How To Rust Fabric

Did you know that you can use rusted items to colour or dye fabric?
It is really easy!

You will need:

  • Water
  • Vinegar
  • Rubber gloves
  • Fabric made from natural fibres – for example cotton, wool or silk, or a combination of these. [I’d recommend smallish pieces of fabric for example 30cm x 30 cm up to about 1m x 1m.]
  • A small bucket or container that is able to hold about 5 litres of liquid.
  • String, wool, cotton threads or elastic bands.
  • Plastic bags – clip lock bags are particularly useful but not critical.
  • Several rusted items. I have used rusted nails, rusted coils, files, found bits of rusted tools or pieces of metal, rusted chains, keys, even an old cheese grater!

Make your ‘rusting’ solution

  • Mix 50% water with 50% vinegar.

I often use about 3 litres of this solution – so 1.5 litres of water and 1.5 litres of vinegar.

Place your solution in your bucket.

How to rust your fabric

  1. Put your gloves on!
  2. Immerse your fabric in the water and vinegar solution. Move the fabric around to make sure that it is fully wet with the solution. Remove your fabric and squeeze off the excess solution.
  3. Submerge your metal bits too.
  4. Take a piece of your wet fabric and wrap it around a piece of rusted metal. You can either leave the fabric loosely wrapped around the piece of metal or use elastic bands or a length of string, cotton or wool to ‘tie’ the fabric to the metal. I prefer this approach because you get more rust on your fabric.
  5. Place each wrapped metal piece into one of your plastic bags. You can either place one or many pieces into each bag – it depends on how many will fit.
  6. Repeat for as many pieces of fabric and rusted metal pieces that you have.
  7. Place your plastic bags with your wrapped metal bits in the sun! Keep an eye on these, as the rusting period varies a little depending on the season and how strong the sun is. I usually leave these for between 6 – 24 hours, depending on how rich or intense I want the rust effect to be. You can leave them longer but there is a slight downside! This rusting process actually means that the iron or rust is transferred onto the fibres on your fabric. So over a long period of time, the fabric may deteriorate.
  8. Some people recommend washing your rusted fabric in the washing machine with baking soda to neutralise the acid from the vinegar in your fabrics. On a small wash, don’t use washing powder, just ½ cup of baking soda. If you have enough fabric for a larger wash, use 1 cup of baking soda. I usually just wash my fabrics either by hand or in my washing machine. I have tried using baking soda too, but I am happy to use washing detergent.

The fun part of this process is you can never predict what pattern you will get on your fabric. Here are some photos:

Figure 1. Rusted metal bits
Figure 2. Previously hand-dyed fabric wrapped around rusted keys
Figure 3. Unwrapped keys
Figure 4. Rusted metal coil – cotton and gauze

Hand stitching, the Slow Movement, and the time of COVID-19

Sometimes stars align, and when they do, new and positive possibilities open up. In this post I want to talk about three things that have recently impacted my life and have the potential to significantly shape the future and the role we play in its shaping.

About six months ago, after visiting a wonderful exhibition entitled ‘Craftivism: Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms’ at the Museum of Australian Democracy, I purchased a very modest-looking little book from the museum shop. It was called Craftivism: A Manifesto/Methodology. It was written by Melbourne-based fibre artist and activist Tal Fitzpatrick as part of her PhD. It changed my life. The Manifesto got me stitching – something I’d never done before; it introduced me to ideas that I have since come to associate with the Slow Movement; it inspired me to develop – along with my colleagues – the Stitch & Resist project; and it enabled me to discover ways of thinking and of doing that have proven invaluable in a crisis that a few short months ago I could not have imagined.


