Monday, April 5, 2021

Feeling The Blues: My Adventures in Textile Printing Under the Sun

I'm back with some solar powered up-cycling inspiration in lovely hues of rust and blue.  Spring is finally here in the northern hemisphere and if you're like me you've craving some crisp, clean, and refreshing air.  Today I've compiled examples of three low-cost techniques that will give you the perfect excuse to get out and soak up that sunshine.  I'll be sharing my adventures with textile printing under the sun with the help of a touch of rust, a tad of bleach, and the magic of Cyanotype solutions.  

Rust prints, bleached denim and cyanotype prints are all on today's menu.  Served with a side of old textiles.  Think hand-me down linens, your grandmother's hankies, jeans that no longer fit, and cotton or bamboo sheets.  For these three techniques almost any fabric goes as long as it's natural.  (No synthetics allowed!)  

But before we start, let's talk a little bit about upcycling vintage textiles.  Old table and bed linens, quilts, hankies, laces, and such are pretty easy to find and for the most part relatively inexpensive.  You can find them in thrift stores, tag sales, church rummage sales, eBay, Etsy and in the place you should look first - your Grandmother's dresser drawers.  Here's a few tips on what to/not to bring home and how to prepare your textiles for printing:
  • If it costs more than a few bucks or is something with sentimental value,  I leave it for a collector.  I'm not interested in upcycling anything of real value.  I want to have fun with my projects and to allow myself the luxury of messing it up.  I never want to feel guilty about cutting up the hand tatted table linen that my great grandmother made to give to my grandmother on her wedding day. On the other hand, I do like the feeling of breathing new life into a piece that I find at Goodwill that is made with someone's loving hands.  I believe that a piece with such a history can make my work richer, especially if I'm repurposing something that someone's heir destined to be of no value to them.  
  • If the price is right I won't hesitate to bring home textiles that are stained and/or dirty.  This doesn't scare me off since I can usually either work the stain into my design or cut around it.  However, I will always leave the fabric on the shelf if it has multiple rips, tears, or slits as these can be signs of dry rot, a condition that is irreversible.  Dry rot can infect a piece of fabric if it is exposed to moisture for a period of time without being able to properly dry.  Eventually a microscopic fungus develops which weakens the fibers and makes the fabric brittle as it sadly continues on its journey to become, as Kansas lamented, "Dust in the Wind".
  • When I do bring vintage textiles and laces home I follow this process to clean and brighten them.  (Note: Delicate fabrics should be treated gently through out the entire process.)
    • Fill a tub or sink with enough cold water to cover the fabric.  Submerge and gently swish the fabric around in it.  Drain the dirty water and repeat this process until the water is no longer a strong brown or yellow color.   
    • Refill the sink with really hot water and dissolve a scoop of Oxiclean Odor Blaster detergent in it, (cold water would cause the detergent to clump).  Gently swish the fabric through it and then let soak for an hour or so.   Drain and repeat until the water is clear. 
    • Rinse the fabric under running water until all of the detergent is gone.  Roll the fabric in a thick towel to blot out as much moisture as possible.  Hang outside to dry. 
Rust, Cyanotype and Bleached Fabrics are on Today's Menu

Project #1 - Rusted Fabric

Two summers ago I ventured down the path of rusting fabric.  I joke that's it's my "Gateway Drug" as you'll soon see that sun harnessed prints have become somewhat of an addiction for me.  Rust printing is a really low cost technique.  In fact, you probably have everything you need to make a great print or two right now with things you already have in your kitchen and garage.  

My Rust Goddess is my absolute favorite rust print.  She was made with an old rusty trivet imprinted on a vintage linen table runner.  

Supplies you will need:

  • Gloves and an apron, (you should always wear gloves when handling rust),
  • Recycled plastic store bags to protect your work surface and to steam your rusty bundle under the sun,
  • Rusty bits, (nails, screws, drill bits, graters, tools, etc... raid your basement, scour your garage, look down when you walk to find all of the discarded rusty goodness - the flatter the better),
  • Cotton or other natural fabric, (I've not tried this yet with wool, but I don't see any reason not to),
  • String to tie up your rusty bundle of goodness,
  • Spray bottle (instead of buying one new, consider recycling and a spray bottle from another product - I used an old eyeglass cleaner spray bottle),
  • White Vinegar,
  • Table Salt,
  • Tub or bowl of water.

