“You’ve got about 10 seconds to put the plants down before the sun starts printing,” explains fabric designer Amanda du Plessis, the founder of Evolution Product.
When she makes her exquisite Botanical Blueprint and Silverprint Silhouette hand-printed fabrics, she starts with locally woven linen that’s been dipped in light-sensitive chemicals and spread out in the sun. She’ll have carefully composed arrangements of indigenous plants and grasses that she’s collected from the nearby Melville Koppies nature reserve, with the print they’ll leave behind in mind. She speedily transfers them onto the fabric the minute it’s ready – it’s an intensely concentrated few moments, and Amanda works quickly and decisively.
“Once they’re on the cloth, they can’t be moved around because the printing process starts immediately,” she says. As the chemicals react to the light, the sun prints the images of the plants onto the fabric. The patterns are revealed properly as the chemical salts are rinsed from the fabric and the ghostly silhouettes of the plants are fixed. “The process essentially reinvents old photography techniques, but on cloth,” explains Amanda. These are more like contact prints than the later printing methods that allowed duplication, though; each contact print is a one-off. “Every single piece is different and unique,” she says.
The idea for this technique came about when Amanda first encountered the botanical prints of Thomas Blagrave in the archives at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi). “He was a retired lieutenant colonel in the British army and he made incredible photograms of ferns in the 1800s,” she explains. Amanda had collaborated with Sanbi before, finding ways to reproduce the fascinating botanical visual history she’d found in their archives, especially those examples that departed from the photographic perfection of mainstream botanical art. When one of
the archivists unearthed a white leather-bound volume of Blagrave’s work that hadn’t been taken down for decades, she called the designer immediately.
Blagrave had improvised a form of early contact photography. “He dipped paper in egg white and lemon juice and we don’t know what else, which left a kind of a glaze on the paper,” explains Amanda. “He then put ferns directly onto it and exposed them to the sun, and somehow there was a reaction and they photographed.”
She began digitally manipulating the colours and printing some of his images onto fabric, resulting in beautiful luminous plant patterns, and called the range Blagrave’s Ferns. But his unusual technique intrigued her. For the first time, she started considering how she might engage with that in her designs directly, not just using the images. “Blagrave really inspired us to start looking at how he made his prints – and not just what they looked like,” she says.
Often months or even years of research precede one of Amanda’s fabric ranges, so after researching the idea, she began working with a photographic studio that specialised in arcane photographic printing techniques. They played around with a technique called blueprinting – the same method used in early photography and which architects used up until the middle of last century to duplicate their drawings, also known as cyanotyping. In one of the fortuitous discoveries that came out of her careful research, it turned out there was a connection between this technique and the local visual history, too.
“It was developed by a man called John Herschel in 1839,” explains Amanda. The British astronomer, scientist and botanist came to South Africa in 1833 to study the night skies, and also produced more than 100 botanical drawings during his stay. Hence, Botanical Blueprints was born. “Can you do it in other colours?” she asked her collaborators. “No,” was their response. “That’s why it’s called blue printing.” But not one to take no for an answer, Amanda persisted and they experimented with other old photographic processes. One, using silver and iron salts, produced beautiful earthy brown and chocolatey tones – and Silverprint Silhouettes was born. Only time will tell what Amanda du Plessis discovers next.
A version of this article originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.
Production: Sven Alberding for Bureaux
Photography: Warren Heath for Bureaux