The Slow Movement is alleged to have begun with Carlo Petrini’s protest against the opening of a McDonald’s (fast food) restaurant in Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1986, and the subsequent introduction of the notion of ‘slow food’. Over time, the ‘slow’ epithet has been taken up in relation to a variety of activities and aspects of culture: slow cities, slow fashion, slow gaming, slow media, slow education, slow medicine, slow parenting, slow consumption, slow living. In 2004 journalist Carl Honore published In Praise of Slow, a book which the Financial Times claimed is “to the Slow Movement what Das Kapital is to communism”. Honore talks about Slow philosophy here: and describes it as “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better”.

Richard McVetis, ‘5 o’clock shadow’

My exploration of the Slow Movement recently brought me into contact with Saul Griffith, an engineer, entrepreneur, energy expert and climate change activist who coined the term ‘heirloom design’ to refer to the creation of goods that last for at least 50-100 years, are repairable, and upgradeable. I was really struck by this phrase, not least because the term heirloom explicitly connects heritage (that which is inherited from ancestors/the past) with weaving. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that needlework samplers are often spoken of, and treated as, family heirlooms. The phrase ‘heirloom design’ also raises the question of what we inherit, and, of that, what we want to pass on and what we want to discard or recreate. At no point in our recent past has this question been more poignant or more pressing.

Stitched ‘sampler’, SA State History Collection, HT1991.0116


One thing that much of the writing on the Slow Movement seems to share is an emphasis on connection. While the desire for connection is by no means new, many Slow advocates suggest that in post-capitalist societies people are less connected to the food we eat, our neighbours, our environments, our bodies, and so on, than has been the case in other times and places. Some have suggested that our belonging is now more defined by our consumption – the citizen-as-consumer – than by any sense of ourselves as part of a community that together creates the change we want to see and the world we want to live in. In order to contribute to a shift from the former to the latter – a shift that COVID-19 and the issues it brings into sharp relief suggests is crucial if we are to bequeath a future that is worth inheriting – we need to consider what ‘slowness’ might entail, and how, in a time of crisis (and beyond), it might contribute to wellbeing.


Slowness does not come easily to me. I love the buzz, the adrenalin rush, the over-commitedness, the bordering-on-manicness that (for me) goes hand-in-hand with city life. I’ve never wanted to live in the country, grow my own veggies, make my own bread, darn socks, or read long bed-time stories to rosy-cheeked children. But I have long been concerned about the world we live in, and more particularly, the way we live in it (or off it, rather than with it). COVID-19 and the changes it has brought to date, have forced me to slow down and to find new ways to fill my leisure time and take care of my mental health. While at times this felt like a curse, it has also been a blessing. I started hand stitching and now I’m hooked.

‘Slow stitching’ is another phrase (and activity) that I’ve recently discovered. It is used to refer to a practice that is repetitive, creative, reflexive, meditative, comforting, and sometimes meandering. It often involves breathing new life into old things. Textile artist and advocate of slow stitching, Ellie Beck (whose work can be accessed here describes hand stitching as “one of those processes that really brings me back to the moment, to my self, to my thoughts, to my environment.” She also suggests that stitching is something that people have long done in groups, while sharing stories, materials, support, time.

The Junior Sewing Circle of the North Lima Congregation, Wikicommons.

Hand stitching, slowness, connection, active citizenship

Recently, the Centre of Democracy launched Stitch & Resist, a project designed to address the question of how we might continue to resist injustice, engage in active citizenship, and take care our ourselves and others in the midst of a pandemic.  The project aims to provide resources, inspiration, and opportunities for people to make hand-stitched works that comment on the world in which they live and the issues that concern them. It encourages people to share their thoughts and works with others, to create together, and to recognize the power of collective action. It also provides an opportunity to dip your toes into the Slow Movement, and perhaps even to shape the future.

‘Resist’ stitched by Nikki Sullivan, pattern by @BadassCrossStitch

As I cannot write

Elizabeth Parker: A life in red thread.

