Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fabric Pyrography - 2

Hi! It is Sandy Snowden again with more Fabric Pyrography.

I had an opportunity to do some wood burning when I was recently out of collage...at that time I ironed an embroidery transfer image onto the wood and burnt it away using a wood burning tool. Pretty basic, but it stuck in my mind.

Somehow I felt that technique could be used on fabric as well. I have rarely come across work by textile artists who have used hot tools solely to make a feature of burnt marks.

I remember hearing of one artist who used a regular clothing iron to do this. As I recall, he looked for different steam patterns on the soleplate and used them to differing affects, such as a mandala shaped burn pattern on cloth. If you know of his work, will you pass the details on?

EDIT: I knew someone would know the answer! thanks 'Reg82'! (sorry, don't know your name.) It is Willie Cole. His website doesn't seem to have as many images of the iron scorches, as he refers to them, but I see he also took the idea further and found a way to heat the metal perforated ironing boards and used them to print with. However, he even has a Wikipedia entry! If you want to find more images of his work, it is easiest to Google Images Willie Cole iron scorches or Willie Cole iron burns.

I did come across one artist who centred her thesis on the idea of the ‘Iron as Memory’. Shannon McCarty’s work consisted of framed and unframed work which had been burnt using the hot soleplate of an iron.

Installation by Shannon McCarty.
You can discover more images here. I haven’t been able to find any more recent work by Shannon McCarty.

But now, onto that Fabric Pyrography!

For many years I have been making burnt marks on fabric using a soldering iron. I mostly draw or trace a design onto fabric (using a lightbox) and then follow the line drawing with a soldering iron.

Fabrics: I use silk and cotton the most.
Starting with cotton. For most of the works I have done using cotton, I used a thick cotton version of a fabric that we call Calico in the UK. It is a firm version of the American muslin. (All following references to Calico is the British version.)

The silks I used have been varied. I will mention a beefier type today and some finer and thinner types tomorrow.

Tools: For silk or for cutting synthetics, I use my Margaret Beal(MB) soldering iron with a curved tip. (White handle below) But for the thick cotton, I use a fine tip soldering iron made by Drapers which I got at a local ironmongers/hardware shop some time ago. (Blue handle below)
As you see, it isn't as fine as the M.B. one, but I find it gets hotter and so works better on the calico. The MB soldering iron is useful for detail. I have also used the curved side against the fabric when I am 'colouring in' or shading.

One of my students had a wood burning tool with exchangeable tips. This is also a good option. Since doing the research for this series, I am now determined to save up for one of the tools which has a temperature control!

Method of working:
Basically, you use the soldering iron as a mark making tool. This does take a bit of experimentation as you need to work out:
how to find a place to work within the range of the cord,
how to find a place to work with adequate ventilation,
where to park the soldering iron so you don't burn something else,
how to hold your soldering iron without burning yourself,
and so on! And that is just for the tool.

For the fabric, you also need to work out:
how much pressure to use when making marks (what your fabric can take!), how you will hold the fabric taut and other important considerations.

I have tried drawing directly on the fabric laid onto a non-flammable surface like tile. But I found you need to have the fabric taut, such as in a hoop. This allows a little give as you press onto the fabric, but the fabric is secure enough that your marks end up where you want them. It also allows more air, which is needed (as you may know) for burning.

The first piece in which I used Fabric Pyrography was a piece called ‘Uncommon Virtue’ for ‘She Made Her Mark’ exhibition which was the first art quilt exhibition at the Quilter’s Hall of Fame. I wanted to reference the stitching, weaving and making women have done over the centuries.
"Uncommon Virtue"
This is where I remembered the idea of Pyrography. With a little experimenting, I found I could make marks with the soldering iron on the calico backing. So, I chose to continue the idea of the actual stitching I did, but instead make marks which resembled stitches.

In this instance, all the marks were linear. But to draw the whole of the work together, I also seared the edges of the fabric from the mini-corset shape...just a light touch, which also served to control the fraying.

The most recent work I did with Fabric Pyrography was last year. I decided to do a set of Celtic inspired letters as part of an online group. We had each done a different technique for each set of letters we did. So, I chose to do this set using Fabric Pyrography.

I chose to use calico for my fabric - actually the back of some calico I used years ago for a toile/sloper when I was first learning pattern drafting. So, recycling!
A few of the letters
As you can see, the linear quality is still there, but I have taken the idea further with shading and a strong burnt edge.

I decided to create a sort of swatch book with the Burnt Letters.
I kind of like the look of the pages swirled round like that. The burnt edges make their own pattern.
I stitched a bead between each letter on the upper left to hold them together.
They could be flicked through as well.

If I did this again, I wouldn't cut all the squares of fabric first because sometimes it gets pretty hot when you are burning a section near the edge. (See the advice about how to work out how to hold your fabric!)
You have to also take into account that the just-burnt section of fabric will be HOT. So when you reposition where you are holding the fabric you have to be careful not to touch the section you just did. It cools fast, but you don't want to touch it straight away. (How do I know?)

This is a natural silk dupion. It doesn't take as much heat or pressure to make the marks as cotton does, but is a lot easier to handle than thin silk which I will cover tomorrow.
The wording is in progress for an Illuminated Letter B for Book.
First I traced the lettering onto silk for the phrase and was in the process of etching the letters with the soldering iron. The wrapped hoop helps to hold the silk without damage.

The phrase completed and some decoration
I often use metallic gel pens in conjunction with the marks made by the soldering iron and have done so here. (I haven't washed this piece, but have found that some gel pens can be set to be permanent. However, you should test first if you plan to wash work that has gel pen.)

The completed work.

I used a finer silk twill to create the figures at the bottom of the letter. The technique for fine or thin silk is a bit different, so I will talk about it tomorrow.


  1. That is absolutely amazing. I never would have thought of using s wood burning technique on cloth. I love your flip alphabet and Book piece. Truly unique!!

  2. I have burnt away the edges of sheer synthetics, and recycled drier sheets, as well as Tyvek and Lutradur...but this...this is something I have to try! Thank you!

  3. Very Exciting Work! Thank you for sharing, Sandy.

  4. The artist you reference is, perhaps, Willie Cole. Your work is wonderful--thank you for sharing!

  5. Thanks 'reg 82' That is the one I remembered. Willie Cole. I have added more info above.

  6. I knew I had saved an article about burning a design on fabric! After reading your post, I just had to go search for it. It was written by Madonna Yashinski, for Nov 2005 issue of SewNews. She had a pattern for wheat stalks and buds included. She used a low-temperature (750*) burning tool and natural fibers. I gave my multi-temp wood burner to my daughter in law, she does fabulous work on wood and fungi from trees. I may borrow it back for a try at this!

  7. Luann, this sounds exciting! I knew there had to be someone else who had tried this method. So, perhaps you can give your daughter a hint for a birthday and you will have a fresh tool (without residue from wood or fungi!)


We would love to hear from you and even better have some links to your work!