How To: Rust Dye Fabric

 In Textiles & Embroidery, Tutorials

Rust dyeing is a technique that I always wanted to learn but never managed to make time to experiment with. I finally went for it in July this year and fell super in love with the results! So, as promised, here is a little how-to guide (FINALLY) for you to try rust dyeing for yourself!

The approach I took to my rust dyeing experiment is adapted from different tutorials that I found online. Most, if not all, require you to use vinegar to transfer the rust from your metal objects onto your fabric. I tried the vinegar technique for myself and found that it wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, so I tried something a little different. We know that metal + water + oxygen = rust, and adding salt to that mix accelerates the rusting process. So my magical rust dyeing solution is plain old salty water.

You’ll need:
  • Fabric to dye (I used some vintage lacy-edged fabric)
  • Rusty items (not everything needs to already be rusty- cheap sewing pins, office pins and staples can all be used new and will rust on the fabric when in contact with the salt water)
  • A bucket
  • Salt (any kind is fine, you don’t need to use fancy sea salt)
  • Water
  • A plastic tray, or plastic bags

(I realised that in my other tutorials I didn’t include materials lists- I’m so sorry!)

Rust dyeing rusty nails
Rust dyeing rusty nails
Rust dyeing pins

FIRST…

You’ll need to attach or place your metal objects in the position you want them on your fabric. For example, you could scatter pins across the fabric to create an organic arrangement, or pierce nails through the fabric for a more specific pattern (this is what I did). If you’re just placing rather than attaching your metal things then you need to do this on your plastic tray, where your fabric and metal will stay the entire time during the rust dyeing process. If you’re attaching your metal objects then you don’t need to worry about a tray as you’ll be able to move your fabric around safely. Hint: Staples are super fun to use and you can easily just staple them onto your fabric.

Rust dyeing nails Day 1
Rust dyeing pins Day 1
Rust dyeing nails Day 4

THEN…

You’ll need to get your metal objects + fabric combo wet and salty!

If your fabric is on a tray: sprinkle a fair amount of salt (don’t be shy!) all over your fabric, especially over the metal bits. Then spray it all over with warm water to dissolve the salt and saturate the fabric completely.

If your fabric doesn’t need to be on a tray: pop your fabric in a bucket, sprinkle salt all over the fabric and then pour warm water in with this mix. Swirl your fabric around inside the bucket until the salt has dissolved and the fabric is saturated. Remove your fabric and lay it out somewhere safe (outside, obviously, because it’s soaked, or on a tray type thing if you have to work inside).

Rust dyeing pins Day 7
Rust dyeing rusty nails
Rust dyeing with nails complete

KEEP IT WET AND SALTY…

The results of the rust dyeing will start to show very quickly. By the end of the first day you’ll already see rusty stains from nails and pins; staples start rusting within a few hours of being soaked with the salty water. Keep your fabric damp with salty water to keep the rusting process going. I dunked and sprayed my fabric a few times each day. Placing your fabric inside a plastic bag can help speed up the process and keep everything damp for longer, just make sure the bag stays open to let air in. I lightly “crumpled” my fabric inside a bag to let the water pool in areas and create interesting fluid stains!

Rust dyeing with pins complete

JUST KEEP WAITING & CHECKING…

You can keep your fabric dyeing for as long as you want, really. Remember to keep your fabric nice and damp the entire time. I was happy with the intensity of my nails design after 6 days, and left the fabric with the pins to dye for 10 days.

AND WHEN YOU’RE HAPPY…

It’s time to set the dye! Remove all the rusty bits and pieces WEARING GLOVES (I’m fairly certain there is a tetanus risk). Give your fabric a very good rinse and leave it to dry. Then iron it on the highest setting your fabric can handle. After ironing, wash your fabric with a gentle detergent to remove any particles as well as the smell (!); leave it to dry once again and then give it a final iron. Your rust stains should be set and your fabric is ready to sew and embroider with!

I hope that this rust dyeing technique works as well for you as it did for me. It is honestly such a satisfying process. I love how you can watch the colour almost unfold before your eyes each day (although maybe it feels quick because embroidery is so time intensive??). You can easily have a whole bunch of different pieces dyeing at the same time, and then have them ready for when inspiration strikes. Please let me know if you try this out for yourself. If you do it would be awesome if you share your results on Instagram or Facebook and tag me, because I would love to see everyone’s experiments!

Rust dyeing rusty nails
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