The Zip-up Artist

Look closely—you might find part of your last thrift-store donation in this crafter’s work

By Deborah Snoonian

Photograph courtesy Janet Petrell

many people take up hobbies when they retire: card games, golf, knitting afghans for the grandkids. Donna Petrell, a retired nurse, took up zippers. Long zippers, short zippers, metal zippers, plastic zippers, zippers from discarded pairs of jeans or tattered sleeping bags, zippers so ubiquitous we nearly forget they exist. For nearly 20 years Petrell has coaxed old zippers to life, arranging them in spirals, curves, and waves to make still lifes and portraits that transform everyday images into colorfully textured works of art.

Petrell, 79, who was born in Grand Forks, South Dakota, has been an avid crafter throughout her life. “She was raised during the Depression, so she was always taught to save and reuse things,” says her daughter Janet. In 1986, while living in Rochester, Minnesota, Petrell picked up a used book (now out of print) called Zipper Art by Edna Tunison and Mary Corman (Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1974). “I thought, This is interesting and I think I could do these projects,” she says. She made her first work in 1988, creating a landscape scene by gluing zippers onto an old cabinet door her husband had brought home from a tag sale.

She displayed the piece in a hobby show at the hospital where she worked, and the reaction was enthusiastic. “No one had seen anything like this before,” says Petrell. “They were really interested in it. So I said, ‘If you have any old zippers, you know who wants them.’ And boy did I get zippers!” Since then, she’s become something of a zipper-wielding Grandma Moses, spending an average of two months on each piece.

Now living in Hudson, Wisconsin, Petrell still receives zippers through donations and by tearing them out of old clothing and other items (although she notes that the latter can be a challenge because “clothes are made differently now—it’s not as easy to take out the zippers.”) She trims them to size and removes excess fabric, then glues the teeth to a backing of used plywood, cardboard, or other flat surface. The frames Petrell picks up for pennies at consignment stores or yard sales. “The only new thing I buy is glue,” she says with pride.

Like any crafter worth her Fiskars shears, Petrell’s work is inspired by her surroundings: bouquets of flowers, hill-and-valley vistas, a friend’s cat. She doesn’t sketch or photograph the scenery, though: “Mostly I base the designs on what types of zippers I have,” she explains. Translation: Given lots of blue zippers, she’ll make a landscape featuring water. (“Water’s tough—you need a lot of zippers,” she says, because they need to be glued very close together.) An image of a loon requires black zippers, which are as abundant in her collection as the bird is in Petrell’s native Midwest. “Everybody likes the loons in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” she says.

Much of her zipper art hangs in the homes of her family and friends. Petrell’s three daughters also sell the pieces at fairs and small galleries, and through her website ( “People can’t believe they’re made of zippers—they want to touch them,” says Janet. “We call them ‘eye candy for the fingers.’ ”

Recently, Petrell told me, a neighbor brought her a big stash of zippers in an old popcorn tin. “It was a marvelous surprise,” she says, sounding delighted. We can’t wait to see what she’ll make of them.

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter