It is really easy to create your own patterned fabric by using leaves picked from your garden and a few fabric paints. And the bonus is that you will end up with a unique fabric.
Carol’s Garden quilt by Delia Salter
Carol’s Garden quilt by Delia Salter
Some leaves produce better images than others. It is simply a matter of experimenting. Leaves with a raised pattern of veins or interesting outlines will give a good print. Experiment with all types of leaves from trees, shrubs and indoor plants. The best results are from spring, summer or autumn leaves. Use them shortly after they have been picked while they are still fresh. Don’t press your leaves between the pages of a book to use later as this will depress the vein patterns and also make the leaf too fragile to use.
As far as fabrics are concerned, you can use plain white or coloured cotton; hand-dyed cotton looks particularly effective when printed. You could also try printing on commercial fabrics which makes secondary patterns. As for paints there are various types and brands available from art shops or from companies such as Dylon who also sell fabric dyes. However, you should look for ordinary fabric paints not silk paints which are not thick enough. I often use Pebeo Setacolor which is available quite widely.


Carol’s Garden quilt detail by Delia
Carol’s Garden quilt detail by Delia Salter

Before you start you will need to collect together the following items:

  • Newspaper to cover your working surface
  • Kitchen roll
  • A plastic tray or old saucer
  • A piece of sponge
  • Pieces of fabric
  • Fabric paints
  • Assorted leaves.

Now you're ready to begin

  1. Shake the bottle of paint and pour a little onto your saucer. (A second colour, or even a third can look good alongside the first so that you have touches of more than one colour on your prints. After all, leaves themselves are very rarely just one shade or colour!)
Painting the leaf
  1. Pick up a little paint on the sponge and dab it over the whole surface of your leaf. The important thing to remember is less paint rather than more. Using less paint will actually produce a clearer image. If you find that you have too much paint on your sponge, dab it on to some kitchen roll or a piece of spare fabric (which may end up looking interesting itself).
  2. Place your leaf carefully on the fabric. Take a piece of kitchen paper and lay it over the leaf. Press down on the kitchen roll (do not rub), not forgetting to press along the edge of the leaf so that you obtain a clear outline.
Removing the leaf
  1. Remove the paper and carefully lift the leaf. You should have a clear image on your fabric. Leave the fabric to dry on a flat surface. If the image is not totally clear there may be a couple of reasons. Too much paint on the sponge can cause the print to blotch. If the leaf is inadvertently moved while printing, it makes a double image, or you may just not have a very good leaf - it really is just a case of experimenting again! Most leaves can be used for numerous prints before they break up. If you make a second print before adding more paint you will produce a lighter image. Lighter and darker prints on the same piece of fabric give a real feeling of depth. Continue printing, either making an overall pattern of overlapping leaves which you can use as a piece of patchwork fabric or print a single image which you could use in the centre of a quilt block. You could also print a row of leaves to make a successful border print fabric.
Printing with different colours on a
variety of base fabrics slides
Printing with different colours on a variety of base fabrics slides
  1. There will be instructions on the bottle informing you how to fix the paint but generally these paints are set by heat. Once the leaf printed fabric is fully dry, iron on the reverse side and it is then fully washable and can be used for your patchwork. A good tip is to place an old teatowel on your ironing board before ironing your fabric - just in case some of the colour transfers.
Red and Yellow Leaf quilt by Delia Salter
Red and Yellow Leaf quilt by Delia Salter, 34 x 48cm. Six blocks with individual leaf prints are combined with simple sashing. The outline quilting emphasises the leaf shapes and the border fabric is enhanced with a subtle print using a similar colour paint

Further ideas to try:

  • Print leaves in gold, silver or white paint on a darker background to give a wintry feel to a piece of fabric and use as prints for handmade Christmas cards.
  • Use rainbow colours on a piece of white fabric for a really bright leaf print.
  • Print leaves in a similar colour to a piece of plain fabric for a textured quilt background. This will make a plain fabric NOT so plain.
  • Use leaf printed fabric in an appropriate, traditional quilt block such as Maple Leaf or Pine Tree.
  • Visit friends and request leaves from their gardens - visit vegetable gardens too. Although it can be a little messy it is also fun to get children to make their own leaf prints (outside in the garden on a fine, non-windy day). You will never look at leaves the same way again!
Maple Leaf block
Maple Leaf block

First published in Popular Patchwork April 2001