About My Vintage Art Cloth

I am a “threadborne” artist: my passion is creating fibre art  and this blog is about how I create art with vintage textiles either as whole cloth or from fragments.  Expect inexactitude!

Over several pages here I  am sharing  the What, How and Why of a  rather risky practice. I will be posting  about my latest vintage textile art,  cataloguing  images and descriptions of the work as it goes along or turns out  -or not.


I am writing at length about  rust printing on this Home Page since it is a way to contextualize my various approaches to the creation of other art textiles, vintage or “vintagized”.  It is a way to explain to myself as well as interested readers  why I bother to cultivate interest in vintage textiles. My art takes its cultural  meaning, I believe, from the interplay among technical processes, the provenance of the materials and my own nature and disposition.

Rust Printed and Stitched Vintage Linens

I am experimenting with rust printing on found linens , both plain and patterned.  I will later stitch them by machine and by hand and maybe print or dye them with other materials, too. I am using vintage hand embroidery thread- Belding’s Artsyl Floss which ceased production in1935.

Basic Rust Printing

My basic rust printing goes like this:  I lay old bits of  anything  iron on top of a textile (copper works too), soak that in vinegar and water, leave it all to react and let the marks begin…

Rust printing and fabric decay

I find rust printing is an intriguing process; it allows  a found textile to develop new history in dialogue with the marks I stitch. Eventually the fibres in a rust printed textile will break down and holes will appear, along with other rifts and wrinkles.  Of course, that process may take the proverbial three score years and ten,  but like everything organic, a rust print will sooner or later decay either naturally or with human (artistic) encouragement.  This adds  a significant layer of content to the art.


In this kind of  insecurity lies my attraction to working with vintage textiles in general. Concepts like decay, deterioration, ephemerality, fragility, changed forms, new identities, loss and so on seem appropriate for art made with textiles. These concepts lead me to others  about  making new forms from old textiles or from textiles “made old”.

Some textiles I create are just plain fun pieces while others have many layers of thought and feeling behind their creation. But all represent the respect I want to give to the processes and the medium that makes up the new form.

I connect these idea with what happens when I  plant a seed. ( I am a fanatic gardener, seed sprouter and seed saver) Unless the seed dies in its current form it cannot assume the successive forms that lead to harvest – and to new seeds which appear only at the end of the cycle of generation.

(And on that topic, one of my gardening interests is growing dye plants for use in colouring and marking my vintage textiles. See my dye plant and dye colour pages)

When I assemble textile with fragments from hither and thither, each with its traces and layers of memories and histories, I am committing them to becoming new forms in active memory and so to enter another  cycle of generation, degeneration/decay and then regeneration all over again.

People often ask me  “How did you do that?” if they try to excavate the complex surfaces of my textiles.  In my work the What, How and Why often coincide. So  in many ways the  medium becomes the message.

Disintegrating surfaces in fibre art

It seems to me that textiles have unique qualities and characteristics that favour abundant artistic expression on themes related to impermanence.  So while I love to collect vintage textiles ready- made, I also like to “vintagize” or “degenerate”  textiles myself using various processes and artistic subterfuges. I want to allow emerging signs of decay to assume  an identity in the work, to let them have a voice. Some of the vintage textiles I have collected have been repaired by hand darning, traces of another identity still visible in the work.

In the rusted vintage linen panel shown below, the linen began to  disintegrate and tear under my needle. Not seeking to repair the rips, I let the holes take part in the dialogue happening on the surface between the rust and tannin  marks and the stitching.  Take a look : you can see some thick metallic thread hand stitched around some of the tears in the linen . The stitches are not made as repairs but to add some shiny marks to make us look at the spot where thread used to be…

Stitching the Rusted Linen Art Cloth 

The linen panel below  was printed last year and I left it a long time to see if any fading or tearing would occur before I worked on it. None did. This summer I took it up again. I mounted it on a fine melton-type wool backing (tacking it by hand ) then free-machine embroidered it in response to the rust and tannin marks on the surface of the linen. When the free machine embroidery was done to my satisfaction (for  this round at least) I began stitching by hand using long and short running stitches in straight lines as contrast to the freer pathways of the machine stitching. For the machine embroidery I used a variegated hand-dyed thread in a range of rusts, yellows, oranges and greys.

I had intended to stitch more black when the black wool melton cloth began to “beard” on the surface I found I did not need to add any black thread. Instead there are now lovely chains of black dots brought up from the back of the work by  the variegated surface thread.

