Fabric artist Ira Bekker’s budding eco-printing workshops: Green Route

I learnt how to do eco-printing in a workshop with fabric artist Ira Bekker from UBU Botanicals who talks about her eco journey and shares her favourite green spaces and places.

Jeanne Viall’s leaves and flowers for eco=printing

I spent a slow Saturday morning in the forest at Soil for Life in Constantia, learning how to do botanical printing with leaves with Ira Bekker from UBU Botanicals, organised through Lucy Olden from Earthskills Africa.

What a wonderful morning of woodsmoke, leaf foraging and learning new skills. First we picked leaves to put in a ‘test wrap’ to see how the tannins from the leaves print onto fabric when dipped in iron water and steamed gently for an hour or two. While the testers were steaming we gathered more leaves and Ira showed us how to place them on a bigger piece of fabric, in my case an old, tired white dress that had been languishing in my cupboard.

The excitement of unwrapping our test bundles was great and we were encouraged to see leaf prints transferred onto fabric. My white dress was transformed by the tannins in oak and maple leaves and it was great to disconnect from ‘headspace’ and work with my hands to make something beautiful (to me).

Eco-print bundles ready to be unwrapped PHOTO Ira Bekker

I asked Ira to describe her eco-printing journey and her Green Route for us. Thank you for your beautiful words, Ira 💚

For more information about Ira’s workshop and UBU Botanicals please email lets.reimagine.our.world@gmail.com

Leaves release tannins during steaming. PHOTO Ira Bekker

“I was born in Johannesburg, spent five years on a farm in Kwa-Zulu Natal between two and seven years old after which I moved back to Johannesburg when mining activities at the back of the mountains dried up the springs that supplied farm with water.

“I have always had a love-hate relationship with Johannesburg, yearning for more nature but it was only when I made peace with Johannesburg and what it offered that I was able to move away. Planting a vegetable garden, doing eco-printing, stepping into Shamanic spaces all made living there much more enjoyable over the last four years. 

Ira Bekker from UBU Botanicals

“I came to eco-printing after 14 years as a mosaic artist. As much as I loved mosaic I came to a place where I was very ready for something softer, more pliable and more natural to work with as a medium.

“Clay was and still is my first love but I wanted to keep that for myself as a personal practise. I discovered Pinterest just before the December Holidays in 2013 and my eye was caught amongst so many other visuals by images of eco-printed fabrics and India Flint, the woman who discovered the process.

Placing leaves for eco-printing at the workshop

“I was so drawn to it that I made it my mission to learn all that was available about it at the time, which was not much and not very clear, and use my December holidays to put it into practise. It took a couple of failed attempts for me to get results but once I saw the first prints I was completely hooked. “

“For me personally it provided me with a space of connection and co-creation with Nature at a time when I was very hungry for it. Working with the elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) deepened my shamanic practise and the magic of the process brought deep joy into my life – every bundle I opened was like receiving a precious gift! Engaging with natural dyes and eco-printing also enabled me to personalise my clothing and home wear which gave me much joy after becoming very frustrated with the generic clothing available commercially. 

Jeanne Viall’s dress after eco-printing

On another level, eco-printing brings up conversations around sustainability, up-cycling, awareness around natural resources and commercialism which has always been close to my heart. At a time when so many are becoming aware that we need to move towards being self sufficient, reducing our impact on the land and moving towards self governance, eco-printing and related practices provide us with many solutions and great inspiration for doing things differently – which is why I decided to share this practise through workshops. 

Eco-printing with the elements. PHOTO Ira Bekker

“I see it as a practise rather than skill as so much more is happening here than just the mere imparting of a skill. When we do eco-printing around a fire, working WITH nature, WITH the elements there is a connection that happens, with nature but also to ourselves and to each other on a level that is different from the usual superficial connections.

“It feels like an opening, a deepening a coming into being and into rest in ourselves and the place where we find ourselves in that moment and this, as well as what comes out of the bundles at the end of the day, is what is enormously precious about this practise.

Ira explains eco-printing at the workshop

The most  important green space in my life has been the Melville Koppies in Johannesburg.

This small ridge of preserved nature two blocks away from my house was my and my boys’ life line for 13 years while we lived there. We spent much of our free time exploring this little hill’s nooks and crannies.

