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How To Rust Dye Fabrics

How To Rust Dye Fabrics

We are all familiar with rust, and usually find it a nuisance that we have to either get rid of or avoid. Did you know, however, that the natural property of rust to permanently colour an object makes it the perfect candidate for a unique design technique?

Rust dyeing is a process by which fabrics are coloured using objects that are prone to rusting. The best part of this process is that it yields unusual and fascinating patterns and designs, and is very easy to do. Join me as I unravel more details about this interesting art and tell you all about how to attempt it yourself.

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What is Rust Dyeing?

How To Rust Dye Fabrics

Iron is a metal that oxidizes when it comes in contact with air and moisture. When this happens, the surface becomes red or brown due to the formation of iron oxides. Fabric placed in contact with this rusty surface quickly absorbs the colour, and develops a permanent print that is almost impossible to remove. This is the principle behind rust dyeing. It’s used by designers such as Rio Wrenn (above) and Francessca Bea from ACFD Designs (below.)

The Process

Here are the steps in rust dyeing:

  1. First wet the fabric to be dyed and then place it in contact with rusty objects such as iron nails, steel wool and iron shavings. We’d recommend Offset Warehouse fabrics (naturally) in particular, as almost all have no coating.
  2. Then spray a mix of equal parts of vinegar and water on the fabric at regular intervals to keep it moist and speed up the process.
  3. Oxidation soon sets in, and the fabric is imprinted with the pattern of the rust that develops on the objects.
  4. The longer you leave the fabric in contact with the rust, the deeper the colour becomes. Allow the fabric to stay in contact with the rust until you are satisfied with the pattern and intensity of colour that it takes.
  5. Once you’ve achieved the colour you want, you can stop the rusting process by “neutralising” the fabric. This is done by soaking the finished fabric in a light saline (salty) solution. This will set the colour permanently.
  6. Once the textile is dry, the final step is to iron the finished fabric. It is now ready for use.

For more details on this process, you can have a look at the article on Rust-dyeing at Hobby Farms.

Different Ways Of Rust Dyeing


Elizabeth’s Quarters


There are different techniques of dyeing a fabric with rust. While the basic principle is leaving fabric in contact with a rusty surface, you can be as creative as you want with how to do this. Different objects yield different patterns and the longer you leave it to rust, the more intense the colour will be. Three techniques that work well are:

Pole Wrapping

Pole wrapping is where the fabric is wrapped around a rusty pole to create a zebra stripe effect. By scrunching the fabric as you wrap it around the pole, you can make a more complex pattern.

Bound Resisting

Bound resisting where various rusty objects are tied to the fabric using strings and left to rust. The pattern is visible when the knots are taken out.

For illustrations of both of the above techniques, check out this article taking us on a rust dyeing Adventure at the Textile Arts Center Blog.

Iron Fillings

Another technique that can be really effective is using iron fillings and a template. Something Offset Warehouse’s resident fabric whizz, Jaime, has experimented with in the past (just take a look at the top image and the one below!). This means you can create intentional patterns rather than leaving it to chance with found items. The template for the design below was laser cut from plastic.

The opportunities really are endless and you can truly make the technique your own.

How To Rust Dye Fabrics

Fabrics That Can Be Rust Dyed

Both natural and synthetic fabrics can be rust dyed, but natural fibres like cotton and silk are the best candidates for this design technique. Printed and dyed fabrics usually take the stain better, as they do not contain anti-stain coatings that prevent the colour from intensifying.

Pros and Cons of Rust Dyeing

Rust dyeing is one of the simplest dyeing techniques. All you need is fabric, water, vinegar and a few rusty items, and you’re ready to start. Rust dyeing works on both white and coloured fabrics. The designs are unpredictable, but fascinating and complex. With a little practice, you can perfect the technique and create more intricate patterns and designer works of art on fabric. The end product is environment-friendly and sustainable, as there are no harmful chemicals used in the process.

You should remember, however, that rust dyeing involves a corrosive process. If you leave the fabric to colour for too long, the rust can damage the material and cause holes. So, it is necessary to regularly check on the design as it develops colour and neutralise it as soon as it is ready. You may also find that it is difficult to sew dark rust-dyed fabric as it resists the needle – but buy some heavier weight needles and have a little experiment!

This brings us to the end of my discussion on the remarkable technique of rust-dyeing. Isn’t it surprising how a bunch of rusty items throws open a world of interesting designs? Try your hand at this easy but rewarding technique today, and send over the designs you can come up with.

If you like these articles, then please do sign up to our monthly newsletter, where I round up all the latest posts.  You can tweet the article using the tweet buttons throughout the article and below.

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