The Influences of Age


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Arteries - exploring embroidered expressions with Arlee Barr

Fibristas and Fibristos, can you get your (t)h(r)eads around this?
old torn stained worn frayed threadbare=classic vintage antique treasured storied history

For certain projects and uses, there is nothing like crisp, new, freshly ironed cotton, or stiff silk right off the bolt. On the other hand, there is the comfort of well worn pyjamas, a baby’s treasured blanket, Granny’s moth-eaten linens smelling of attic and Evening in Paris, a favourite robe stolen from an old boyfriend. (Never mind the favourite underpants from the old girlfriend, that’s a different story for a different time…) All of these are bound to have the stains and marks of daily living and wear. Some textile artists are taking advantage of this, incorporating personal histories, or building stories into the cloth, respecting the lineage and process of these fabrics.

Not all of us are lucky enough though to have access to these: somebody throws out the dirty laundry if it ain’t pristine after a wash, no one respects the old hankies and gives them to the flea market lady, or someone gets to the flea market lady and buys everything before you can claim it back, and then there are those who Just Do Not Do Old. There’s lots of info on how to remove stains, but very little on how to add them.

Get creatively messy! Live life large, free of napkins and bibs! Tea and coffee of any sort are old standbys: make up a pot of either, very very strong, and let the fabric soak for anywhere from a day to weeks. You can add later splotches and designs to areas with a potion that contains the tea or coffee and high fat milk or cream (ever tried getting those stains out of your favourite shirt??) Pour wine, juice and syrups on–let it stand somewhere out of the way so you’re not bothered by smells, molds or bugs! Bury a bundle in the compost heap, or in the back of the garden. If you don’t have a yard, use a pot of dirt on the balcony or find an unattended area in a park (be respectful though of areas that receive a lot of maintenance or are allowed to grow wild to encourage indigenous species or animals). Leave fabric pinned under a downspout, by a rain barrel or culvert.

Composting fabric can also be as simple as staking out your fabric in an unobtrusive area and spreading kitchen waste–vegetable and fruit only, no animal—in “patterns” and lines. Make sure the neighbours have nothing to complain of by wetting the fabric down first, laying your chosen “weapons of mass decomposition” on, then covering with plastic. Clear will encourage some molds, opaque will ferment more as heat is trapped. Experiment! (If there are wild animals in your area, this may be safer to do elsewhere than your own property.)

samples of composted fabric and my set-up

Rust dyeing is easy as well. Collect washers, nails, broken car parts, old pots, bottle caps etc on walks, scour the garage and alleys (truck stops are a great source), ask friends. Use a wire brush to get grease and loose rust off, wet your fabric with vinegar and water, lay out your rusty bits, wrap, tie, fold in and cover with plastic to let the rust start. Crack the plastic a bit after a a day or a week and let the air slowly oxidize the areas exposed. Let it dry completely, or add more liquid. Rusted fabrics can break needles though so be very careful about deposits and the needles you use. Go slowly.

my rust dyed samples and a rust bundle

Wear a mask and gloves, observe safety and sanitary precautions with all of these methods! All of these fabrics should be washed before hand to remove starches, finishes and resins, and after should be rinsed thoroughly outside with the hose or buckets, then washed at least TWICE in the hottest water the fabric can stand, then heated again in a drier. This will remove spores, continuing mold growth, smells and loose debris. Do not poison yourself or your loved ones by neglecting these steps! Most stain methods are not instantaneous gratification: plan ahead—-do up yardages and try various methods so there’s always a stock to draw on. The base fabric can be anything, printed or plain, and works best with natural fibres. Silk will deteriorate faster, so age accordingly.

Jude Hill/composted sheet
Heike Gerbig/Ponds

In the 90’s, Stephanie Sabato, Christopher Leitch and Julie Ryder were all working deliberately and with intent on fabrics with mold and rotting vegetables. Sabato and Leitch are invisible for all purposes on line, but i have the original article from FiberArts magazine Nov/Dec 1994, if you’d like to read it. Jude Hill can be found at SpiritCloth, and Heike Gerbig at Gerdiary. If you search Flickr with “compost dyeing” or “rust dyeing”, you’ll find a wealth of photos and subsequent links, especially to Kim Baxter Packwood‘s Natural Dyeing forums.

See Also

EDIT: Please read Mr Leitch’s comment below for more info about his and Stephanie Sabato’s work. He was kind enough to comment 🙂

So drag your knees through the grass while playing tackle frisbee, spill that taco sauce on your chest, grease that ol’ car down. Stain it! If you’re really observant and find them, pick up those old jeans and work rags that fly out of pick up trucks on the highway and wash ’em and use ’em. Use old, make old!


Arlee Barr is a Canadian artist, working primarily with textiles. She describes herself as “curious, eccentric and just a little opinionated“. Surrealist in thought, Fauvist at heart, Arlee likes the eclectic, explorative and absurd. Sprinkled around the interwebs, she can be found hanging around her fantastic blog.

View Comments (9)
  • arlee, i have crazy love for this post. i love working with fabrics that have histories – and sometimes they need to be created! it’s so cool how you can do shibori-type techniques with rust and mold!

  • Invisible, perhaps, but not dead. I am including for anyone interested a more thorough bibliography of published views on the work Stephanie and I did together. She is well, teaching and running Jamtse Tsokpa, the Tibetan American Friendship Association. I am currently directing Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall. Keep up the good work. CL

    International Textile Design Directory, Calmann and King, London, 1995
    “Sag Carries Babbage” by Kevin Murray,
    “The Future is Past: Textiles and New Technologies” by Mark Newport Fiberarts, September/October 1998
    “Artist of a Different Mold” by Gloria Gale, Kansas City Jewish Life, SU2002
    “Christopher Leitch: Exactly Different” by Roderick Townley, Kansas City Home Design, November 2000
    “Yardage, Revisited” by Karen Searles, Surface Design Journal, Spring 2000
    “By Design” by Jackie White, Kansas City Star, April 30, 2000
    “His Art Does More Than Imitate Life” by Elisabeth Kirsch, Kansas City Star, February 26, 1999
    “Surface Tension” by Luanne Rimel; American Craft, March 1998
    “The Golden Dustman: Critical Evaluation of Martin Margiela” by Caroline Evans; Fashion Theory, March 1998
    “Phenomenology of Dirt” by William Easton; Surface Design Journal, Fall 1996
    “Room for Ruin” by Margo Mensing; Surface Design Journal, Summer 1995
    “Ganga” by William Easton; New Art Examiner, January 1995
    “Tending a Cloth Garden” by Michelle Fricke; Fiberarts, Fall 1994
    “Rotting Plants Leave Mark on Cloth” by Jackie White; Kansas City Star, September 26, 1993

  • Great piece Arlee.
    natural dyeing environments have even caught the eye of my non-stitching husband who informed me of the catkins that are currently falling and staining the pavements (=sidewalks 🙂 ) of Calgary right now. Must get out and lay down a fragment.
    Lovely work, keep it coming.

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