with sun dye

Picking the botanicals aka leaves and flowers

First, select a range of leaves and flowers to put on your fabric. The larger your fabric, the more leaves you’ll need. Rather pick a little bit more than not having enough. Things like fancy looking seed capsules (poppy seeds) or grass can add unexpected shapes to your fabric.

I simply went outside and picked up what our surroundings in a 5min range held. There are wheat grains (which I didn’t use), lime tree leaves with their little seed bobbles, little twigs from our overgrown hedge and different sizes of sprouting twigs from the vinegar tree. So no flowers, because there are not many in our piece of community land, yet.

I have seen people using flowers and it looks gorgeous. Because the flower petals are so thin, the sun partially shines through and leaves a hint of dyed fabric. If you have some flowers left for this, give it a try!

Preparing the fabric

To avoid making a huge mess and being able to transport the fabric easily, I used some glass panes from old picture frames. They had the perfect size for my fabric and I tried to stay inside the panes with the dye.

Then, I applied the sun-dye with a larger brush. To test it out, I sprinkled some water over one of the fabrics to see if I could achieve a watercolor-ish effect. I could not see a huge difference except at the edges that were less crisp with the wet fabric.

When you bring on the sun-dye, make sure that you don’t have as many wrinkles in the fabric or they might cause shadows which results in fine lines in the dyed fabric later.

Make sure to prep everything in indirekt light or even better – in a dimmed room. I used my sun blocking roller blinds and they worked great.

Adding the leaves and flowers

Now, on to the fun part! Lay your leaves and flowers or seeds on top of the fabric.

When everything is where it should be, place the fabric in direct sunlight. Depending on the sun-dye you have, you’ll need really direct sunlight as in blazing sun without clouds.

My first attempt was on a cloudy day and it worked nonetheless (inside the room). I did place it at the window though and it was quite bright outside. The day of the second attempt was really sunny and it dyed much quicker than the day before.

If you want to have a more layered look, try this:

Instead of leaving the leaves/flowers on for the entire time add some more after a while or take away some. This will add more depth to your fabric pattern later.

In the picture below, I added the longer leaves later to cover some of the areas for a short amount of time so that it would only be a hint of a leaf instead of a blank white leaf.

Also, you can see that there is a circle painted on a pane.

I wanted to test if I can use chalk paint to add geometrical shapes to the pattern. And it works!

The pane also helps to keep the leaves pressed down and stay where they should. Here is the end result:

As you can see, the first round of leaves is very crisp and easy to see. The circle from the chalk paint is there, too.

The leaves I put on later created these cloudy irregular shapes in the background which adds more dimension to the pattern.

For this piece of fabric, I added lots of different leaves and took away the first round of leaves, too so that they would show more color later.

I find it resembles an underwater scene with the light shining from above.


After dyeing…

comes washing. Take away all the plant matter and rinse the fabric quickly or put it directly in the washing machine. Don’t wash it with your regular clothes or the sun-dye paint might stain them.

Also, don’t mix different sun-dye colors or they might stain your other pieces of dyed fabric. You can add some dark towels if you don’t want to wastewater. I used a very short wash cycle and added some dark blue towels that would have gone in the washing machine anyway.

The washing process strips away all of the dye that hasn’t yet been developed by the sun.

To my surprise, the fabric still developed more color after the washing process. So it might not have rinsed everything away. Later, I found out that I was supposed to add some kind of lightfast stuff so that this would not happen.

I’m still monitoring the fabric to see how much darker it will get, but until now it has developed a light blue color instead of the original off-white. So be aware that this might happen.


Sun-dye paints

Here are some brands that sell sun-dye paints:

Inkodye – Dynaflow – SolarFast

There are also ready made products like cushion covers, paper sheets or aprons that you only have to place your greenery on et voilá it dyes.


To be continued on Instagram…

Now, what will I do with these sun-dyed pieces of fabric? I will show all the projects and my observations with future sun-dyeing experiments over on my Instagram account. Follow me there if you are interested in learning more!


Further readings

Sun printing Fabric with Dy-na-flow by Linda Heines

How to sun-dye bandanas by Design Mom

Botanical Sun Printing on Linens by Homesong


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