Friday, August 5, 2016

the slow burn of rust

"you know, rust is just oxidation.
the same chemical process as fire.  
oxygen interacts with steel,
electrons drift from one
element to the other.
so really, rust is a slow fire.
isn't that weird?
water causes something
to burn."
-leah raeder

i was doing a little rust-dyeing last night before the sun got away and while i was neutralizing the fragments, a thought kept crossing my mind like an anxious kitten. there is a strange idea circulating around the web about rust-dyeing that just makes no sense to me. i don't know if it is simply a misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own (which is quite common on the internet) or something else altogether.  it has to do with the process of neutralizing the rust process. i have seen it stated, and repeated incessantly, that to do this one must soak the rust-dyed cloth in a salt water bath.

it seems strange to me that one would attempt to "neutralize" the rusting process with the very solution that causes the rust in the first place.  true, most people (myself included) use vinegar in the mix, as well.  but you can use simply water. water and salt. water and vinegar. water, salt and vinegar. or any number of other combinations as well.  so why would anyone think that salt water would neutralize the rusting process when salt water is used to foster it? oh, that's right....because somewhere, someone said on their blog/tutorial/article that was what we are supposed to do. it must be the way to do it.  it was on the internet...or in a book...or...or some highly admired mucky-muck said so!

hmmm...was that a bit curmudgeonly of me?  ah well, i'm getting old and take liberties from time to time.

now to be helpful.  the (ahem) "proper" way to neutralize your rust-dyed cloth is to soak it in a bath of baking soda and water. yep! this is the only way to do it.  you read it right here on my blog. here on the internet. in black and white and rusty orange. it must be true!  ring the church bells and shout it from the highest hilltops!  ha!

seriously, though.  baking soda and water is the way to go to actually neutralize the oxidizing process that is rust.  it also neutralizes the vinegar, making it a win win!

for those of you unsure of the entire rust-dyeing process, here it is (as i employ it, at any rate):

1.  gather rusty objects such as steel and iron in the form of springs, nails, metal plate, steel wool, cans, rods, hinges, architectural bits, etc.

2. soak cloth (i use primarily cotton, however, silk, wool, rayon, and even synthetics will work) in solution of water, vinegar and/or salt. (i use a 50/50 water/vinegar solution...but feel free to experiment. there are as many variations as there are rust dyers.)

3. arrange/wrap/press/fold/etc. cloth on/around rusty object. be sure to do this on plastic sheeting or in a plastic box/bucket/etc. to protect your surfaces. unless, of course, you want to rust-dye your surfaces.

4. loosely cover in plastic sheeting to slow evaporation (also insulates). be careful not to wrap too tightly as the oxidation process requires air to breath.

5. allow to sit until desired level of rust-dyeing has occurred (this is completely subjective! it could be in as little as a couple hours, or as many as several days. generally, however, 2 to 48hours is a good rule of thumb, for those of you who truly must have a number.)

6.  hand wash with dish detergent (this rids the cloth of the vinegar smell, the salt, and any dirt that may have joined the party). i suggest you do this in a bucket or other vessel outside as you most likely will not wish to introduce rust to your household plumbing. if you are dyeing dark tones, use a stiff brush, like a fingernail brush, to scrub the cloth to get rid of built up metal particles.

7.  soak in a solution of baking soda and water (approximately 1 cup to every gallon of water....which means, if you are doing only a small amount of cloth, then a couple tablespoons to a large bowl of water).

8.  rinse thoroughly in clear water and allow to dry. press, if desired.

a note of caution when rust-dyeing: rust can do all kinds of nasty things to your hemoglobin, not to mention that any cuts or scratches can become infected, so it is highly recommended that you make sure your tetanus shots are current and that you wear rubber gloves when handling rusty bits to be on the safe side!

most of all, enjoy yourself and find wonder in whatever it is you do!



  1. So I'm wondering ... do you find that rusted cloth treated with baking soda is any easier to stitch? I must confess that my love affair with rust was short-lived once I put needle to cloth.

    1. unfortunately, liz, the baking soda only neutralizes the oxidation process. it has no affect on the hand of the cloth. rust-dyeing is actually bonding metal to the cloth so it does make the cloth a little more difficult to needle. the darker the color, the more metal bonded to the cloth, the more difficult to needle. i have never had any difficulty hand-stitching rust dyed cloth myself except on the darkest of dyed fragments, in which case, like with any medium, i simply modify my process to fit the medium.

  2. That's one of my pet peeves too--how can my car rust --and continue rusting--after salt has hit it?????? I've found the best thing is to throw it in the washing machine with the hottest water, some textile soap and the baking soda and wash all the loose bits and smell out of it.
    I avoid heavy rusting now, just letting things "percolate" only so long, so there are still void spaces.

    1. void spaces allow the eye to rest. brings harmony. this is a good thing!

  3. arlee! you must have a large washing machine ; D

  4. Nice informative post. I guess I have never rusted fabric enough to make it hard to stitch into, I'll have to try that. And then give it the soda treatment afterwards, of course. My neighbors dug up an old rusty metal culvert and I had to bring some fabric and vinegar and a plastic bag and wrap that vinegar soaked fabric around a rusty old jagged chunk of the culvert for a couple of days. Turned out very nicely. Not sure what the neighbors thought about it.

    1. my neighbors know i'm crazy as a loon, so they no longer even raise a brow when i do things like that! ha!

      there is a fine line between getting those darker, difficult to stitch colors and burning holes in the cloth. not that holes are a bad thing...

  5. Thank you very much for a detailed recipe for rust dyeing. I'm saving this post for further reference. xo

    1. you are most welcome! i've never understood artists who are selfish with creative information. it's all been done before and the information is out there for us to why not pass it along and see what wonderous uses others can come up with for it as well?!

  6. your blog is fabulous !! I am a new fan !!