A botanical mandala on fabric

Find out how I made a botanical mandala print on fabric using the flower hammering/pounding technique. Follow along with my steps and create your own printed mandala… and find out what I learnt from my experiments. It’s lots of fun and the possibilities are endless!

I’ve been dreaming of experimenting with flower hammering for years but never known the specifics of how to do it… So I was delighted when Samorn Sanixay agreed to contribute to volume 3 of Plants Are Magic. Samorn is based over in Australia which is too far for me to go to one of her workshops, so welcoming her to the magazine felt very special. It is an incredible taster to this new way to dye and pattern fabric.

Plants Are Magic is my totally independent magazine (with no adverts!) about being creative with plants. You can see the available issues of the magazine over here and order in print and digital. This third volume of the magazine is all about Time: preserving plants, making memories through plants, slowing down and experiencing nature.

I’ve done a few experiments with Samorn’s method over the last few weeks using plants from my balcony. The results are quite astonishing and in many instances, the print of the plant looks identical to the actual plant. It’s mesmerising! Here are some test prints (unwashed) with viola flowers and dyer’s knotweed leaves (Japanese indigo). Can you see how the leaf prints turn slightly blue as the dye oxidises?

This is what I used to create a botanical mandala:

 two pieces of fabric
  • soya milk* or other way to pretreat/mordant fabric (you choose)
  • plants (check that none are poisonous)
  • hammer
  • smooth hard surface (I used a wooden chopping board)
  • iron

*soya milk is a binder, not a mordant, but still helps plant dyes attach to the fibres. Technically soya milk is a binder, and the chemistry involved is different to traditional mordants like alum. The end result is similar – you have dyes that last longer on fibres.

OK, so let’s get started with making the mandala

The prep work:
  • I prewashed the fabric (I used a cotton bag and extra piece of fabric on top. You choose what you want to use)
  • I pretreated the fabric in soya milk using the method in my eBook and book Botanical Colour at your Fingertips (or alum – your choice). A summary of the soya milk method is that you make a very diluted bucket of soya milk and soak the cloth in there for 12 hours, then squeeze out as much liquid as possible and hang to dry. Then do two more dips in the same bucket of milk and dry in between. Wait a few days before hammering plants into the fabric. This will give the milk time to cure and bond with the fibres.

Making the mandala

I gathered my equipment (the wooden board and hammer) and collected the flowers and leaves from my balcony. You don’t need a huge number of plants to create a beautiful pattern. That’s the benefit of this hammering technique. You can create incredible results with just a small handful of plants.

Here I collected violas, dyer’s knotweed (Persicaria tinctoria/Japanese indigo), lemonbalm, coreopsis, sage and oregano. You can try any plant as long as it’s not poisonous.

Then I put the chopping board inside the bag – behind one layer of fabric.

I arranged the plants in a mandala – beginning in the centre and working my way out.

Then I carefully laid the second piece of fabric onto the plants, being as careful as possible to not disturb the arrangement.

I took my hammer and began to pound the plants – slowly and with precision. In the photo below, you can see the print begin to emerge through the top layer of fabric. I carefully hammered around the outline to get a clear print then worked towards the centre of the leaves to complete the whole print of each leaf. As I did each leaf, I watched the prints show through the fabric and did it systematically. You get two prints – one on each piece of fabric.

I kept on going until the entire mandala showed through the top layer of fabric.

I decided to add in some more yellow coreopsis petals around the outside of my mandala so I very carefully lifted up the edges of the fabric and inserted the petals before hammering again.

When I’d finished, I peeled off the top layer of fabric to reveal the two prints.

Some of the leaves peeled off easily right away, but really it’s best to wait until the prints have dried and then the plants will turn papery and easily dust off. If you peel them off too soon, you risk smudging your print with the wet plants. My violas were very juicy and impossible to peel away before they were dry.

Later that evening I peeled off all the dry plants and shook off any loose bits, then ironed the fabric (using another piece of fabric to cover the print).

