plant dyeing and rusting

These instructions outline the processes I use – there are many other methods, but these are the ones that work for me!walnut dyed silk 4 - rita summersFabrics:

  • plant dyeing – plain, light-coloured silk and wool (including cut-up recycled clothing and blankets)
  • rusting – any plain light-coloured fabric (I use remnants I find in the op shop, cut up pillowcases, curtaining, etc.)

Pans for plant dyeing (dedicate these for dyeing only):

  • old aluminium pans – the aluminium acts as a mordant which fixes the colour
  • chipped enamel pan – the chips in the enamel expose the iron, which will darken or even change the dye and act as a mordant
  • throw in some ironmongery into a stainless steel pan – these will also act as a mordant, as above
  • stainless steel pan (no mordant)

Heat sources for plant dyeing:

  • an electric hotplate works well
  • boil the water first in a kettle or an urn and then pour it into the pans, as it can take a long time to heat from cold on the hotplate
  • work outside to minimise fumes (the open air is a much healthier option than working in a confined space; use a mask also if needed)

Plant material:

  • eucalyptus leaves
  • eucalyptus bark
  • silver birch bark
  • rhubarb leaves and stalks
  • elderberries
  • onion skins
  • walnut shells
  • gum nuts
  • any other plant material you can find


  • old nails
  • rusty screws
  • old nuts and bolts
  • pieces of iron chain
  • old pieces of machinery
  • any other old bits of iron you can find

Preparing the fabrics for dyeing:

  • layer ironmongery in between layers of fabric; roll up tightly and wrap with string to hold the layers together
  • layer pieces of bark, leaves or stalks in between layers of fabric; roll up and wrap with string, as above
  • crumple up single pieces of fabric; leave loose or wrap with string
  • fold up one or more layer of fabrics and clamp between pieces of wood, then wrap with string to hold it all together
  • tie knots in the fabric around small bits of ironmongery, gum nuts, seeds or pebbles
  • stitch the fabric repeatedly and gather it up tightly, knotting well to hold(this is removed after the dyeing process)

Dyeing the fabrics:

  • protect yourself with old clothes and/or an apron; use rubber gloves
  • fill the pan with boiling water and chosen plant matter and/or ironmongery (leave enough room to add fabric without it overflowing)
  • when the solution is boiling, add prepared fabric; allow solution to come to boil again, then cover the pan and allow it to simmer for as long as you like – experiment! [note: use a stick to push the fabric under the water until it soaks up enough liquid to stay submerged]
  • turn off heat; leave fabric immersed in pan overnight or as long as you like
  • use rubber gloves when removing fabric and unwrapping/untying it, to prevent staining your hands and/or causing possible allergic reactions
  • after removing the plant matter or objects, rinse fabric well in cold running water, then squeeze gently to remove excess moisture
  • hang fabric out to dry, away from direct sunlight
  • iron fabric if desired (or leave the creases in – it’s up to you)

Containers for rusting paper and fabric:

  • 3 large plastic tubs, or kitty litter trays

Suggested paper and fabric for rusting:

  • blank art paper
  • blank printer paper (ink jet-printed sheets will smudge)
  • old sheet music
  • obsolete photocopies (do not use anything that breaches confidential information or privacy)
  • pages from old books (I like using old poetry books)
  • recycled brown paper wrapping
  • postal envelopes, opened out
  • postal packaging, opened out
  • corrugated cardboard from recycled packaging and boxes
  • non-glossy junk mail, flyers, etc.

Solutions for rusting (label each tub or tray):

  • tray 1 – 100 teabags (cheap brands work well), 4 litres of hot water (soak till solution is a good dark colour, then squeeze out and remove teabags)
  • tray 2 – 2 tbspns of caustic soda, stirred into 4 litres of cold water (use a stick for stirring)
  • tray 3 – 200 g of iron sulphate, stirred into 4 litres of cold water (use a stick, as above)

Ideas for rusting:

  • use rubber gloves and protective clothing, as for plant dyeing
  • slide sheets of paper into each tray in turn, draining well each time
  • only partially immerse paper when dipping it into one or more of the solutions and allow the liquid to dribble over remainder of paper
  • change the order of the solutions as you immerse the paper
  • prepare fabrics as for plant dyeing; allow to soak for a while in each solution
  • lay paper and fabric in the sun (either still bundled up or opened out) on a plastic sheet (e.g. large garbage bag); use small rocks to weigh them down if there is a breeze
  • watch the colours emerge!

Copyright Rita Summers 2013


For more examples, please visit my dye + stitch page …

13 thoughts on “plant dyeing and rusting

  1. Is rust dye effective on synthetic fabric? Someone just donated some polyester scarves to my facility and I thought it might be a good project to use with our children’s camp.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rusting is great fun with exciting results. Thanks for all your tips. My problem is how to stitch rusted fabric. Fibres bind together with the process making it difficult to push hand sewing needle or machine needle through.


    • Yes, it can be difficult! I once rusted some wadding, and the hand stitching caused bleeding fingers … it does help to wash the fabric in the washing machine after rusting, I’ve found. The colours are not affected in my experience, but I do use cold water and a liquid laundry soap designed for delicates. The fabric become softer and easier to stitch! =)


  3. Thanks for sharing all this info, plant based dying is on my list of things to explore but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. I’ve not tried rusting yet either, very inspiring!! I also wanted to tell you I appreciate your visits to my site and your lovely comments 🙂


  4. Can I use pig iron bars for the soaking solution for rust? I don’t want to use iron sulphate or caustic soda if possible. thanks


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