How to rust fabric using tannin

I’ve been taking advantage of the warm spell we’ve been having in Ojai, and doing some fabric rusting. I’ve been in an experimental mood lately, and the rusting I’ve done has benefited from that. If you aren’t familiar with how to rust fabric, I recently posted a rust tutorial here.

This week’s rusty playtime involved an additional ingredient: tannin! I bought mine at a local wine making shop (you can imagine the face on the shopkeeper when I told him what I was using it for!). You can also purchase tannin at Rust-Tex, along with instructional DVD’s and other wonderful supplies. Tannin (the stuff I bought, anyway) looks like yeast granules, and it kind of smells like it, too.

Since I was playing (read: didn’t know what the heck I was doing), I tried out a few different variations in the way I added the tannin to the rust. First, I dampened some silk with vinegar and water, then sprinkled some dry tannin granules onto the damp fabric; the tannin stuck to the fabric. I scrunched the silk around a rusty pipe, shibori-ish style. Covered it with plastic, and went away to wreak havoc elsewhere. A few days later, I remembered the silk, and this is what I found:


In hindsight (after playing with more tannin) I find it interesting that there is no rust coloration on the scarf at all. Here, the tannin reacted with the rust on the pipe to color the silk, but the rust didn’t attach itself to the silk. I got cool (meaning both color warmth and groovy) ink blot splotches in a purple-y black, and lilac-y grey. More surface treatment will follow, but for now, a gal’s gotta continue to play with her tannin.

Next up in the great tannin playdate was another silk scarf. This time, I rusted the scarf solo, meaning without the tannin sprinkle. Once I was happy with the amount of rust attached to the scarf, I gave it a good rinse. Then, I added some tannin granules and some warm water into a small shoebox size plastic tub and dunked the scarf in.

Have you ever seen footage of a squid or octopus releasing its ink? That’s what this process reminded me of! As soon as that rusty fabric hit the water, the tannin water bloomed inky. The scarf looked like it was going to be really really black (purple-y black). But it rinsed out beautifully, leaving the areas right around the heavier rust application dark and the areas that had little to no rust, grey:


It looks like the rusted areas that actually still contain rust on the fabric act as a resist to the tannin stain, creating gorgeous texture-y color. The area that had a lighter wash of rust (if you have rusted fabric, you know what I mean) turned shades of dappled grey.

Finally, I wanted to better understand the tannin/rust technique. No, sillies, I didn’t actually research and read– geez. What I did was throw some more fabric into the rust bin. This time, it was a blush-y mauve (yuck) colored silk tank top. Once I had it rusted nicely, I gave it a quick rinse– the type of cleaning my grandmother called “a lick and a promise”. Don’t lick the rust, though. Please be a rational adult and run it under the tap.

Then, I went out to the fabric warehouse (my studio) and grabbed a piece of rusted fabric that had been washed thoroughly (oooh– this is one of DS2’s spelling words this week!) and dried. I made a scientific mixture of tannin water (5 cups of warm water filled the shoebox tub halfway, plus 1/2 Tbl of tannin granules). Dunked both tank top and fabric into the mix– bloom boom! OH! and, good little artsy scientist that I am, I also dunked a piece of plain fabric in, as a control.

The colored silk tank mixed beautifully with the tannin’s purple-y black. Scientific finding #1: tannin “dye” is transparent, like MX dye.


The previously rusted, thoroughly washed fabric also reacted nicely with the tannin. Scientific finding #2: rusted fabric still contains metal, and will continue to react with tannin. I’m thinking that this also means that the rust will continue to oxidize.

before tannin bath:rust-grid-before-tannin

after tannin bath:rust-tannin-grid-cotton

I realize that there is a difference in the light between the two photos, so you’ll have to trust me on the color difference. However, the grey of the tannin on this cotton was not as striking as the grey on the scarf or the tank. It would be too scientific of me to test the differences of tannin “take up” between silk and cotton, the different color according to the age of the rusted fabric, and whether there is a point of exhaustion for the tannin strike. My attention span is not that great!

The plain piece of muslin stained a slight shade of grey. Scientific finding #3 is not so scientific, it’s more theory. I think that the muslin stained because of the rust particles in the water bath which detached from the tank top and rusted fabric. The particles present in the tannin water bath allowed the muslin to react. I theorize, but don’t really care enough to experiment further, that dunking fabric with no rust presence will result in nada.

Overall, it was a fun experiment. I love the colorations, and I find it gratifying to use such environment friendly products. I will continue to use the tannin as long as I have it, but I think that overdyeing the rusty fabrics with MX dyes produces the same result as the tannin, but in a myriad of colors.



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4 responses to “How to rust fabric using tannin

  1. Joan

    You do such a good job of explaining things Susan. Your experiment is very interesting. I really like to rust too. It think that it really adds a nice addition to something that is dyed. Thanks for sharing your fun with us.

  2. Love that first one, very dramatic.

  3. Pingback: Updates in slow motion « Unravelling Argyle

  4. l have rusted some fabrics, with real fun results. However l do not seem to be able to get my thread from the sewing machine through it. Somehow it seems to affect the cloth in such a way that the thread breaks, even invisible. Any tips? l have even sprinkled some talc powder on it, thinking it would smooth things out a bit.

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