Then I waited a few days before finally washing the fabric. I used Bio-D washing liquid which is a natural detergent that we have in the UK.

Here is the result on the cotton top layer of fabric…

The print on the bag was much paler and somewhat disappointing, but I learnt something from this result. It’s still a pretty bag that I will enjoy using.

How did the prints take on the different types of fabric?

Of course the print was a lot clearer on the piece of fabric than the bag. The canvas bag has a much rougher texture so I feel like that’s the reason. It just has more gaps in the print from the bumpy woven texture of the fabric. Also maybe the fabric would have benefited from scouring to remove more oils from the fibres. I did a medium temperature long wash as I do with all my fabric, but I wonder if that wasn’t enough cleaning and the fabric wasn’t as absorbent as it could have been.

My original plan was to print a bag with a mandala pattern but I didn’t consider the texture of the fabric affecting the print in this way. It’s still a nice effect, but I was hoping for something more vivid. It’s not a total disaster as there’s still some kind of print, but it’s not what I’d hoped for. The piece of fabric I used to cover the bag, however, turned out just as I was hoping, and now I have a mandala to hang on the wall (I think I’ll cut the fabric down and sew a channel along the top to insert a rod). I hoped for a bag and ended up with a bonus wall hanging so I’m happy!

Thoughts on making mandalas

The act of arranging plants into a mandalas is really calming.. I’ve made a few over the last year and found that it’s a lovely way to celebrate the seasons by collecting plants and making a beautiful arrangement. Then I tend to photograph my mandala and return the leaves to the ground outside, or sometimes press the plants in my flower press.

In fact, mandalas are a recurring theme in Plants Are Magic magazine. Volume 2 has a beautiful article all about the history of mandalas and how they can help us.

The ironic thing with hammering a mandala is that it is so loud and not peaceful like usual mandala-making. But the results are breathtaking and it’s totally worth the noise! I’d like to try using a rubber mallet sometime to see if that is quieter.

What I noticed whilst hammering is that it’s a truly aromatic experience. The scent from the plants really comes through as they are broken down and it’s gorgeous! I especially enjoyed the scents from lemonbalm and oregano.

How does the colour last on fabric?

As you can see, after just one wash, the patterns on both pieces of fabric have held up fairly well. The purple from the violas faded the most and just a little blue now remains. Next time I would wait a lot longer before rinsing… I was a bit too eager here! Waiting a few weeks would probably give more permanent prints from flowers.

The yellow from the coreopsis turned darker orange with the change of pH from the tap water. The leaf prints didn’t fade much (if at all) from washing – they are incredibly vivid! Next time I will hammer just with leaves as I love the effect.

I’m much happier with the result on the smoother fabric than the bag, so when I do this again I will always use smooth fabric. It’s a bit of a shame about the bag, but without trying these things we won’t find out what does and doesn’t work.

Thoughts on transient colours on fabric

If you create a mandala artwork to hang, keep in mind that the colours will most likely gradually fade over time. Fading doesn’t worry me, since botanical mandalas are usually transient pieces of art anyway where we return plants to the earth. So if these mandalas last a few years then it’s quite incredible, right?

If you have any worries about colours not lasting, I like to think about it this way: the colours in leaves and flowers don’t last forever anyway. They fade away and plants eventually disintegrate. It’s a blessing that it’s even possible to hammer plants into fabric to capture some of this fleeting beauty from nature. So in my eyes, any print is beautiful and worth it for however long it lasts.

In fact for a wall hanging, why even wash the fabric at all? The violas were beautiful before they were partially rinsed away. The dye may not be entirely lightfast, but it’s still beautiful while it lasts.

You could make a new mandala on fabric every season to hang in your home or re-print the same item of clothing if the print eventually washes away. In a world full of plastic and other synthetics that will never disintegrate, it’s easy to become preoccupied with colours lasting “forever”. Do we want anything to last forever? Do we even need things to last a lifetime? Create a piece of artwork or fabric to enjoy right now – and for however long it lasts.