From here we also had a view of central Johannesburg as well as an almost 360 view of the suburbs which forms part of what is known as the biggest manmade forest in the world.

Here we saw the seasonal changes down, experienced raging veld fires, witnessed the tiny highveld flowers appear shortly after the first rains of spring. It is also where I found silence, perspective, balance and distance from the business of the city and family life. A haven for my soul. 

Even before this time as a child, our back garden in Linden, Johannesburg was a happy green space for me, especially in summer when the fruit trees offered their soft juiciness up with such abundance.

The greater area were taken up by fruit farms before the land was divided into suburbs with individual plots so we had well a established variety of peach trees, nectarines, plum, apricot and rough skin lemon.

We spent summer holidays gorging ourselves on fresh fruit and surplus fruit was made into jam which were given to friends and lasted us right through the year until the next summer’s abundance. My mother also loved nurturing the garden she planted here and there was always a compost pile in the backyard under the apricot tree’s branches where I spent much of my time as a child, growing plants from cuttings and from seed. 

There have also been two farms in my life.

Riversdale was a farm in Kwazulu-Natal where I lived for five years as a young child.

uMgeni River PHOTO Nikki Brighton, Plant Abundance

It was green and lush and filled with the fragrances of life. There were cows and pigs and chickens all with their very own distinct smells. there was the dairy where cows were still milked by hand filling the air with the sweet richness of raw milk, there was the big vegetable garden where I could pull a turnip from the ground and eat it while the fragrance of soil still clung to it. There was the fragrance of guavas from the trees behind the house and the fresh green fragrance of green mielies still on the plants and all around our small patch of farm there were mountains and valleys and forests yet to explore. 

The other farm was Magetsane, a farm in the Freestate where my Oupa and Ouma lived.

In contrast with the green mildness of Riversdale, this landscape was sparse and dry and vast and had a beauty that seeped into my soul and never let me go. It possessed a stripped down honestly and clarity that I still value over the much intricacies of other, greener landscapes.

On both these farms were great old Eucalyptus trees which stood like sentinels in rows, planted as windbreaks. For me they were majestic and safe and I loved their fragrance as much as their presence. To me they were living beings, even then.

Once I started eco-printing I started walking the streets of my suburb in Johannesburg looking for plants I could use. I gravitated to plants that contain tannins and so initially seeked out mostly rose bushes and Eucalyptus trees of which there was many.

Test bundles steaming on the fire

Visiting these trees and bushes often for leaves I started developing relationships with them and so would ask for permission before I harvested. I became aware of how a old neglected Eucalyptus on the side of a neglected green area started producing fresh new leaves again after I picked from her.

I became tuned into when a tree needs a break from harvesting and never took more than what I needed, often driving from tree to tree all over the adjacent suburbs as well to visit all my trees.

When I discovered that bottlebrush is a very strong dye plant I became aware of it’s natural cycles of blooming and holding back influenced by the temperature and rainfall.

I found Johannesburg gardens and sidewalks to be a treasure trove of variety and loved being able to connect to plants and to nature in this way, in the midst of South Africa’s commercial city. 

And then I came to Cape Town where nature is everywhere and was introduced to the beauty of the fynbos region which is totally next level.

The detail and variety of fynbos just leaves me speechless every time I venture out. The trees and mountains and forests and wildernesses and coastline contained within Cape Town I can never just take for granted and marvel every time I need to go somewhere new at the abundance of nature all around and in-between.

In terms of getting to know the plants for eco-printing I was back to square one, knowing absolutely nothing of these plants and what magic they may hold. I slowly, respectfully ventured into their realm, enjoying and treasuring each new discovery, every new acquaintance and am very clear that one can spend a lifetime with these plants and not even scratch the surface of what they have to offer. 

A neatly-wrapped bundle at UBU Botanicals eoo-printing workshop held at Soil for Life in Constantia

For more information about Ira’s workshop and UBU Botanicals please email lets.reimagine.our.world@gmail.com

Green Route ZA is the A to Z of eco-conscious living

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Published by Melanie Farrell

Founder of Green Route ZA - the path to eco-conscious living. I live in Cape Town, South Africa.

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