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Here’s How Our Editor Turned a Piece of Raw Silk into Wearable Art

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Sara Setzer teaches classes on eco-printing at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin. The technique uses foraged plants and other natural products to create botanical patterns on fabrics./Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Phototgraphy

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Foraging for leaves in Wilmington’s shady, tree-lined Wawaset neighborhood and its surrounding parklands, I try to recall pointers Sara Setzer gave me about this essential ingredient in eco-printing.

“Leaves with a lot of tannins, like sumac and sweet gum, work best,” and “ginkgo biloba prints in vibrant yellow.”

I gather bundles of these and maple and oak leaves and hand them to my toddler to use as pompoms as I push her home in the stroller. “You’re going to help Mommy with some homework,” I tell her. She looks at me with her “uh-oh” eyes, like she knows this is about to go down the same way that time I tried, well, just about anything crafty.

Today we’re eco-printing on silk scarves, a craft I learned from Setzer at Mt. Cuba Center, where for three years she’s taught workshops like this and others. Setzer’s background is in wildlife management, including a stint at wilderness survival school, but tagging bears was only temporary.

She found her own call of the wild when, out of boredom, she opened some craft books a friend had left at her home. Soon she was exploring wool and silks and all she could do with them. Now, when she’s not passing along her knowledge to artful students, she’s creating a collection of goods like dining linens, handbags and scarves.

Spreading my noil scarf (a rough, raw silk) across a tarp on my hardwood floor, I smooth out any creases. (Setzer prefers protein fibers because natural dyes adhere better to them than they do to cellulous fibers, like cotton.) In two glass baking bowls, I mix alum and iron mordants, which will create a reaction with the tannins to leave prints on the silk. I then dip each leaf into one or both solutions before placing it on the scarf, remembering what Setzer said about the highest concentration of tannins being in the leaf’s bottom, except for eucalyptus, which can be placed on either side.

I gather bundles of maple and oak leaves and hand them to my toddler to use as pompoms as I push her home in the stroller. ‘You’re going to help Mommy with some homework,’ I tell her. She looks at me with her ‘uh-oh’ eyes, like she knows this is about to go down the same way that time I tried, well, just about anything crafty.

Setzer calls this method the “forest floor effect,” the simplest of her techniques for dyeing scarves. It takes knowledge about the natural world, and trial and error, to understand the various plants and how they react with mordants to color a fiber. For now, I’m just experimenting, even letting my daughter select the solution—I don’t expect to create wearable art.

Next, following Setzer’s instructions, I roll the scarf, leaves all arranged, around a copper pipe. (I was supposed to first wrap it in plastic wrap to prevent the copper from leaching, but oops, we’re underway on the Plastic-Free Challenge.) Then I twist twine around the pipe to bundle the scarf for the next step: Cooking.

And this is where I’m in the soup.

Setzer uses enormous pots to boil her scarves. It’s important to secure the lid tightly and let the scarves cook, undisturbed, for a good hour and a half to two hours. I eyeball my spaghetti pot and think, that’s big enough.

Nope, not even close.

So for three hours I hang out by the stove, rotating the bundle with tongs so that the bottom half gets boiled while the top gets steamed under a partially open lid. The water evaporates quickly, so I have to keep topping off the pot with warm water from the tap and giving it time to reheat. (Bonus: The eucalyptus permeates our place with a minty pine scent, and I get a facial each time I labor over the steam.)

I drain the water, then let the bundle “cool” for two days. (I’m supposed to rinse it right away, but I’m hoping some extra time will equal a more defined print.) When I do unravel it, I’m surprised to see a montage of distinct leaf prints in deep purples and browns and greens—and that I have, in fact, made something worthy of wear on my first try. My daughter’s baby doll looks fabulous in it.


Per Mt. Cuba Center’s website, all assembled group activities, including classes and upcoming events, are canceled or postponed until Governor John Carney’s stay-at-home order is lifted and the threat to public health has sufficiently abated. Check mtcubacenter.org for updates.

Published as “Leafing an Impression” in the April 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.