Sometimes you just want the look of a vintage houseware or clothing item, but you either can’t find the real thing – or you can’t afford it. If you are starting with a white fabric/lace piece, tea is an inexpensive way to add instant age to fibers. Antiquing with tea couldn’t be easier. Practically all you need is a container filled with good, strong black tea.
You do also need a mordant.This is a substance (typically an inorganic oxide) that "fixes" (makes more permanent) the tea stain to the cloth. One readily available and easy to use mordant as alum (I found mine in the import spice aisle of a local Hispanic grocery store). Alum looks a little like overgrown rock salt, and it is just as easy as rock salt to dissolve into boiling water.
You can weigh the fibers/fabric you plan to antique, and add ¼ that weight of alum to a pot full of water large enough to hold all of the lace/fabric/fibers you are planning to antique. Add (optional) cream of tarter measuring 1/3 of the amount of the alum. Stir until the alum is completely dissolved, add your fibers, return to a boil and boil for 2 hours, then allow to sit overnight.
Remove the cloth from the alum bath and let drip. At this point you can let them dry or transfer them directly to the container containing the tea. Allow it to sit in this container for about half an hour. To help the antiquing set, try adding dipping it into a little vinegar after the tea bath. Remember that the fiber/fabric will dry lighter than it looks when wet, so let it get a little darker than you think you want. Rinse the fibers immediately upon removing them from the tea bath. If the items are still too light, repeat the entire dying process. Remember this will only get cloth so dark.
Use tongs or wear gloves while handling items in the tea bath in order to prevent staining your hands. Natural fibers (such as cotton or wool) are best for this process, as all fibers react differently to the tea dye bath and synthetic fibers generally react poorly. If your fabric floats, keep pushing parts of it down into the dye. The more you move the piece, the more uniform the final color will be.
You can either hang your items to let them dry, or place them in clothes dryer to "heat set" the antiquing.
If you rumple fabric a little before you antique it, you can get little variations in the color, making the antiqued look more natural. You can also very gently rub a sheet of fine sandpaper over the fabric to create worn spots for an even more authentic look. (You can also do this with damp coffee grounds, but this tends to darken the worn area, so is only appropriate for some effects. To make this as dark as possible, allow the fabric to dry with the coffee grounds still in place.) Distressing can be especially useful if you are creating a photo backdrop, a costume, or a display showing off historical items. It is also a great way to create shabby chic home décor items.
Keep in mind that tea is considered semi-permanent, and garments treated with tea should be laundered carefully. Avoid most modern detergents, which have bleaching agents designed to eliminate stains - such as those caused by tea. It is best to hand wash gently with a mild soap. If you can avoid laundering tea-antiqued housewares, do.
The plus side of this is that you can bleach the items to remove the tea staining with a pretty high success rate If you don't like the antiqued look. However, both the bleaching process and the antiquing process can be rough on fabrics/fibers and should not be used on real antiques. Tea antiquing tends to degrade fabrics over time (most sources say within 30 to 40 years, although I haven't had one of my tea-antiqued items long enough to test this out).
People do also use tea antiquing techniques on paper and woodcarvings, though I have not experimented with this. You can also experiment with other teas - including herbal ones - to get different colors. Green tea will give the finished product green undertones instead of the rich tans of black tea.
You can get a real sense of accomplishment from the tea dying process, as well as wind up with items that are unique and beautiful. I hope you give it a try.