Go on an Adventure! Dyeing with Found Rusty Objects

As a summer baby, I’ve found the weather these past few weeks has been oh so delicious. Summer was really quite a long time coming this year, but alas! The time has come to go on adventures; as many as possible and as fun as possible. And why not also have a goal to achieve during your adventure, like collecting materials for natural dyeing!

Dyeing fabric with rust is a wonderful natural dye process, in that the iron oxide (rust) acts as a coloring agent to your fabric, as well as a mordant (the part that holds the color to your fabric forever!)

My bud Mike came over last week to fix up my bike before we headed out to scan the streets for rusty metal. The ultimate excursion partner, this vagabond recently landed back in NYC from Africa and has nothing better to do than drift along on bikes, roofs and tents. Why not collect metal from the streets of Bushwick? (Advisory: Check that your tetanus shots are up-to-date!)

First, take a nice walk around and collect your materials:

rust pickup pickupgrill

The random things you find on your fire escape…

collectedmetalmaterialsCollected metal


Spray bottle with 50/50 vinegar/water

Rubber bands

Natural soap

Test sheets of unbleached cotton (~1ft x 3ft), you can rust dye other fabrics as well (just experiment!)

Second, Prepare the Rusting Lab: I did all my rusting outside so powerful heat of the summer sun could assist in the dyeing process.

greenbag tiedon

This is an instance where I find plastic bags really useful. Having a large plastic surface under the swatches helps keep that vinegar solution from dripping below.

fire escape setup

Third, Combine your metal objects and fabric in creative ways:

devilseyeThis arrangement of objects on top of this large plastic jug have been unmoved since I moved in to this apartment. The rust and randomness was too good to not test out.


The most important thing is that your fabric is in contact with the rust, but even when they aren’t tightly combined, interesting patterns can occur.

nail-wrapping roof-wrapping

This is a rusty pipe I found on my roof. The fabric was just wrapped around randomly at this joint.


This is twisted and then wrapped and tied randomly to the “floor” of my fire escape.

Fourth, Spray objects when dry, with Vinegar/Water mixture for anywhere between 1 – 4 days… or more if you dare!


Experiment! I found that really rusty nails darken the fabric quickly, and my fire escape (which is partially brown paint) took much longer. This was also due to the way I bound my fabric and metal together. One layer, tightly bound to metal, will darken the quickest and deepest.

Once the color looks dark enough to your taste, you can detach your fabric from the metal you placed it with and dunk it in salt water. The salt water stops the iron oxidation (rusting) process.


After you stop the rusting process with the salt, you just need to wash your dyed fabric with some soap! I used Dr. Bronner’s Lavender, a bowl, water and my hands.

The best part comes next, when you iron your fabric. The patterns are the most beautiful at this stage!

The culmination of my experiments led to this picnic/beach sheet. I enjoy how naturally dyed fabrics aesthetically mirror the outdoor environment:


About Lynn Hunter

Lynn Hunter has been working in textiles and instructing at the Textile Arts Center since she returned to NYC after a long stint exploring Europe & Asia in 2013. Outside of TAC, Lynn splits her time between creatively directing at Heirloom, an antique rug company and exploring her erotic rope project Tight Rope.

Leave a Reply