Eco-printing artist uses wild plants to make textiles

In her Brooksville studio, Amelia Poole arranges a mix of maple and other tree and plant leaves on a section of crisp, white cotton as part of a multi-stage process to produce patterned cloth. Her leaf-patterned top shows the subtle end result. PHOTO BY LILY CUSACK

Amelia Poole stands over a large sheet of crisp, white cotton in her Brooksville studio on a sunny afternoon. A large bucket brimming with maple, fern, sumac, oak and birch stems sits in front of her.

One by one, the textile artist carefully plucks leaves from the fern fronds and leaves from the various trees and places them randomly on the sheet.

“I want it to be very natural, sort of looking up through a dreamscape of leaves,” she said of this particular pattern.

Once satisfied with her arrangement, Poole presses another piece of cotton on top of the botanical material, rolling it like a wrap sandwich around a dowel and tying the package with a piece of string.

The tamale-shaped piece then is plunked into a turkey roasting pan filled with steaming hot water. About an hour later, the parcel is untied, revealing a lush, intricate print within.

For Poole, gathering and experimenting with different botanical material is an enjoyable part of the process.

“It’s really an accessible process,” Poole said of the method to compose and produce her patterned textile. “I’m using leaves, and there’s so much natural variation that if something moves around, or there’s a little wrinkle, it’s just all part of the piece. It’s not, by no means, catastrophic.”

At Ecouture Textile Studio, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Poole uses the process known as eco-printing to make one-of-a-kind scarves, quilts, notecards and garments.

Originally from Massachusetts, the fiber artist earned a bachelor’s degree in history and chemistry from the College of William and Mary. An interest in textiles, though, took her across the Atlantic to England, where she studied at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design.

Australian textile artist India Flint’s 2010 book “Eco Colour” about dyeing textiles naturally further focused what she wanted to do.

“I really made it my definite focus to use only the plants I can gather in this area,” Poole said. “I’ve developed a lot of fabric preparation techniques to guarantee results and bring out as many colors as possible.”

Each printed textile is unique to the time of year and what plant material is available.

“Sometimes I’ll separate the leaves from their plants, but other times, Mother Nature really got it right,” she said of the process. “That architecture, that shape, is just as it should be.”

Poole enjoys her plant-sourcing rambles.

“I’m OK with being that woman who’s in the ditch gathering plants,” she laughed.

As a self-employed, single mother of one, Poole strives to develop a new piece each year and keep her artistic work fresh. She aims to make more clothing as well as table napkins.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m just balancing on one foot,” the artist said. “But, I’m doing exactly what I love, and I’m excited about doing it every single day.”

Come winter, when wild plant life is dormant, Poole dyes with indigo. The blue pigment is made from crushed the blue indigo shrub.

“Basically it’s a complicated tie-dye process,” the textile designer said, standing over a sparkling vat of indigo dye. “There’s a lot of lore associated with indigo over the years because it really is very magical.”

First, usually huddled in front of her wood-fired stove, she sews patterns into linen fabric.

“I make the piece into a three-dimensional shape, so I’m sort of dyeing sculptures,” she explained, picking up a knotted piece.

She then dips the linen in the indigo sometimes as many as 30 times, to permanently dye the fabric. As she pulls it out of the vat, the cloth has gone from a yellowy-green to a rich indigo color. She then undoes the sewing in the cloth.

“It reveals some really intricate imagery,” Poole said of the patterns the knots produce. “It is controlled, but it has some really random aspects to it.”

Poole never knows what patterns will emerge.

“I feel like it has very little to do with me, that I’m just sort of facilitating,” Poole said. “I’m still excited every time I take a piece out of the steamer because it is magic.”