Dyeing with Rust on Fabric

Rust on linen and photo transfer by Flora Doehler.
I’ve been experimenting with dying rusty objects onto fabric. Fabric artist friend of mine, Marilyn Preus, used this technique in one of her beautiful wall–hangings and I had to try it out for myself!
The key ingredient for this is to find rusty objects and we still have quite a few of those in our barn. Thank goodness I didn’t throw everything out when we moved in last year.
Suddenly all those funny bits of nails and who–knows–what seemed like a pirate’s booty and I was so glad that we haven’t quite got to sorting things out in the barn.  I was also glad that we saved so many of the handmade nails that came out of our house during renovation. They have all rusted at this point and could be used for my project.

 Iron nails that are more than 100 years old.

 Rusty nails, hooks and buckles.
 Rust dyeing works best on natural fabrics so I used cotton canvas,  linen, and silk for my experiment.  I also tried dyeing a piece of polyester-cotton but the results were very poor.

After placing my pieces on the fabric, I squirted the entire pieces with vinegar until the cloth was saturated.
 Rusted pieces laid out on poly cotton and silk.
 I slipped the plastic board that held the fabric into a large plastic bag and let everything sit for 48 hours.
 Vinegar dissolves rust.
 My art room smelled like a fish and chips store for a few days!
 I wanted to use a ribbed pattern to dye the cotton canvas  and I found just the thing in an old wood stove pipe that is resting in the backyard.

 Thankfully this old stove of ours missed the dumpster.

 I brought the stove pipe into the house, and wrapped the cotton canvas around it. Then I poured vinegar all over it and place it in a bag where it sat for 48 hours.

I loved the result when I unwrapped the cloth but unfortunately I washed it before it had a chance to really set so I had to redo my steps again. I learned to rinse in cold water and then let the cloth dry and sit for another 2 days before attempting to wash with soapy water.

The shapes that the ribbing in the stove pipe made are reminiscent of a birds wing. I am now looking for donations of rusted rebar because I think that would be very cool.
 Rust dyed canvas from rusted stove pipe.

Why this experimentation with rust dying?  I am working on a piece for a show here called “Pirates and Outcasts”. This art show will be part of a Bear River Winter Carnival event. Both are wonderful opportunities to have fun in February.

I have been working with an image transfer as well. It’s an abstracted photo of young men sailing to this new world in the early 1930s. These men were in their 20s and are probably all dead now.  One of them was my father although this isn’t a portrait of him per se.  In the piece I create, I want to suggest the impermanence of all our situations as well as suggesting that immigrants are both casting out and are outcasts.

 I have ideas floating around in my head,  but there are still the technical details to master!

This piece was on linen and although I liked the placement of the metal pieces, for some reason I had difficulty getting enough rust on the cloth.

After a couple of attempts I decided to roll up the cloth with those rusty pieces and spray the heck out of it and shove it in a bag for three days!

 When it was finished it certainly had a lot of rust marks on it! The shapes weren’t as controlled as I would’ve liked them to be and in retrospect I wish now that the photo image transfer had been larger.

I also rusted a piece of silk and discovered that the most interesting results happened in rusting this piece. Look at the detail in this piece of fabric, especially where the spring was placed.

It is back to the drawing board for me or to the rust heap!  I am also experimenting with the image of my young men with paint on a canvas which I may show you next… and there is also the landscapes  that I continue to work on… plus I just dug out my weaving books and am considering threading the loom again….  so much to do–lucky me!
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Fibre Arts Course — online from South Carolina

While my main form of artistic expression is painting, working with textiles has a big appeal for me too.

Playing with fibres in the studio.
Playing with fabric and fibres in the studio.

At different times in my life I have woven, screen printed on fabric and sewed with appliqué.

Cotton warp.
Hand woven cotton warp.

My approach to textile work is very similar to painting. In both cases I use strong colour; I enjoy lots of texture and I use the interplay of light and dark and complementary colors.

Fabric painted with acrylic, printed with bubble wrap.
Fabric painted with acrylic, printed with bubble wrap.

Many, many well-known painters have worked in this medium. Last spring in Los Angeles I saw some beautiful paper appliqués by Matisse in the museum there that inspired me to sew this little bag.

Cotton, arctic fleece, netting and ribbon.
Cotton, arctic fleece, netting and ribbon.

My daughter Emily is an animator and I am inspired by how she integrates her animation sensibilities into her sewing.

Emilys handmade doll.
Emily designs, sews and paints dolls and creatures.

Another source of inspiration for me is artist’s blogs and sites on the Internet. I check the daily blog of my friend and fellow painter Barbara Muir. I love her use of colour and we had many shows together in Toronto. Her persistence at writing a daily blog about painting inspires me to create and make better use of all the precious time I have.

Barbara drew me while we talked on Skype!
Barbara drew me while we talked on Skype!

Recently I came across the site of Susan Sorrell, a fiber artist. Her work excites me because of her bold use of color and texture. I signed up for an online class with her called Personal Symbols — who could resist signing up for a course with the name like that!

Susan Sorrells work
Susan Sorrell’s work.

Susan has been teaching for a number of years and the course comes with PDF handouts with lots of photographs. She has a forum on the Internet for the class where participants can show and tell their progress. I haven’t used the exact materials on her list. I’m adapting what I already have. Susan suggests painting fabric dye on interfacing fiber, but I’m using canvas and watered-down acrylics.

The assignments use a combination of drawing, painting and sewing which is quite exciting for me to combine.

Combining symbols
Combining symbols.

There are at least three assignments connected to each of the six lessos. Ingeniously she had each of us draw and make up some of our own symbols.

My symbols
My Symbols.

In the following image I have cut out and combined some of my symbols. The fabric is cotton and I ironed a stitch witchery product to the back of the cloth before I cut the pieces out. In this way the pieces stuck down when ironed. Then I embellished it with buttons and beads.

I would like to try some of these techniques in acrylic on a large canvas. It’s nice to know that it’s possible to take a course online and to feel so inspired by it and by the links to images and blogs and websites of other participants.


Susan Sorrell offers quite a few different online courses. Her enthusiasm comes across loud and clear and I would recommend any of her courses. She also hosts a monthly chat with people in the creative arts and that is quite inspiring too.

The course is opening a new world for me…a truly virtual community of people combining paint and fabric and a passion for creativity.