The hand stitching is done with vintage 4-ply rayon skeins in yellows and browns to tone contrast with passages in the rust prints. I used my stash of vintage skeins (1895-1935) of Beldings Artsyl Floss that I found at a vintage textile sale. This is quality vintage thread! It is in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation — http://collections.civilisations.ca/public/pages/cmccpublic/alt-emupublic/Display.php?irn=2120338&QueryPage=QueryF.php&lang=1

I found handstitching to be  a killer on rust prints. It seems harder to get the needle through the rusted linen;  machine embroidery needles get blunt faster, too. I  have carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis in my hands so I wear my brace for handstitching. Just think of the older ladies (like me…) who stitched at Gees Bend no matter what their pains. Loving the result of the handstitching, I forget the discomforts. I can only hand stitch a little while each day so this is Slow Cloth for sure!

I have recently learned from textile artist and handstitcher, Ilze Aviks, that finger cots, available as finger protectors in the First Aid section at the pharmacy, will help out with this difficulty, and so will longer needles intended for basting quilts. Ilze’s workbooks on handstitching textiles are inspirational! See Ilze’s website at www.ilzeaviks.com

Rust Marking the Linen

The sources of the marks I responded to in stitch were large chunks of iron, floor nails and steel wool from my husband’s stash (he is a Green Artist working in  found metals).

Some maple leaves had volunteered to make little black prints –  the linen lay outside on the deck in the warm fall of 2009 under the shedding maple tree; the vinegar helped release tannins that  printed from the leaves.

The alchemy was basic: equal parts vinegar and water poured on to the textile to keep it moist, plus some neat vinegar if the cloth seemed dry. The metals were randomly strewn over the surface of the linen which I folded and patted and ruched and wrinkled up. I covered the lot  loosely with a black plastic garbage bag and let that whole bundle “cook” in the sun for about a week. I checked on it every day (or when I remembered) and moved the metals around a bit, making sure the linen remained moist but that the air could still get at it.

The rusting varied in intensity, ranging from a pale peachy-pink beige  to deep rusty red-brown. All kinds of marks emerged, so exciting! The surprise maple leaves released tannins and printed interesting black marks.

The Voice of the Work: a Whole Cloth in gestation

The panel is not finished yet so it is not quite a “Whole Cloth” yet even if it is a one-piece panel, 30″ x 60″,  for it has yet to give up the whole  of its story. That will be when the stitching is done.

Meantime,  here are some shots of the front of the work in progress.  The back of the work, the fine black melton cloth, holds  another story for another day. As I was working on the linen surface I noticed that the back of the work was looking very interesting. I began to form an impression of maps. The rusted and stitched surface on the front of the work spoke to me of the Earth while the stitching on the back on black wool, with no marks except for those made by threads, spoke to me about star maps and the Heavens. So now I am wondering if to present the panel from two sides?

Working title (front):  (Earth) 

Working title (back): (Heavens)

The cloud-like white markings on the back of the textile panel are made by white bobbin thread.

Foundling Fibre Art AKA Stash Busting

I like the idea of  resurrecting my stash of “dead” textiles . They  might as well be dead, if they are languishing in boxes unseen and unheard in my studio, destined for someone else’s vintage collection when I am dead and the kids give my stuff back to the sallyanns…

On the other hand, the vintage textiles I have brought home have  probably been available only because someone stashed and forgot them –  and maybe the stash had  outlived the stasher (“The one who dies with the biggest stash wins”…)

Stash busting is a great way to assuage one’s guilt over the collecting habit which has consumed many a fibre artist besides me. It  also challenges me to make art out of only what I find at hand – not exactly Arte Povera but a kind of Foundling Art. No need even to take a walk around the block…

Sleuthing vintage textiles

I prefer printing and painting and stitching on found linens, those that have a provenance and a patina, and are open to assuming even more layers of memory and experience in print and stitch. I regularly scour the sallyanns,  garage sales and estate sales for discarded linens.  I love this “rescue” part of the process and, I admit it,  I get  secret satisfaction when I spy a treasure overlooked or concealed behind grime or wrinkles.


My Art Embroidery as Banner in the new Quilting Arts E-mag

The little orange flowers with purple buds below are free machine embroidered  on a background of melted wax crayons. The panel (8 x 10) is entitled “July” for it bursts with the hot colours of my abundant and floriferous garden in that month. “Quilting Arts In Stitches” e- magazine is using the “July” stitchery as part of their cover image for their new e-mag. A lovely article about my work appears there along with articles about nine fantastic fibre artists in whose company I am honoured to be.   Thank you Quilting Arts! Check it out here http://www.quiltingarts.com/blogs/quiltingarts/archive/2010/06/30/qa-in-stitches.aspx

Here is the full artwork