Mold Dyeing

Judy asked for an update on the red onions, and here it is:

Red Onions

They’ve lost most of their red color, but they haven’t yet started to mold. I’d say they have another few weeks to go.

In the meantime, here’s what’s happening with the purple cabbage:

Purple Cabbage

A lot of the purple stain is still there, but something is turning yellow and brown, and I’m getting those black spots that I dislike. I’m not sure if the black spots are mildew or mold.

The clamps are beginning to rust, leaving rust stains on the fabric. I’m thinking of using this effect later by folding fabric and clamping it to get intentional rust marks.

Rusted Clamp

The good news is that bugs haven’t eaten holes in the canvas yet! That’s always a concern.

Judy asked if these are known techniques. They are ancient techniques of applying color and pattern to cloth, and there are a handful of artists, primarily fiber artists, who have resurrected them for modern use.

Stephanie Sabato and Christopher Leitch were the first people I heard about who used mold to apply color to silk. There was an article about their work in the November/December 1994 issue of Fiberarts magazine. They let fruits and vegetables mold on silk to create fabrics for wearables and interior design use. I couldn’t find any information about them on the Internet, and I don’t think they are doing this type of work anymore.

I read about German artist Inken Woldsen in the Fall 1998 issue of Surface Design, the journal of the Surface Design Association. Woldsen buried pieces of scrap metal wrapped in fabric to create fiber art pieces.

Kimberly Baxter Packwood uses a process she calls compost dyeing to create fabrics for quilts. She wraps organic materials in a fabric bundle, and buries them in a compost pile until the matter stains the fabric. She also sometimes adds colors from natural dyes.

There may be other people working in this medium, but these are the only ones I know about.

My use of the process is different. I am using heavy canvas and will stretch the pieces as fine art when they are done. I plan to do a series of stains on each piece to achieve a layered effect. Each “dyeing” or staining of the fabric takes several weeks to several months, depending on the weather, and completing a piece can take a year or more. I carefully arrange my organic materials on the fabric before sandwiching them with clamps between sheets of Plexiglas and letting them sit in the yard to mold.

Judy also asked about the toxicity of moldy fabric. (Judy asks all the good questions!) At the end of the dyeing or staining process the moldy matter is removed, and the mold is neutralized and completely washed out. It leaves behind permanent stains on the fabric in unusual patterns.

Dyeing or staining fabric using mold, oxidized metals, and pigments in dirt is an ancient technique, similar to the use of natural dyes. I feel that it is a timely process because of the growing concern about our environment and the toxicity of art materials.

When doing this type of work, I am in collaboration with nature. I decide which materials to apply, what type of fiber to use, how to prepare the fabric, and how long to let it sit. Nature does the rest.



  1. Thank you. Very interesting. The onions look great in the picture. Do they look that high contrast in person or is that just the photo? Is your printer capable of printing on canvas? Those photos would seem to open a lot of possibilities.

    So you’re not fluent in Slovene?

  2. Is that Slovene? I’ve never even heard of it. It didn’t look like German to me, but I didn’t have a clue what it was.

    The contrast is fairly accurate. The stains on the fabric are turning a medium brown, but under the onions they’re a pale brown. Remember that some of it may wash out in the end.

    I don’t know if my printer will print on canvas — I haven’t tried it. Heavy card stock goes through it, so maybe if the canvas was adhereed to something stiff.

  3. I think printing to canvas will be too thick and rough. Why not print to inkjet transfer paper and then iron it onto the canvas?

  4. Are you asking about printing on canvas using an inkjet printer? Canvas is heavy, and if it was adhered to some sort of backing, it would be even heavier. I don't think most printers would be able to feed it through. But there are large commercial printers that print on canvas, if you have a lot of money to spend! Or there are people who will print to canvas for you.

    1. Hi Susan. It’s been a while since I’ve done this type of work, and I’m trying to remember how I neutralized the canvas with the mold on it. I know I washed it well, and I think I may have soaked it in diluted vinegar as well.

      A quick search on the Internet shows that diluted vinegar kills 82% of mold species.

  5. Hi Cassandra, Im interested in how you manage what I imagine that molds do to fabric: decompose it? Did you have to prepare the fabric in some way to protect against this? Or just embrace that outcome?

    1. Hi Jess. It’s an embrace the outcome situation. It depends on how long I let the mold develop. You’re right — it sometimes does eat through the fabric, which actually looks pretty interesting.

      When Stephanie Sabato and Christopher Leitch did their mold dyeing, they used silk, which doesn’t decompose the way that cotton does.

      Are you thinking of trying this? I want to see your results if you do!

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