| June/July 1993

In 1842, the distinguished British astronomer Sir William Herschel invented a technique for making accurate copies of his intricate scientific diagrams and calculations. It consisted of painting solutions of iron salts on paper, keeping the paper away from light until needed, placing the document to be copied (worked on translucent paper) atop it, and exposing it for several minutes to sunlight. The copy could then be washed in plain water to develop the image, and the resulting print—a white negative on deep blue background—would not fade with time or further exposure to light.

This method seems messy, inconvenient, and generally unsatisfactory in an age that depends on copy machines, quick-print shops, and one-hour photo-processing labs for speedy, inexpensive reproduction of almost anything in unlimited quantities. Yet for Herschel and his scientific circle, blueprints, also called cyanotypes, were a boon. No longer did notes and diagrams have to be laboriously copied by hand, with the attendant risk of introduced errors.

Anna Children Atkins, daughter of Herschel’s friend and colleague John George Children, was a botanist with a particular interest in algae. She was quick to see the application of this new process to her field. Then-current methods of recording and depicting plant life were hand-drawn illustrations and herbarium specimens—one very slow, the other impermanent, and neither particularly reproducible. She worked for a decade to create the first blueprint book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Prints from this effort are still in excellent condition.

Making Herb Prints Today

Though it’s possible to prepare your own surfaces for blueprinting with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, treated materials are readily available by mail (see Sources). Our T-shirts came from Blueprints-Printables, a small company that offers shirts in a range of colors as well as cotton fabric by the yard and in small quilt squares. The printing process is quick and simple; the greatest challenge may be to find a sunny day.

What You’ll Need

• Treated T-shirt
• Sprigs of herbs (larger-leaved ones work best)
• Piece of corrugated cardboard large enough to pin the shirt to
• Straight pins
• Sunshine and fresh water

Our shirts came with explicit manufacturer’s instructions, but we learned a few tricks along the way specific to working with plant material. Here are the basic steps:

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