Rust Printing Process:

  • I like to do this outside on a table covered with a deconstructed cardboard box followed by a layer of plastic bags.
  • Soak natural fiber fabrics a few minutes in white vinegar. Wring out excess.
  • Fill a spray bottle with 50% vinegar and 50% water. 
  • Lie the fabric flat on the table with the front facing up.
  • Put on your gloves.  Place rusty objects out on the dampened cloth. Spray the metal items with more white vinegar.
  • Roll the cloth into a tight bundle and secure with string.  The better the contact between the cloth and the object, the stronger your print will be.  If your bundle appears dry then respray with the vinegar.
  • Place your rusty bundle into a sealed plastic bag and set it in the sun to "steam and bake" until you're satisfied with the rust you see.  (This could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days depending of the amount of rust in the bundle and the strength of the sun.)  

  • Check your bundle a few time a day. Spritz the rust bundle with the vinegar solution if it becomes dry.  I check my bundles every morning and every afternoon when I got home from work.  
  • When you're happy with the rust, put on your gloves and unroll the bundle.  Set the rusty bits aside to use another day.  (I store them in plastic zip lock bags so they don't contaminate my other working tools that I would cry if they became rusty.)

  • Rinse the fabric in a bowl of salt water.  This will stop the rusting process and keep the rust from eventually burning a hole through the fabric.  
  • Hang your rusted fabric out in the sun to dry and enjoy!
The light blue rusted fabric in the image below is a piece of  an old sheet made from bamboo fibers.  The lettering on the left is an impression from the top of an old soap tin imprinted on muslin.   The rectangular section in the middle of the photo was made with old metal lamp banding.     

I've stitch on my rust prints, stenciled over them in art journal pages, and incorporated them into collages.  If you'd like to see another of my rust print adventures, check out this oldie but goodie StencilGirl® post about making this Rusty, Waxed Apple Bag.

Project #2 - Bleached Denim

Onto the blues...... Which is in no way indicative of my mood :)  My favorite color has always been blue so I flock to it.

This project was a joyous celebration for me.  I had gained a LOT of weight over the course of the pandemic last summer.  So much weight that my jeans grew two sizes... Last August I decided it was time to get my own curve under control.  I'm proud to say that I succeeded and am now 5 pounds less than when the pandemic started and still going.  I celebrated by ripping up my pandemic jeans and using the fabric for bleach printing.  Alas, it was a complete failure.  After doing some research I finally figured out that because by jeans were only 97% cotton, they would not bleach.  (Who knew, 97% wasn't good enough....)  But my failure didn't stop me from conquering this technique.  I picked up a pair of 100% cotton jeans at the thrift store for $3.99 and started again.

Supplies You Will Need:

  • I recommend wearing gloves and an apron for this project and that you work in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors in the sunshine, (bleach can really wreck havoc on your hands and clothing).
  • 100% cotton denim - Tip: Head to the men's section of the thrift store to find 100% cotton denim.  Look for Levi's and Wrangler brands as there is a good chance they will fit the bill. Men's jeans tend to cost less and as a bonus you'll probably end up with more fabric to work with.
  • Piece of cardboard of other stiff substrate covered with a recycled plastic store bag.
  • Repositionable Tacky Spray, (I used Aleen's).
  • StencilGirl® Stencils (I used The Pomegranate Seeds Grape Apple Flower Mask by Valerie Sjodin)
  • Deli paper,
  • Bull clips, rocks, or other items to hold the denim flat as it dries.
  • Spray Bottle filled with bleach. 

Bleached Denim Process:

  • Place a piece of denim face up on a flat substrate covered with a plastic bag.
  • Spray the back of the stencil with a tacky spray.  Wait one minute. 
  • Press the stencil tacky side down onto the denim.  Place a piece of deli paper over the stencil and burnish it down with your fingers to ensure good contact between the denim and the stencil. Remove the deli paper.
  • Spray the surface with the bleach.
  • Use bull clips, rocks or other item to hold the denim in place while it dries.
  • Leave the denim out to dry in the sun for a few hours until you are satisfied with the amount of fading. 
  • Wearing gloves, remove the stencil.  Set it aside to rinse when you have a free minute.
  • Run cold water over the denim to rinse out all of the bleach and halt the bleaching process.
  • Hang the denim out to dry, admire your work and enjoy!

