Through a small forest, we came to the second level that is on the brink of collapsing and moved carefully. During winter, day falls into night earlier than normal, there was no time to fear. Walking about in a small abandoned two-story house, we picked up a few round wooden boards within reach. They were chair frames made of metal, so rusted that they were slightly falling apart. Such firm things, after months and years of exposure to wind and sun, became exceedingly brittle after all.
Hearing me talking about my rusty chair finds, fibre artist Ying-ting Chen said, “Must be beautiful.” She specialises in fibre art that involves not only plant dyeing, but also “rust dyeing”.
“Rusting is in fact a kind of oxidation reaction. Metal is essentially a mineral, when metal meets water and oxygen, rust develops.” Ying-ting used the simplest terms to explain the rusting process. Ordinary people like me only see the “rusting”, do we ever think about why?
“Therefore ‘rust dyeing’ is natural?” Because metal products appear so manufactured, they are hardly associated with the “natural”.
“Yes, rust dyeing is natural, even the mordants we use after textile dyeing are natural metal minerals.” I don’t have an absolute preference for the natural, but I was realising that minerals are natural too, and not only those grown out of soil.
“How is rust dyeing done?” I have learned about indigo dyeing, a form of cold water dyeing where the indigo dye is extracted from the greenish blue leaves of plants. “Is the rust dye formed by soaking metal too? Wait, rust dye works contain more blank space and can even take on the shape of the metal, so it’s not done by soaking.” Like a detective, I was keen to break down how this work was created.
Ying-ting responded gently but firmly, “Every morning when I return to the studio, like watering plants, I look at the rust dyeing situation on the fabrics that spread across the rusting metal, and add water to keep them moist. Only time can dye the fabrics with rust marks.” Each fabric takes three to five days for the rust dye patterns to fix. Moreover, metal takes time to “develop rust”, and still more time is needed for fabric treatment, ironing, cutting and design. “Your work really reflects the flow of time.” I thought of the pandemic. For some people, the days feel like years, while for others, time passes like an arrow. I wondered how Ying-ting saw the pandemic’s impact on creation.
“Thinking about it in a positive light, time for me is ‘power’. Making crafts is time-consuming. Before the pandemic there were many other activities, but during the pandemic, I could indulge in creation. For something to be internalised, it takes time to ferment.” Ying-ting continued, “Time gives fabrics and the works beautiful colours, especially when rust dye marks are transferred onto fabrics from tools used for a long time and with sentimental values, such as tailor scissors. It becomes a visual aesthetic.”
Time has many names: light and darkness, months and years, day and night… As time takes rust dyeing as a means to transform seemingly worthless rusted objects, fabrics become a medium, they extend the lifespan of rust. Over time, rust actually grows. “Things are not absolute, leaving a space blank and dyeing it with rust are not contradictory. I hope that when we use them, we feel the importance of time.” And so we shall use Ying-ting’s works purely and simply, and experience the power of rusted objects while the sun and the moon bear witness.