From Old Metal to New Textile with Rust Fabric Dyeing

27 Feb 2013

When I returned to New England from QuiltCon in Austin, Texas, this week, I couldn't help but notice: it snowed again while I was gone. Yes, while I was in the climate-controlled comfort of the exhibit halls surrounded by colorful quilts--and quilters--Mother Nature had thrown another heavy blanket of snow over my region.

how to dye fabric with rust by Laurie Brooks
Rust-dyed fabric by Laurie Brooks.
But I'm a New Englander and a quilter, so I don't let the weather get me down. From a quilting and surface design standpoint, I know a few ways of turning negative weather into an opportunity to get creative. One, which is today's topic, is fabric dyeing with rust.

Rusting fabric is easy to do inside as it can be done in a small area, you don't need special equipment or  and, as dyeing project go, it's relatively safe. There are no powders or chemical dyes to mix; the main ingredients are water, vinegar, salt, and metal objects that will rust.

Laurie Brooks has a terrific tutorial for fabric dyeing with rust in our Surface Explorations interactive eMag, so I'm sharing it with you today.

How Dye Fabric with Rust
By Laurie Brooks

Materials

  • Metal tray
  • Spray bottle
  • Vinegar
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Solid, light-colored fabric
  • Steel wool
  • Pieces of old metal such as washers, springs, grates, and nails
  • Large sheets of plastic or a large plastic bag
  • Stack of books or other flat, heavy objects

Note: Be aware that most metal products now are made NOT to rust. I find the best place to look for objects is at scrap yards, machine shops, and flea markets. I've experimented rusting on different weights of linen and cotton. My favorite is 100% white cotton as it produces the richest colors. You may also want to try using silks. Whatever you choose, the fabric must be pre-washed and free of sizing or other fabric treatments.

how to dye fabric with rust art by laurie brooks
Fiber art made with rust-dyed fabric by Laurie Brooks.
Directions: 

1. Using a clean spray bottle, combine 1 part water with 1 part vinegar.

2. Lay the fabric on a metal tray, such as a cookie sheet or baking pan.

3. Spray the fabric thoroughly with the water and vinegar mixture.

4. Tear pieces of steel wool and scatter them on the fabric. Arrange the other metal objects in a random manner, leaving enough negative space to develop or embellish with other materials. Later you may want to be more deliberate with the placement of metal objects to create a particular design or pattern.

5. Spray across the top if the fabric and objects again with the water and vinegar mixture.

6. Slide the tray into a plastic bag, or wrap it securely in sheets of plastic and close up the ends.

7. Place books or other flat objects on top of the metal pieces to make certain they are pressed into the fabric.

8. Leave the wrapped fabric overnight in a warm place. It can be left for up to 24 hours, depending on the depth of color desired.

9. Unwrap the fabric and remove the metal objects. Neutralize the fabric by placing it into 4 gallons of water mixed with 1/4 cup salt. After neutralizing, the fabric can then be washed in soap and water.

Once you have washed and dried your fabric, you can consider how to use it in your fiber art. Laurie manipulates the fabric to create ridges and undulations.

You can learn more about fabric dyeing techniques and other surface design methods in Surface Explorations. And be sure to check out our other eMags for interactive fun with stitching, quilting, collage, art journaling, and more.



P.S. Have you tried dyeing fabric with rust? How did it come out? What tips would you like to pass on? Leave a comment below.


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Comments

julia e wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 6:36 AM

There is no dye (a soluble organic particle with fiber affinity. Dye chemically bonds with the molecules inside a fiber while rust colors by attaching a metallic salt to the outside of the fiber itself.  Most importantly rust significantly damages the fabric often in a very short amount of time since it continues to oxidize with the moisture in the air.  It looks pretty but will make your fabric fall apart.

on 28 Feb 2013 6:56 AM

Do you really mean 4 gallons of water - it seems an awful lot?

on 28 Feb 2013 7:09 AM

The only thing I own which rusts is my wok, so I wet it, leave it upside down for about 12 hours, wet it again, then place white cotton inside, pressing it carefully against the sides. Leave it for up to two days then remove. I get a beautiful, quite complex  circular pattern, which is a deep golden brown, and perfect for embellishing however you like.

on 28 Feb 2013 7:09 AM

The only thing I own which rusts is my wok, so I wet it, leave it upside down for about 12 hours, wet it again, then place white cotton inside, pressing it carefully against the sides. Leave it for up to two days then remove. I get a beautiful, quite complex  circular pattern, which is a deep golden brown, and perfect for embellishing however you like.

Melva1 wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 7:30 AM

I rusted a pair of white jean shorts.  Turned out great.