The writer begins her meditation with the words, “as I cannot write I put this down simply and freely.” From the beginning of her passage there is doubt that her own words could even constitute writing, as is apologetically lamented in the words, as I cannot write. These words are in fact written with thread, as if to suggest that the shape of a stitch does not carry the same rhetorical weight as an ink drawn letter. Two red stitched lines cross over to form the shape of an X, repeated in thread one thousand times over. Precise, ordered, no lines to follow, only imagined ruled lines traced by a determined eye, small red x’s that form a life. The writer harnesses her dexterity in the art of cross-stitch embroidery to journal a personal document of her young life; a deeply transgressive act for a nineteenth century woman. X marks the spot, the location of a life.

Excerpt from Elizabeth Parker’s embroidered journal.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London, T.6-1956

In 1830 young English woman Elizabeth Parker, aged seventeen, stitched the story of her life using red silk thread on plain white cotton cloth. In the era in which her stitched biography was created Parker’s writing tools, needle and thread, were ideological objects of English femininity. Embroidery in nineteenth century England was socially inscribed as a symbol of the purity of femininity. For women during this historical location stitching with needle and thread was not merely a creative activity, it was a reflection of good feminine behaviour. Even as the teaching of literacy became more widely accessible to both boys and girls in nineteenth century England, needle and thread were diligently used to teach girls how to write. The extent of this social practice is seen in the example of nineteenth century samplers, where young girls demonstrated their competency with needle and thread while simultaneously displaying their literacy skills. Embroidery was equated with femininity to the extent that it was perceived as the natural domain of women to live their lives through the act of stitching.[1] Conversely, ink and paper were inscribed as masculine, tools of the male writer.

Elizabeth Parker’s cross-stitched discourse stands as an anomaly within the time of its creation, providing insight into a young woman’s deeply personal use of cross-stitch embroidery. Parker’s text however is not just an account of a simple nineteenth century life; it stands as a testament to a young woman’s trauma. While Parker does not explicitly reveal the details of her trauma the reader is informed that she came to work for a household where she experienced “cruelty too horrible to mention,” at the hands of a man she refers to as Lieutenant G. “For trying to avoid the wicked design of my master I was thrown down stairs,” she tells us. As readers of Parker’s text, where the writer is restrained in the revelation of details, we can only imagine the true depth of the trauma that this young woman endured. Parker’s turn of phrase “the wicked design of my master” is reserved in its detail, but speaks painful volumes to its meaning.

The use of reserved language to describe her experience of trauma further reveals the shame and stigma produced by acts of sexual abuse. For a young nineteenth century domestic servant to reveal details of such a traumatic experience would have resulted in grave social consequences for Parker. Parker’s writing reveals that she was profoundly aware of this, as her text reveals her descent into depression after the violent incident, which then ultimately leads to her contemplation of suicide, “I arose from my seat to go into the bedroom and as I was going I thought within myself ah me I will retire into the most remotest part of the wood and there execute my design and that design was the wilful design of self destruction.”[2] In stitching her story Parker is able to materialise her experience into a physical form. If she cannot speak her trauma aloud than her stitching will speak for her.

Elizabeth Parker’s embroidered journal.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London, T.6-1956

Parker’s incredible account of a life recorded in red thread provokes the question, who was she writing for? Was there a perceived external audience in the writer’s mind or was it purely an act of personal exorcism? Did she dream of her writing one day being discovered, to stand as an historical testimony of her lived experience? Or was the action of stitching her life story, x by x, the only proof she desired? Parker shows the reader that the act of stitching can be used as a conduit to make trauma real, concrete, tactile, visible, and true. Through the materiality of red thread on white cloth Parker transforms trauma into evidence, with her cross-stitch remaining a living document of one woman’s pain. Given the disbelief of so many women’s accounts of sexual violence Parker’s stitched text stands as a remarkable historical testament to the burden of secrecy and shame that is carried deep inside the self. Stitch by stitch, using her writer’s tools of needle and thread, Parker manifests into physicality the residue of pain.

[1] See Rozsika Parker’s seminal text The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (1984) for a thorough exploration of women’s historical relationship to needlework.

