Monique Risch is standing at the gas cooktop in her kitchen, intently stirring the contents of a large, deep pot when I enter the room. I peek in and see an orange-red liquid slowly simmering. Knowing her garden produces an abundance of tomatoes, I ask if she’s preparing a pasta sauce. She lifts the slotted spoon and shows me a wadded piece of silk tinted the same color. Clearly, not dinner. Rather, I’ve just witnessed the first step in my introduction to botanical printing.
Monique, who owns the cottage my husband, Bill, and I rent in Kenwood in Sonoma wine country each summer, is a fabric artist. Both art and science, botanical printing is an ancient process of natural dyeing on textiles. It involves extracting the beauty of plants and imprinting them onto wearable fabrics.
She has invited me to her contemporary home in Santa Rosa, CA, while she produces her fall harvest line of scarves for One-O-One, an exclusive women’s clothing store in nearby Healdsburg. Rather than observing her at work from a discrete distance, I’m all in with a hands-on lesson.
Monique lowers the formerly white fabric back into the pot, which contains a mixture of water and madder root to create a rich, rusty base color. She wears an apron and gloves, protection from spatters and drips from the natural dyes, and outfits me the same way.
I ask if it’s feasible to cook in the same pot she’s using for her botanical printing projects.
Shaking her head, she says, “I have a large pot collection.” We both erupt in laughter, realizing her words could be misconstrued to mean she has a lot of marijuana. “I have a large collection of pots,” she clarifies.
For the past eight years, Monique has honed her craft, traveling and learning about plant properties, natural dyes, and botanical printing. Given her background as a professional art director and graphic designer, her work in fiber arts is a natural progression in her career.
Nowadays, she searches for hidden colors, creates abstract forms from nature, and develops textures from plants onto fabric or paper. She draws inspiration from Irit Dulman, a master of botanical printing from Israel whose constant experimentation results in new techniques which she presents at intensive workshops internationally. Monique, who recently attend one of Dulman’s workshops on Whidbey Island, WA, leads local workshops of her own. She gears them to beginners and advanced practitioners in eco printing and modern Shibori, a Japanese technique involving manual resist dyeing.
We walk into the adjacent screened-in porch, and I’m momentarily disoriented. I had recently attended a six-person dinner party Monique and her husband, Glenn Meade, hosted on this same porch. That night, we feasted on chicken satay, coconut rice, asparagus, and fresh peach tatin. Today, the room is unrecognizable.
Monique has converted the space into her makeshift botanical printing studio. Tools of her trade and products in various stages of completion are scattered throughout.
All manner of Sonoma County plant life – leaves, seeds, and flowers – Monique has hand-harvested sit in a pile. Boxes are filled with natural and organic mordants (acids. salts) to bind dyes to fabrics. Dyed and yet-to-be-dyed fabric drape over drying racks. Mounds of used, yet still viable, cloth blankets for securing plants in place and helping with color transfers resemble spattered drop cloths from a house painting. Bags filled with white blanks lie in wait. A leaf print dress adorns a headless mannequin. A clothes rack holds a stunning array of finished scarves, tops, and dresses destined for sale.
Pungent, herby scents emanate from both the pot on the burner in the kitchen and an electric steamer on the porch. That warm, earthy smell mingles with the chilled air from the nightly fog that has yet to burn off.
Trying my hand at botanical printing
We walk to the long production table where Monique demonstrates her botanical printing method.
“It’s a basic recipe, but everyone’s cake comes out differently,” she says, thanks to a host of variables.
For one, different ingredients come from different places. Plants picked in the brighter sun and plants picked in the shade have dissimilar amounts of chlorophyll, so different results come from using the sun and earth sides.
First, she lays down a long, narrow strip of plastic as a barrier. Next comes a blank piece of silk. She positions an assortment of leaves in whatever pattern comes to mind or satisfies a design concept. She dips a blanket in dark tannin, squeezes out the residue, and tops the concoction. She places a wooden dowel crosswise, and rolls the assemblage tightly and evenly over the dowel like a jellyroll, tugging and pulling to eliminate wrinkles and crinkles in the fabric and scooching in loose leaves. She shrink-wraps the roll, making it look more like a burrito or a cigar, and pops it into the steamer for a hot bath.
Simply put, “it’s like making a sandwich,” she explains. “This is contact printing, and the layers need contact.”
Two hours later, she unrolls the tube, separates the layers, and washes the scarf in warm soapy water until the water runs clear. Now that the fog has burned off, she drapes the wet scarf over two chairs on her sun-filled front patio. In five minutes, it’s dry, gorgeous, and worth every penny the future buyer will pay.
As I’d anticipated, Monique is an excellent teacher. She tells and shows me just enough to explain the process without me feeling overwhelmed or intimidated. I love that she describes botanical printing as “coaxing the plant to leave its pigment and shape in a way that’s evocative of what it looks like,” implying mutual respect and agreement between plant and printer. My creative juices start to rumble.
Before I arrived, Monique had issued “homework”: provide two plants to add to her inventory of raw materials. I snipped branches of loquat, their long leaves dark green and veiny, from trees at our (Monique’s) cottage. Then I walked to the neighboring yard of obliging friends, and gathered fig leaves large enough to cover obese versions of Adam and Eve. Any plants, even vegetables, are fair game in botanical printing.
I make heavy use of those leaves, along with pine needles, eucalyptus, black walnut leaves, and Japanese maple leaves. Clusters of blooming fennel seeds I add last will look like exploding fireworks on my scarf. Unlike Monique’s fine, high-end silks for retail, mine is a lower quality in keeping with my newbie status as a botanical printer. Recalling some of her design suggestions, I overlap a few leaves so they morph together. I let a leaf come part way off the fabric to create a bleed pattern.
Seeing my excitement, Monique urges me to take a crack at another one.
After designing, rolling, steaming, and rinsing my second scarf, I remove my gloves, and am shocked at the appearance of my right hand. My entire middle finger is now colored a deep purple from the grape tannin seeping in, thanks to an undetected hole in the glove.
Panic rising, I show Monique my worrisome digit.
“Welcome to my world,” she says dryly, splaying her hands. All 10 nails bear streaks of purple markings. She points me back to the sink, and hands me a stiff nail brush and a bottle of Dawn dish washing liquid. “Scrub,” she orders. My ragged breathing subsides as my normal skin tone appears. Monique assures me the color will fade fully with subsequent washings.
With a thankful hug for Monique, I head home, brimming with self-satisfaction from learning something new. Good show, Mother Nature.
Thanks to Monique Risch for permission to reprint two photos of her botanical prints from her website.