For my design, I cut a circle out of wax paper, sprayed it with adhesive and stuck it on the denim before I laid down the stencil  This created a masked area in the center of my design that I plan to stitch on later.  Note that the bleach can yellow the denim a bit before it's rinsed. 
The final result:

Bonus technique:  While you've got the bleach out, cover some old book pages with a stencil and spritzer them with the bleach. Use stones to weigh the pages down while they dry in the sun and you'll be rewarded with some beautiful neutral designs that makes for great collage fodder.  (Uncoated cotton rag pages work best for this technique.)

Technique #3 - Cyanotype Sun Prints

My final and favorite sun powered exploit is into the world of fabric Cyanotypes.  I am head over heals in love with the range of blues that can be had combined with the gorgeous edges of vintage linens.  I'll start this section with a few tips I learned while creating cyanotypes with fabrics and stencils.
  • You don't need to stick to neutral colored fabrics.   I used a vintage quilt block as the base for this cyanotype.  The five circular designs are stencils from my Crest Stencil. I loved the vintage blue and white squares of the original quilt next to the cyanotype crests.
  • Don't be afraid to cut up your stencils to make them yours.  I used a craft knife to free my Four Bells Stencil and my Trivet Due Stencil from their bonds to create the focal point of this layered cyanotype on a damask, (or raised woven pattern) vintage napkin.

  • Having a range of blues makes for even better collage fodder.  You can lighten your cyanotypes and create different shades of blues, greens and yellows by toning them in a bath of soda ash. 
The cyanotypes below were printed on vintage napkins and then dipped into the soda ash bath to bleach them. I used my Jardiniere Stencil and the Nana's Lamp design from my Crests Stencil together for the cyanotype on the left.  And my Chinoiserie Bouquet Stencil along with an old brass lamp band to create the design on the right.  I'm really loving these slate blues and yellow browns next to the whites.

The Cyanotype Process

Since this post is getting rather long, I'm going to refer you to an artist who is much more experienced in Cyanotype printing than I.  Shari Replogle recently did a video tutorial guest post for StencilGirl® Talk entitled  Printing Botanical Cyanotypes on Silk. Her tutorial is captivating, excellent and I highly recommend it.  I used her process as the starting point for my cyanotype prints. And if you find yourself hooked like I did, check out Shari’s inspirational online Cyanotypes, the Magic of Alternative Photography workshop.

I did however take some pics of my adventures for you to give you a flavor of the process.
I coated the fabric with the Cyanotype chemical solution in a dimly lit room.
I cut my stencil out of its frame and used it as a vase in my composition.  If you’re wondering why the stencil is black, I painted it will black gesso to ensure that the light would not penetrate through it.  

It was a cloudy day so the print took a few hours to develop.  After three water baths and waiting 24 hours for it to fully oxidized this was the result.

I couldn't resist combining the plant from Rae Missigman's Botanical Wildflower stencil with my 
Jardiniere Stencil and the flower from my Crests Stencil set.  It seemed like such a natural.  I laid the composition on a napkin treated with the cyanotype solution.  

A cyanotype goes through many color changes before it turns to that beautiful blue print blue.  The background starts out yellow before being set in the sun to develop.

After about 2 minutes under the sun the background turned green.
When I took it out of the sun and removed the stencils a few hours later the background had turned brown and the areas that were covered by the stencils and plant material were shades of an eerie yellow-green.
During the first water bath the colors began to strengthen.
After the water bath the prints were hung to dry.  It takes 24 hours for them totally oxidize and reach their full beautiful color.  (BTW I think the pic below is evidence that I really am addicted to this printing process. Rust printing really was my Gateway Drug :))

And no post of mine would be complete without at least one finished product.  I used the print as the centerpiece of this collage and I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.

Many thanks to Shari Replogle for reigniting my love of cyanotype sun prints.  I recently took her online Cyanotype, the Magic of Alternative Photography Workshop and was truly blown away with all of the techniques.  She took the art so much farther than I ever dreamed existed.  

And thank you all for hanging with me through this long post.  I hope I've inspired you to get out there and soak up the sun.

Hugs until next time,  Jill
For more inspiration visit me on my blog and Instragram


  1. Wow - what a lot of wonderful information here! Can't wait to try some of these projects. Thank you.

  2. Everything turned out so lovely! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thank you very much for sharing this information which is so helpful to other artists.

  4. Thank you very much for sharing this information which is so helpful to other artists.

  5. Thank you very much for sharing this information which is so helpful to other artists.

  6. Can you bleach denim and then cyano type on top or will the chemical process be ruined?


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