Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rusted Fabric

Last winter I became intrigued with deliberately rusting fabric as a surface design technique.
After a bit of internet research I discovered there are different methods to accomplish various rusting results. My first attempt was kept simple by mixing a 50/50 solution of clear vinegar and water to dip the fabrics in and slightly wring out the excess before laying the fabric on metal, or wrapping the metal in the wet cloth. Straight vinegar can be used but isn't necessary and is definitely smellier. What is required is oxygen and moisture -- the vinegar speeds the rusting process. I've read that warmth promotes the rusting also, but my results were equally beautiful in spite of the three days of torrential rain while the bags sat on my driveway. I did open the bags once a day to allow more air in and check on the process.

Locating rusty metal isn't difficult. Actually I have my kids old wagon and a large wheelbarrow I saved for this project but they didn't get used this time around. This summer I acquired an assortment of rusted metal that had been stockpiled as castoffs by a handyman who can no longer make use of his stash. My favorite large piece is a barrel that had been cut about 10" up from the bottom in which every surface inside and out produced great results on my fabrics. I actually slipped the barrel inside the flared skirt of a blue and white African Batik dress so the barrel could transfer rust from both sides of the bottom of the barrel, then I pushed it in a large plastic bag to keep it all wet. The smaller scrap metal pieces were wrapped individually with the vinegar watered fabric to take best advantage of their shapes, then laid inside the barrel stacked on top of one another. This process was repeated with another smaller barrel shape, then I closed up the bags and let the rusting process begin. A side note here: Wear rubber gloves! The vinegar is smelly and acidic and rust could get in small cuts - you don't need skin infections.

Longer rebar and flat metal were rolled in cloth and then wrapped in a garbage bag on both ends and left in the warm garage during the rusting transfer. (I saw no discernible difference between any of the finished pieces). Anything that produces rust will work but if the edges are pointed or sharp, they are more difficult to handle, may injure you bodily or at the least, snag your fabrics, so I have since then discarded some of my finds.

On the fourth afternoon, I unwrapped all the fabrics, rinsed them individually in a bucket of water to get the majority of rust flecks or grit off the fabric, then moved to the utility tub under warm running water until they ran mostly clear, and finally transferred them to the washing machine... regular cycle, warm water, phosphate free laundry soap. I repeated the wash and rinse a second time. I hung the more delicate fabrics to air dry and tossed the rest in the dryer. I didn't see any rust residue in the dryer but I had to run a bleach and hot soapy water cycle through the washing machine and then wipe it carefully dry so it wouldn't transfer any residue on future laundry loads.

Rusting fabric is simple and fun to do. Every piece of fabric is unique even if you used the same piece of metal every time. Most exciting to me were the sheers, satins, silks, textured and pre-printed fabrics. I wrapped two different laces around rebar and they really took the rust! Be sure to click on the photos for close ups on textures and details of each piece. The two satin pennant shapes transferred horseshoe imprints - the large piece is the shiny side and the smaller one has a softer suede look on the dull side. The small piece in the upper right corner of mixed fabrics is a micro-fiber cloth that was white when I threw it in the wash and rinse cycles and consequently picked up lots of rust color. The fringed napkin below that piece had been stamped with Lumiere fabric paint during a previous art day experimentation.

This photo shows from Top: cotton fabric wrapped around a wire mesh grate (like stair tread). Middle: is a textured sheer of unknown fiber? with small rebar pieces rolled inside. Bottom: A textured/embroidered cotton lace fabric laid in the bottom of the smaller barrel I had. Rusting fabric is definitely on my To Do List in the future when I will experiment with other fabrics and textures and perhaps some methods I didn't try this time around.


  1. Very cool technique. I just saw an article on it in Quilting Arts and now here is a great example to see. Definitely have to put this on my to-do list. Thanks for sharing.