Material Difference: Hand-Dyed Fabrics from Rust

rusty snails rusted fabric design

Using a variety of textile substrates in quilting is becoming more popular–and, not just in art quilts. At the recent Fall Quilt Market and Quilt Festival I saw an increase in the variety of materials used to make traditional quilt designs. As I anticipated, I saw more hand-dyed fabrics for quilts, created from chemical or natural dyes. I also discovered a lot more metallic fibers and surface embellishments. And surprisingly, there was a mix of quilter’s cottons with a variety of texture-adding fabrics in traditional quilts like silk, linen, canvas, cotton lawn, Kraft-tex leather-like paper, organza, and hand-painted cottons. And, yes, quilters were even mixing the most likely combination, batik-adding texture and quilter’s cotton in a single quilt. The rules are changing.

ABOVE: Rusty Snails

Substrate in this case refers to a fabric’s unique weave, fiber content, and weight.

If you think about it, we’ve been seeing textural fabrics used in traditional quilts for a while now. More and more companies are introducing their own basic tone-on-tone blender fabrics that have the appearance of hand-dyed fabrics, burlap, linen, leather and even a painter’s brushstrokes on canvas. Consider these fabrics as stepping-stones to using the real thing in a quilt.

I began experimenting with creating my own hand-dyed fabrics about 15 years ago, using a variety of methods to create unique textural elements in common textiles. I read an article in the 2007 November/December issue of Cloth Paper Scissors that introduced me to another method. Lesley Riley’s article, In Rust We Trust: Faux or Real, Rust Appeals, turned me on to a different dye process that I find fascinating because of the unique visual texture it produces. By adding acid to rusted iron or steel objects texture develops in fabric in two ways: the subtle coloration changes from the oxidation of the fibers and the unique designs that form on the fabric from rusted objects.

Now, I am very fortunate to have sons and grandchildren that are also scavengers. They’ve brought me a number of presents from their adventures, precious rocks and flowers without stems, and my very favorite thing: rusted metal. My youngest son has even given me buckets of rusted artifacts. He knows how much I love the shapes these aged fossils make as they saturate my fabric during the print-making process. I savor my collection until I have the urge to create fabric. This past summer I was fortunate to have all four of my grandchildren together at the same time. We had a rusty print-making party.

The process to make rusted fabric is actually really simple. For the party I purchased a variety of fabrics from Dharma Trading Co., those I’ve found allow the rust to saturate in varying degrees: linen, Osnaburg cotton, and hemp summercloth. These fabrics are more loosely woven. And, I also added prepared-for-dye cotton and muslin. I soaked ¼ – ½ yard pieces of fabric in a synthrapol and water solution for 30 minutes first to help cleanse the fabric so it would more easily absorb the rust.

Once the fabric was ready, the kids and I laid out the fabric pieces on heavy painter’s plastic, placed on large metal oil drain pan. Sometimes called a drip tray, these pans are the perfect size (25” x 36”) for dyeing larger pieces of fabric. I have 4 of them.

Then, the fun began. We arranged the rusted objects on the fabric. This wasn’t our first party. I watched my kids place funky metal shapes on the pan so very carefully. They’ve learned to space the objects out so the rust can spread nicely into the fabric, and produce the shape of the object.

Arrange the rusted metal on the fabric.

Arrange the rusted metal on the fabric.

We sprayed the rusted objects with a solution of two parts water and one part vinegar over the fabric; then covered the pans with more plastic. Then we left the pans for three days to give the rust time to saturate the fabric.

Add a water and vinegar solution to aid the dye process.

Add a water and vinegar solution to aid the dye process.

We checked on the fabric daily to make sure it was still covered with the wet solution. Lots of oohs and ahs were heard when we saw the shapes emerging from the process. It’s like magic.

Freshly rusted fabrics.

Freshly rusted fabrics.

I hand-washed the fabrics in another synthrapol bath. Once, dried they were ready to put in a quilt.

The rusted results.

The rusted results.

I paired this summer’s batch of hand-dyed rusted fabric with a navy Grunge basic from Moda Fabrics for a throw-size quilt. I selected a traditional 12” Snail’s Trail block to add visual interest, but not too much detail, along with 12” squares to showcase the wonderful texture caused by the rusted objects in the quilt. Because so many of the objects appearing in the rusted fabric were tools, Judy at A Better Quilt suggested quilting tools to finish it. Perfect idea!

Rusty Snails. Fabric designed by the Harvey-Patterson Gang. Quilt made by Tricia Patterson. Quilted by Judy Lanza, A Better Quilt, Arvada, CO.

Rusty Snails. Fabric designed by the Harvey-Patterson Gang. Quilt made by Tricia Patterson. Quilted by Judy Lanza, A Better Quilt, Arvada, CO.

I can honestly say this quilt was indeed a labor of love, from the special collection of gifted rusty objects to the group project of hand-dyed fabric making.

More Material Differences

The Quilting Company isn’t a stranger to using unique fabrics in quilts. Our Quilty publication has run a series called Material Difference to explore the various uses of different substrates in quilts. Here are some links to a few of the articles we’ve written about them.

A Material Difference: Paper Quilts

Paper Quilts

Paper Quilts

A Material Difference: Cork

quilted bag with cork

Quilted Bag with Cork

Are you interested in making your own hand-dyed fabrics? We have a couple of great resources, specially selected by the Quilting Arts staff. The Dye Your Own Fabric eBook shows you a variety of techniques. Our newly released Beyond the Basics: Dye Your Own Fabric eBook is available to give you more in-depth information about dyeing fabric. After you read them I know you’ll be ready to play, too.

Learn a variety of techniques to make your own hand-dyed fabrics.

Learn a variety of techniques to make your own hand-dyed fabrics.

 

A compilation of informative articles that clarify the steps of popular hand-dyed fabric techniques and the science behind dyeing fabric.

A compilation of informative articles that clarify the steps of popular hand-dyed fabric techniques and the science behind dyeing fabric.

 

Happy Quilting with Rusted Fabrics!



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