The fascination of ferrous oxide (by Olga Norris)

I have been thinking lately, what is it that gives rust its seductive visual power? Why are so many creative folk increasingly drawn to using rust and rusting in their palette?
I suppose my first thinking about rust in art was in response to the sculpture of Richard Serra and Anthony Caro.
Caro_DreamCity_1996The colour of their iron blends so much more easily into Nature when the surface has rusted, so the otherwise perhaps harsh appearance of slabs, fragments of towering metal is softened. There is also an indicator of change and decay embodied in the rusting process of these sculptures: perhaps a warning to the skyscrapers in front of which the sculptures often stand, that time will destroy us all.
Perhaps the rusted surfaces of monumental sculpture are similar in their effect on us to the sight of ruins, and that we seek reminders of time past and passing. (See my previous RCC post on Time here.) Hence the overwhelming number of photographs of rust – just put rust into Google Image!
I first saw the effect of rust on cloth at the 21:21 exhibition of fabric by Reiko Sudo and the NUNO studio. They had designed and made lengths of cloth marked with rusty nails. Reiko Sudo gave a master class after that exhibition in 2005 – designed to have a cascade effect, with all the participants themselves agreeing to give workshops to others.
Alice Fox SpurnIn 2012 Alice Fox used rust transferred onto cloth to help capture the past and the current aesthetic attractions of Spurn Point during her residency there, and she continues to use the marks of rust in her work. She now gives workshops helping others such as Mags Ramsay to achieve interesting results.
cqws green tea pliers
Rust printMaeve Coulter who works in textiles and in printmaking has made Rust Prints which echo the visual and emotional effects of sepia in fading early photographs.
sally-hirst-gasholder1-1024x618Printmaker Sally Hirst uses oxidised iron filings to colour the paper on which she then prints images of old iron structures such as bridges and piers.
Judd rustJean M. Judd has a section on rust dyeing process on her website, and a generous soul has offered Free Rust Texture Stock Photos for designers, so there must be quite a demand. Is it because we are almost engulfed by technology which we no longer comprehend – so few of us can make the clever things which glide us through daily life – that we reach back to signs of a time which we think we understand.
It is good also to feel that those tools from past technology, now discarded, can be used to make something beautiful before being thrown back onto the scrapheap – or recycled, as seen in the rustnstuff blog.

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8 Responses to “The fascination of ferrous oxide (by Olga Norris)”


  1. 1 olganorris November 18, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Mags Ramsey has recently added another post about her adventures with rusting: http://magsramsay.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/rusty-journal-quilts-real-and-faux.html
    She is interesting on how rusting does not fit into her own practice. It is good discipline I believe to be able to distinguish the pleasures of exploring new techniques, enjoying workshops, and pursuing one’s own purpose. It is oh so tempting to dip and wander,

  2. 2 clairan November 17, 2014 at 7:29 am

    I also think that art work done rusts, browns, sepias, tans, off whites, and black are perceived as more serious — more “arty” just at the moment.

    Pat Vivod is also doing some wonderful work with rusting, as is Lois Jarvis.

  3. 3 Jean M. Judd November 16, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    In my experience with rusting both using scientific iron filings as well as architectural ironwork, I have never had a problem hand quilting the resulting artwork. I have pieces that are at least 7 years old and they have held up beautifully to handling for various exhibitions. The hand of the fabric has not changed due to the pigmentation process and they are actually washed in a front loading washing machine and dried in a dryer with no issues.

    The panel that Olga showed of my work in her article, is the center piece for my textile work “Flaming Grapes” just a bit further down the page on my web site.

    • 4 sandysewwhatever November 17, 2014 at 12:14 pm

      I should have clarified. I use a sewing machine. I think it is probably due to the loose weave as much as anything else. If it hits a difficult spot it pulls the threads or drives them down into the machine.
      However, some times even hand-sewing will call for a different choice of needle size.

  4. 5 arlee November 16, 2014 at 7:48 am

    I use a lot of rusted fabrics in my own work, but they do present challenges in working *on* them. Needles can break easily and dull, whether by hand or machine, threads snag and fray faster as well, and some areas need to be stabilized as either stitching method will cut and tear the fabric.

    I think the attraction is the “vintage” appearance, the warmth of the colourings, never predictable, and the fact that *i* “made” the marks with the help of natural forces. I find too that these fabrics can easily cooordinate with natural *and* synthetic dyes.

    I do have a problem with advice given in one of the links though–if you “set” the “dye” with “hot/salted water”, all you’re going to do is hasten the deterioration of the cloth. It should be washed with baking soda to neutralize the effects of the rust–i then wash on the hottest setting with a textile soap, twice.

    These fabrics unfortunately are also never going to be as “archival” as those treated in conventional ways.

    • 6 sandysewwhatever November 16, 2014 at 10:32 am

      I agree on the salt water thing having lived where salt on the roads was part of the treatment for icy roads. Basically, the undercarriage of the car rusts out a lot quicker than places where the treatment is different.

      Like Arlee, I use rusted fabrics and agree with the difficulty of stitching it. Sometimes the places which look like they have the least rust are the hardest to stitch through. Most of my rusted fabrics are British Muslin, Lately I found that a single hole needle plate was a big help.

      I came over here from Olga’s blog where she said “Mixing the rust element with colour gives it another dimension, it is more than an end in itself -…” I have found that with rusted fabrics dipped in indigo. I have been using them in recent work about children’s issues in developing countries.
      Sandy Snowden

    • 7 Sheila Barnes November 20, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      You have addressed my main question about this rust “dyeing” craze – is no one concerned about what this will do to the fabric over time? The color palette is one I can achieve in ways kinder to textiles, so I have to wonder if it’s another case of doing it because one can. And yet I can understand wanting to imbue the fabric with layers of meaning that come from the process, from what is used, what it may represent. And that one can get different effects than from other methods (although not always).

      However, I cannot see this sort of thing without remembering the white cotton nightgown I left in the washer overnight rather than popping it straight into the dryer. There was so much iron in the well water at our new place that just leaving something damp for too long left it totally speckled with rust spots. I spent a lot of time getting those stains out of my nightgown! Oh the irony when textile artists started intentionally putting them there!

      • 8 olganorris November 21, 2014 at 3:35 am

        Sheila, I think that the desire to stain with rust is part of the allure of the distressed – as with peeling walls, woodwork, and posters. There seems to be a desire to imbue work with the signs of passage of time, with decay, with ragged edges, and generally to avoid the crisp new look. It’s the swinging pendulum of taste – I vividly remember my aunt in Greece in the late 50s and 60s throwing out hand stitched tray cloths etc. for the new machine embroidered and even plastic ones, discarding stoneware bowls and pitchers for bright plastic ones, and falling head-over-heels in love with Tupperware!


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