[2] Despite the sorrow of her early life Parker did not die young. Parker remained living in Ashburnham, East Sussex for the duration of her life, becoming a teacher at the Ashburnham Charity School. Parker died at the age of 76 in 1889. The Victoria and Albert Museum entry on Elizabeth Parker contains more details on her life.

What is Craftivism?

Existing at the intersection of craft and activism, Craftivism, is a form of nonviolent social activism that seeks to make positive social change. 

What is your earliest memory of craft(ing)? Such nostalgic questions often bring into focus memories of sitting with mothers and grandmothers crocheting, knitting or beading… something to pass the time or to fill empty school holiday moments. For me, craft, was suffocating lace trimmed floral fabric frames and frilled toilet roll dollies scattered throughout our domestic space- meaningless ‘women’s things’. Craft was the empty, ‘feminine’ things I spent most of my youth trying to shave from my identity in pursuit of a concrete vocation that ‘mattered’.

There were no direct messages, but it was clear that there was little value held in these ‘pretty’ pastimes. Craft was just something to keep us busy within the parameters of a domestic space while the ‘real’ work of the world was going on outside these confinements.

What I, and many, had overlooked was the tangible, valuable work that was unfolding in those quiet moments sitting at my Grandmothers knees as she showed me how to thread a needle or loop a stitch over the crochet hook. While nurturing meaningful connection between us, she was also teaching me embodied action and new skills, along with showing me how to make material changes in the world around me. In those quiet moments of learning and connection, powerfully, I was being taught to ‘make change’ in my world.

Sewing stars on a suffrage banner, Library of Congress,

Drawing on the feminist legacy of using craft to raise awareness of important social issues; craft and textile art became a powerful point of reclamation for third wave feminism, recontextualizing ‘domestic arts’ outside the home and into spaces both public and political. [1] These traditionally ‘female’ arts, seen as passive and pretty, became a powerful mode of cultural critique, seeking to disrupt traditional patriarchal modes of hierarchy, re-framing ‘women’s work’ and the value of labour. [2] Through their activism they questioned democracy, and who’s voice is given a platform? What part do we each play in controlling our own narratives? They asked what it means for our voices to be heard and for our stories to be written, or indeed sewn, through our own hand?

“Crafting here (activism) is a social movement and a form of direct action, whose current work is prefiguring a world to come. This doesn’t mean that an individual never works alone, but that s/he understands her/his work as contributing to and building the values of participatory democracy.”

Elizabeth Garber, Craft as Activism, The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, 2013

Craft + activism becomes a valuable part of a ‘participatory democracy’ along with sharing stories and calling for important social changes to be made. With each stitch, every thread and each action we are literally creating a material object that is building towards a world we would like to live in- we are directly impacting the spaces we inhabit with material objects… with material, measurable and valuable change.

The age of social media has allowed like-minded activists to mobilise and connect in new ways, triggering a wave of activism underpinned by a digital landscape and its ability to facilitate global connections. Through this wave, the term ‘craftivism’ was coined[3]; in 2003 writer, activist and crafter Betsy Greer, completed a dissertation on knitting, DIY culture and community development, her studies provided a contemporary context and word to the practice of combining craft + activism. Greer’s ‘Craftivism Manifesto’, collaboratively created, is a call to action, an invitation for each of us to participate, to make change in our world.

Inspired by this legacy of Craftivism the Centre of Democracy is pulling the threads together for a very exciting project- keep your eyes on our socials for ways we can all be involved in this powerful form of activism!

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

[1] Rica A. Chansky, A stitch in Time: Third-Wave Feminist Reclamation of Needled Imagery, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2010

[2] Tal Fitzpatrick, Craftivism: A manifesto/methodology, Tal Fitzpatrick 2018

[3] Tal Fitzpatrick, Craftivism: A manifesto/methodology, Tal Fitzpatrick 2018

WARNING: This site contains content that may offend some viewers