How to Set Dye and Stop Dye Bleeding in Clothes

Basket of blue laundry
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You just opened the washer and everything has blue streaks. Why?  When you tossed all your clothes in the washer together, those new blue jeans released dye and now your yellow t-shirt is green.

Can you ever stop the bleeding of dye from clothes? Learn what works and what doesn't.

How To Stop Dye Bleeding In Clothes

As I was growing up if my mother suspected that something was going to bleed, she always added salt to the water when hand washing clothes to "set the color".

I also heard about other housewives who added distilled white vinegar to the wash or rinse water. Unfortunately, neither will work reliably on clothes or fabrics that have already been commercially dyed. Don't waste your time or resources.

There is some science and history to the salt and vinegar stories. When you dye cotton yarn or fabrics, salt in the dye bath does help the dye absorb into the fibers instead of staying suspended in the water. For wool or nylon, vinegar does help the dye absorb into the fibers. But neither is a dye fixative for already dyed fabric or fibers.

So, what can be done? There are commercial dye fixatives that can be purchased for home use. Brand names include Retayne and Rit Dye Fixative. However, these are intended for use by artists and companies that dye fabrics and understand the type of dye they are using. These should be used when dyeing fabrics with a "store-bought" dye like Rit or when dyeing fabrics and fibers with natural dyes you have created from plants.

Dye fixatives are cationic, which means that they have a positive charge. The positive charge allows the fixative to cling to negatively charged dyes, such as the direct dyes and acid dyes. They cannot stick to basic dyes, which have a positive charge, and have no benefit for creating colorfastness for that type of dye.

Best Advice for that Blouse or Jeans or Socks that Fade?

  • Test any questionable garment before washing with other clothes.
  • Hand wash the items separately or in a load with similar colored clothing. I wash all blue jeans together and all red clothes together that can be washed at the same temperature.
  • Do not rely on detergents and color catcher cloths that claim to trap dye. They are not reliable and you may still end up with pink underwear.
  • Use cold water when washing - and always for rinsing - which will help the color last longer.
  • Sort your clothing carefully and correctly before loading the clothes washer.
  • Learn how to remove dye transfer from other clothes safely.

Why do some Fabrics Bleed Dye?

Not all fabrics behave well after they are manufactured and can lose dye in several ways. Some fabrics transfer color when they rub against another surface. This is called crocking and it occurs because the dye was not properly adhered to the fabric. If you have ever seen blue streaks on upholstery after wearing new blue jeans, you've witnessed crocking.

Color bleeding happens with the fabric gets wet and dye leaches out into the water. This is what has happens when a red sock invades your load of white underwear leaving them all pink.

Color fading is when the fabric loses dye due to bleeding, crocking. exposure to bleaching products or intense ultraviolet rays (sunlight).

All of this color loss can occur due to how the fabric was manufactured or incorrect handling by consumers. If the color loss is due to the following reasons, it is beyond your control:

  • Incorrect dying techniques during manufacturing and poor quality dye
  • Incorrect dye used for the type of fabric (not all dyes work on all kinds of fabrics)
  • An excess of unattached dye left in the product because the dye was not properly rinsed out during the dying process
  • The manufacturer has not used fixative or mordant to bind the dye to the fabric

However, there are some reasons that colors fade or bleed that you can control:

  • Excessive exposure to hot water during washing can cause the mordant to be washed out of the fabric. If the mordant is washed out, it will no longer hold the dye to the fibers.
  • Rough treatment of the fabric due to overcrowding the washer, using harsh detergents, washing in hard water can cause micro-breakages in the fibers and lead to the release of dye.
  • Overuse of bleaching products, too much exposure to the sun and excessive heat can cause fabrics to fade and release dye.
  • Before wearing jeans or any garment that you suspect might shed color due to crocking (test by rubbing briskly with a clean white cloth), wash separately to remove loose dyes.

Will the Bleeding Clothes Ever Stop Fading?

Maybe. Some clothes do stop releasing dye after several washes. But be careful; don't trust them completely. Higher water temperatures may cause the release of dye even after a few years. Never wash an unstable dyed garment with any clothes you care about.