Rust dyeing 101

Using old, worn-out objects to create a thing of beauty.


Sandy Pratt and Libby Barringer refer to their rust dyeing as their “weird obsession.” While perhaps not your typical fabric patterning technique, it’s easy to see how it could turn into a passion. You’ll be able to see samples yourself at the Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire on May 11.

It all started just about a year ago, Pratt said. “Libby and I decided rust dyeing was something we would do as a project for the summer and display at the Ag Fair. We spent the summer experimenting with this process and teaching ourselves how to do it.”

It’s actually a very simple technique. They explained that you soak a piece of fabric in a mixture of vinegar and water and place a rusty object on top, and then cover the entire piece in plastic. Within a few days, depending on how warm it is, the vinegar reacts with the iron, thus transferring the rust from the item onto the cloth. “We had to learn that, and it’s an experiment every time we do it,” Pratt said. “It seems to be temperature-sensitive. It cooks really well in the summertime, but in the wintertime when it’s 30° and 40°, the process doesn’t work as well.”

The ladies showed me a wide assortment of rust objects that they had used on the sample fabrics they had around, including nails, screws, bottle caps, bolts, and chains. Looking at the fabric alone, you wouldn’t know what made the image for the most part. It’s more like the rust leaves a “ghost” signature of the iron object. One of the most allusive was a huge solar image, which turns out to have been from a giant saw blade. In answer to my question about where the objects come from, “If you looked around my yard, you saw them. I’ve been collecting rusty objects for years,” Pratt told me. “I like them because a lot of them are sculptural. And the saw blade is magnificent. It’s been hanging on the side of my house for almost the past 30 years. We used to find them at the dump when you could go dump-picking.”

I discovered that they add to their collection daily. “Libby and I are walkers, and we come back with our pockets full of rusty stuff that we’ve picked up along the way … We have a whole winter’s worth of stuff to pick up,” Pratt said.

Rust dyeing is just the first part of the pair’s artistic process. All the fabric is tie-dyed a deep indigo, creating a fabulous pattern that both infuses and contrasts with the warm rusts, browns, and ochres left by the iron.

Barringer tells me that the technique is shibori, Japanese tie-dyeing. She says, “I’m a fiber artist and have been experimenting with this Japanese tie-dyeing technique for years. I’d never made an indigo bath before, and it seemed like a good time to start, so we made one.” She shows me a fabric that had been rust dyed and then folded into sections, like a complicated folded napkin or cloth origami piece, which was then clamped tightly together and dyed.

The tie-dyeing is a bit more complex than the rust dyeing. “First you make an indigo bath. We buy prereduced indigo,” Barringer explained. “You have to mix it with lye and ammonia and then stick it in a dye bath, which is yellow-green. Only when you lift it up does it turn blue. The bath is time-consuming and seat-of-the-pants. It has to sit awhile, cure for a couple of hours. Then you are ready to dye. You have to be careful when you introduce a cloth, because if you introduce oxygen, it then forms bubbles, which dyes the dye bath, weakening it. So, you have to be very careful introducing the cloth, and when you bring it out, you don’t want to drip into the dye bath. You have to make sure that it’s dripping off by itself.”

Barringer continues, “The good thing about indigo is that just like rust, it is a result of iron oxide with vinegar and water and air. Indigo also reacts with oxygen. It’s a dye bath that’s anaerobic — it does not have oxygen in it, and at the point that you bring the wet dye stuff out, it reacts with the air and it turns blue before your eyes! The more times you dip it, the deeper the color gets. It is a pretty impressive process. The fact that these two processes are so parallel, and that the two colors look so good together, it was a win-win.”

And they say that every time they unfold the shibori, it’s a total discovery, which is the fun part. “The first time we did it and we pulled it out we said, ‘Oh my God, it’s beautiful.’ We hung them on my line to dry, and they were magnificent,” Pratt said.

Barringer adds, “The other cool thing about this pursuit is that my special interest is working with found objects, and if you turn it into a larger metaphor for the world around you — to take something that is so recognizable as a nail or a washer or hinge, nothing we work with is esoteric — that you can create beauty with ordinary junk is something that people respond to. They’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.’ You don’t have to study to do this. Sandy and I are prime examples. It’s just a lot of fun to play with this.”


The free Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire is Saturday, May 11, at Ag Hall from 10 am to 4 pm.