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Cyanotype is an old photographic printing process, also known as “sun printing.” The chemicals ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide are combined—this is where the magic happens—which makes them sensitive to UV-light, turning dark blue when exposed. Cyanotype was often used to make copies (hence the term “blueprint”) but English botanist Anna Atkins was the first to use it to make scientific recordings of plants in her 1843 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. By treating paper or fabric (like we do here), you can make prints with essentially any found object; the negative space will turn a beautiful, deep cyan blue when exposed to sunlight. There’s an element of surprise with cyanotypes—you never know exactly how they’ll turn out—and that’s what makes them special.

Materials

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  • Cyanotype kit (consists of solutions A and B, premixed potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate)
  • Plastic bowl or bucket
  • Glass jar
  • Sponge brush
  • Rubber gloves
  • Natural fiber fabric like cotton or linen (I use washed second-hand sheets and tea towels)
  • Leaves, ferns, branches, or other found objects
  • Cardboard
  • Glass or plexiglass
  • Fabric pins

Instructions

1. Prepare a dark space where you can hang textiles to dry and easily clean up—cyanotype liquid can go all over the place if you’re not careful, and will leave blue streaks. I use my bathroom, blacking out the window with dark fabric and placing a dowel in the bathtub for hanging. A basement is also good.

2. Measure and cut fabric to desired size.

3. Put on your gloves and mix your chemicals in a semi-dark space. Your cyanotype kit will come with prepared solutions A and B. In a glass jar, mix together equal parts solutions A and B. How much solution you need will depend on how much fabric you are using. In Ruth Brown’s book Cyanotypes on Fabric, she suggests about 140 ml/5 fl oz. per yard of medium-weight cotton. Start by mixing a small amount, then mix more as you need it. 

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4. Lay fabric on a piece of cardboard, or stretch it over a frame, and use the sponge brush to apply the solution. The treated fabric will turn a bright green/yellow color. For larger pieces of fabric, use the immersion method by placing the fabric in a plastic bowl or bucket and pouring the mixed solution over it. Use your hands (still in your rubber gloves!) to agitate the fabric and ensure that the solution covers all of it. Wring out any excess solution. Once treated, hang your fabric to dry in a dark place.

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5. Once the fabric is completely dry, it’s ready to use. Collect your objects and figure out how you want to lay them out. 

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6. When you are ready to print, place the fabric on the piece of cardboard to stabilize it. You can pin the fabric to the cardboard to keep it from bunching up or blowing. Lay your objects on top. You can pin the objects in place, or put a piece of glass on top of them, which will create a crisper line. 

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7. Let the fabric expose for about 15 minutes (in bright, direct sun) to an hour (on a cloudy day). When the fabric is exposed, it turns a dark slate gray. The fabric underneath your objects will still be yellow/green, where the chemicals have not exposed. 

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8. Once the fabric has finished exposing, remove the objects, put your rubber gloves back on and rinse the fabric until the water runs clear. The water stops the exposure, and rinses out chemicals that haven’t been exposed, resulting in the white space. For larger pieces, I rinse the fabric in my bathtub. Just be sure to wash the bathtub clean afterward. After you have finished rinsing, hang the fabric to air dry, keeping it out of direct sunlight. The blue will continue to darken as it oxidizes. Sew your fabric into tablecloths, a wall hanging, or use as patches. The options are endless! 

By Anna Brones
Photographed by Lauren Segal

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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