DIY: Rust Dye in 4 Easy Steps - Natural Dye with Sewing Seeds

I can't think of a DIY more heavy metal than rust dye unless it's studding your underwear.  I'll let you guess which of the two I'd prefer.

Recently, I had the opportunity to get schooled in rust dying by Sewing Seeds, under the Textile Arts Center umbrella.  Hosted at a local garden and involving old rusty bits, this is a workshop I couldn't turn down.  (Previous posts about TAC involved a green Fashion's Night Out and a mending circle.

As my DIY offering I decided to bring this white shirt -- which I'd bought from another blogger and promptly stained after one wear. 

Here is a step-by-step set of instructions for rust dying:

1.  Show up late to the garden and receive the last copies of the instructions.  Be confused about what's going on but note that other people are doing some tie-dye kind of thing with a rust bath already prepared.  Rubber-band your shirt, after you wet it, as per instructions you overheard from others.  Like so.

Rust dye

You can read the instructions on the larger version.

2.  Unceremoniously dump shirt in pre-made iron and tea bath after asking the instructor if you could do so.  The instructor has now been interrupted by the same kid at least a dozen times in the 5 minutes you've been there, so you pretend that's the reason you don't know what's going on.

3.  Wander around to watch other people.  Realize there are two different kinds of rust dying going on:  the pre-made iron tea baths that you've dumped your shirt in (resulting in a gray-black) and the more complex method of contact-dying (resulting in the brownish designs seen below):

Rust dye 
To the left, above:  two panels of nails 

Made by:  wetting the fabric with vinegar, rubbing with salt
and putting rusted objects in contact with it

Rust dye
To the right, above:  rusted chain

4.  Fast forward - shirt has been transported home in a plastic bag, rinsed and dried.  Since you used the iron tea baths primarily, you have a gray-black shirt (which is actually what you wanted).  Well done! 

Rust dye 

Wild Color, a book on natural dyes, was a recommended resource.  I'm interested to see it but I don't think I'd be interested in more than rust dyes.

We did some natural dying at previous TAC events (where I learned that in the past people used urine as a dye and had "piddle parties" to collect urine) but I wasn't crazy about some flower and vegetable dye baths there -- they didn't seem color-fast.

The rust & tea bath seems like a great natural dye option to me because it darkens quickly and seems to retain its color once rinsed, unlike the cabbage baths that looked so vibrant in the pot but didn't translate to the cotton we were dying quite as vibrantly.  It was like the difference between Tammy Faye Baker make-up and Ellen for Covergirl makeup.  Sometimes you just want the Tammy Faye because the "after" is notably different than the "before" picture.  (Maybe if the dye pots had some iron to them in addition to the cabbage, the color would have "stuck" more?)

Bonus for uncoordinated folks:  it's not like Rit dye that will accidentally and invariably dye my entire apartment if I attempt its use and come out in every wash ever after.

You can see the official TAC blog post about the workshop here.


  1. !!!
    I like it!

    I've never considered rust-as-dye before. I've tried beets and cabbage and onion skins and the like but all were too subtle for me (my mind has a hard time understanding the idea of "Subtle".) Wonder how the contact rust examples washed out/wore... in that state, they don't really look like anything that I would want touching my body for an extended period.

    1. The material was actually completely fine - they just look rough. J did 3 shirts primarily with the contact dye method (nails, steel wool) and they came out fine after a wash. I would prefer the tea/rust bath instead -- I just don't like that brown as much. Some of his browns turned a nice green (he let his shirts sit a few days), though, but it was primarily brown.

      Apparently iron can help bond other natural dyes so maybe beets AND iron would be good? I have the same issue you have - I expected all the natural dyes we used to be more vibrant. At least half as vibrant as what's in the pot!

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