Melva1 wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 7:30 AM

I rusted a pair of white jean shorts.  Turned out great.

on 28 Feb 2013 7:34 AM

Start with items that are already quite rusty. My best sources are parking lots and roadsides, as well as forgotten metal items in barns and garages. I love the circles created by bottle caps, washers, and the bottoms of old tin cans.

Julia is correct in saying that your fabric will continue to rust and will eventually fall apart. However, I look at it this way: nothing in life is permanent. I like the idea of deliberately working with impermanence in my art.

PS: be cautious if you are going to start playing with metals. Please make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.

jannw wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 7:36 AM

I was especially interested in your comment to try silk.  Wouldn't this cause the old "shattered silk" syndrome that made the fabric fall apart due to the metals in the older dyes?

This doesn't seem to be  technique to be used for anything that people would want to last.  

EllenF@3 wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 7:39 AM

I inadvertently "dyed" some clothes by hanging them on a rusty clothesline at a beach rental house. I was not happy, and the rust stains never come out.

arlee wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 9:04 AM

While beautiful a result, and my favourite technique, the fabric definitely is weakened, as Julia E said. It's not for archival or heirloom items. It's harder to get a needle through (i use pliers on occasion to pull it through!) and some machines will cluck as they go through heavier areas. That all being said, it's one of the main fabric changers i love using over and over.

on 28 Feb 2013 9:24 AM

I regularly teach my textile art´s students dyeing with rust, and I have discovered, that the metal objects become more and more yeilding of their colour the more I dye with them. I only use vinegar and just roll up the metal objects in the fabric, wich has been emerged in vinegar beforehand. And then we just let the fabric rolls lie on a plastic covered table over night. It´s just amazing to se how a snow white fabric becomes a golden-brown fabric with the most intriguing dark brown patterns scattered all over! / Ingrid in Sweden

Melva1 wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 10:05 AM

i rusted a pair of white jean shorts and they turned out great!  Funky!

Melva1 wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 10:05 AM

i rusted a pair of white jean shorts and they turned out great!  Funky!

quilteagle wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 10:21 AM

I love rust dyeing fabric.  I have used white cotton and some neon bright colors and toned down the brightness with rust dyeing.  One particular piece I dyed had an image of a woman with long hair wearing a long dress.  It looked like she was dancing and has been named the dancing queen!  I did a fabric embellishment exchange using that piece of fabric and the other 3 people added swirls and circles in gold and purple.  I have not yet used the piece in a project, but ideas are swirling for an embellished art quilt.

on 28 Feb 2013 2:21 PM

I have seen rust dying in several magazines over the years and I simply can't imagine why anyone would want to do it!!  It is ugly and it looks just like what it is---rusty old rags.

Everything doesn't have to be beautiful, but it has to have some redeeming feature and I can't find on in rust dying.  It is ridiculous looking.  The emperor has no clothes!!!

on 28 Feb 2013 7:46 PM

Does the rust ever stop rusting and will it eventually eat the fabric?

tessvowels wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 9:00 PM

Thanks for sharing this technique! May come in handy some day!!! Some beautiful shades... :)

Veena Sennik wrote
on 28 Feb 2013 11:33 PM

Great idea! Might come handy one day! But thinking about in the long run the fabric might fray and fall apart.

on 7 Aug 2013 6:34 PM

I view rust as more interesting than pretty. I believe it brings the dimension of time into a visual piece.  Rust reminds me of the colors of autumn, and it reminds me of the steady changes that happen around us and in us. The archival-ness is of no interest to me  of my own work, and since I'm not in the market to be a collector, I'm not interested in how the usage of rust changes its value.  What fascinates me is the ability to manipulate marks on cloth in a way that gives me the intimacy of ownership of those marks and yet the surprise of what the iron produces on its own.

on 7 Aug 2013 6:34 PM

I view rust as more interesting than pretty. I believe it brings the dimension of time into a visual piece.  Rust reminds me of the colors of autumn, and it reminds me of the steady changes that happen around us and in us. The archival-ness is of no interest to me  of my own work, and since I'm not in the market to be a collector, I'm not interested in how the usage of rust changes its value.  What fascinates me is the ability to manipulate marks on cloth in a way that gives me the intimacy of ownership of those marks and yet the surprise of what the iron produces on its own.

on 14 Aug 2013 8:26 AM

I have done some rust dyeing. My "rust garden" is outside and I let the elements do their thing. The process takes longer and is less controlled. I've tried laying the rusting pieces on the top of the fabric but it seems to work better when I lay the fabric over the pieces and let the weight of the snow and rain push it down. I have also wrapped fabric around one piece and soaked it for a few days. That technique produces the most "rust printing". The unwrapping is the best part!