Unusual Eco Design Technique: Rust Dyeing

Unusual Eco Design Technique: Rust Dyeing

Charlie Bradley Ross Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Striving towards being an eco designer can often leave you flummoxed as to how to ethically apply a design onto your fabric. Once you start learning more about the different techniques it's often a case of which is the 'least bad' rather than 'most eco friendly'. Which is never a good decision to be making...

Dyeing creates water pollution as well as lots of waste, as does screen-printing. Digital printing needs a special coating, it can be costly and depending on the ink, can be equally bad for the environment. Some of the mordants with natural dyes are actually more harmful than chemical dyes - decided the way forward can be a real headache!

This means that eco designers have to be even more savvy and create ingenious techniques that are kind to the environment and just as importantly, beautiful and appealing to customers!


Today, we explore the age old technique of rust dyeing. Yep, that's right - you can dye with all those rusty old nails you were about to throw out, and what's more you get some spectacular effects. We also talk to the founder of ACFD Designs, Francessca Bea who creates beautifully delicate rust dyed scarves.

Exploring rust dyeing #eco #dyeing #technique

What is Rust Dyeing?

Iron is a metal that oxidizes when it comes into contact with air and moisture. When this happens, the surface becomes red or brown due to the formation of iron oxides. Fabric placed in contact with this rusty surface quickly absorbs the colour, and develops a permanent print that is almost impossible to remove.

Who Uses It?


This natural dyeing technique has been favored by many famous designers. Hussein Chalayan, two-times winner of the British Designer of the Year Award, used rust-dyeing in his graduate collection, "The Tangent Flows" in 1993.  The garments he showcased were heavily rusted because of the extreme oxidation process of being buried for months together. This stunning collection was bought in its entirety by the luxury brand Browns. That's some successful rust!

Rio wrenn

Regina Benson, Alice Fox, Cecilia Heffer and Rio Wrenn are other designers who use this technique. The article “Rust Dyeing: Corrosion to Creation” by Wendy Feldberg gives a detailed account of the work of these artists.

ACFD Designs

Francessca Bea is an incredible designer and has been on my radar since her time at Chelsea College of Art, when she incorporated some of our Offset Warehouse ethical fabrics within her work. Now founder of ACFD Designs, I caught up with Francessca to get her inside knowledge on what it's like working with rust.

How did you discover rust dyeing and what made you focus on it?


I had spent a lot of time trying to determine what my inspiration was and to try and identify a colour palette that was personal to me and my designs. Initially, I did this by photography, I honed in on the unnoticed aspects of London which left me with a colour palette consisting of earthy tones and natural hues. I then wanted to mimic the colour and decided to experiment with natural dyeing.

Natural dyeing was perfect as I was able to create the muted tones found in the photography such as cream, lavender and orange. Once I had decided that I was going to use natural dyeing, I wanted to create a print that wasn’t contrived and was more organic. So I began looking at various printing methods online and came across rust dyeing that had been successfully done on paper with beautiful results and decided to give it a go. Thankfully the results turned out beautifully and I spent the next few months perfecting rust dyeing and experimenting on different fabrics.

Do you use lots of different rusty object to dye with or do you have your set few you know work now?

I tend to use anything I can get my hands on, from rusty fabrics strips to screws. I find that different objects imprint the fabric differently, so along with the print left by the rust there are also various indents left across the fabric which only adds to the uniqueness of the print.

Your designs look really delicate, something you don't often get with rust dyeing, was that hard to achieve?


It was quite hard to achieve actually, I spent ages experimenting with various fabrics and different dyeing methods, to find a process that worked with the silk. I wanted it to almost look like the silk had been hand painted.

Do you always tell people they are rust dyed? Is that one of your selling points?


Often I tend to focus much more on the fabric used and explain that the silk is 100% natural and how important choosing an ethical fabric was for me and then the process that goes into making one scarf. I think its important to explain the handmade element that goes into making each one and the lengthy process involved from the natural dyeing to hand rolling the hems.

It’s probably here that I will go on to explain how the print placement is achieved using rust. I think its important to get across how much time and effort goes into creating a luxury handmade product. (Fran uses Offset Warehouse Peace Silk for her scarves!)

Are there any drawbacks to the technique and how do you overcome them?

One of the limitations of using rusted metals is that by repeatedly using it as a dye method the rust can often become over-dyed. Instead of achieving the striking rust orange colour a darker grey print is achieved, however, sometimes this is preferred depending on what kind of result I am looking for.

Do you have plans to develop the technique further?

Francessca Image 1

Yes definitely. I want to start experimenting with other ways to achieve the print placement, for example techniques such as shibori and maybe tie-dyeing for different results. I think I have only scratched the surface of what can be achieved by using the rust technique.

ACFD Designs is a sustainable fashion and textiles company specialising in handmade silk scarves and prints. Each lovingly made in Britain using an arduous natural rust dyeing method these luxurious pieces are impossible to create identically meaning every piece is completely unique and individual.

ACFD Designs is grounded in principals of high quality design, home grown British craftsmanship and a global responsibility from the fabric sourced to the natural dyeing process. Find Fran and her scarves on Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest to follow her journey!


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I love your scarves @ACFDdesigns #eco #technique

Iron is a metal that oxidizes when it comes in contact with air and moisture. #rust #eco #design