Whip Up A Rusty Fabric Design

cate pratoWhen the winds are howling and the rain is pelting, and the threat of losing your electricity looms large thanks to a hurricane, what kind of art do you make?

I asked our Cloth Paper Scissors Facebook friends what they would do, and got some very fun answers, such as:

  • circles and spirals
  • wind chimes
  • watercolors
  • mixed media
  • prayer flags
  • anything you can do in the dark
fabric design with rust
Rust dyeing on white and printed cotton.

So what did I do? I took advantage of the ultra-humid conditions on my front porch to rust some fabric.

Humidity brings out the best in rust, which is why you see so much rusty metal lying around in places that are near water and get a lot of rain, like New England, the Pacific Northwest, and the areas around the Great Lakes.

I really delight in changing the character of fabric through overdyeing, but I'm not one to keep vats of dye going. I don't have an appropriate space for a wet studio and I don't have the time or patience to continually set up and break down a dyeing set-up. Someday . . .

But for now, I look for quick and easy ways to make fabric my own. I alter fabric with paint, ink, printing, stamping, tea dyeing, and rusting, and that keeps me pretty busy.

Rusting is easy, and, with minimal precautions, safe. The results are not completely predictable, but for me that's part of the charm. Depending on the rusty metal items you use and how long you leave them in contact with the fabric, you can get wonderful organic shapes and mottled coloring that can look modern or vintage.

Here are the basic steps:


  • Rusty metal objects such as nails, nuts and bolts, washers, bits and pieces, keys, etc.
  • Natural fabric, such as cotton (white or prints on a white or light ground work best)
  • White vinegar and a container
  • Water
  • Humid conditions (Hurricane weather not necessary!)


1. Wet the fabric with water and squeeze it out so it's not dripping.

2. Immerse the fabric in a container of white vinegar (just enough to cover the fabric), then squeeze remove and wring out the excess.

fabric design with rust
Large washers made distinct shapes.

3. Wrap a rusty object in your fabric, drape the wet fabric over the object, or lay the rusty object on top of the fabric and place on top of a protected surface (the vinegar and rust can stain a counter, wood, etc.). You want to ensure close contact between the fabric and the rusted object.

4. Check back periodically to see how it's coming along. Typically, the longer the fabric stays damp, the richer the color and the more indistinct the images will be. When the fabric dries quickly, the image transfer yields crisp forms and outlines.

Note: If you lay the fabric on a piece of paper, such as paper toweling or watercolor paper, to dry, you'll end up with some nice rusty paper, too.

5. When the fabric has air dried, wash it and heat set by putting it into a hot dryer or iron it without steam.

I'm really excited about my rusted fabric and can't wait to create something with it. I might print over it, cut it up and stitch it, apply paint or ink . . . the possibilities are spinning in my mind.

I learned this technique from an article by Claire Waguespack that originally appeared in Quilting Arts Magazine. Claire's tutorial is now available in a downloadable eBook, DIY Fabric Design!: 10 Ways to Make Your Own Fabrics with Surface Design Techniques. The articles included contain many of the processes I use to alter fabric, plus some I plan to try in the future, come hell or high water!

P.S. I hope all of you in Irene's path made it through safely and with minimal damage to your homes. If you made any art during the storm, tell me about it in the comments section below.


Blog, Fabric Art


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