How to Set Colors in Fabric

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Finding dye splotched across a whole load of laundry is one of the small but unpleasant surprises in life that we all encounter at one time or another! Bleeding dye in clothes is not a great mystery. You can learn how to set colors in fabric by checking out this handy guide!

The most popular home remedy to set colors in fabric is to soak the clothing in white vinegar and water before washing. Other popular dye fixatives include Palmolive soap, Epsom salts, and commercial products. Handwashing or carefully laundering clothes can also prevent color from bleeding out of clothes.

In this article, you will find out what makes clothes bleed dye. You will learn six simple ways to fix or alleviate the leaking dye. Finally, you will discover tips for how to stop dye leaving cotton and polyester fabric.

How to Set Colors in FabricHow to Set Colors in Fabric

Quick Navigation

What Makes Clothes Bleed Dye?How to Set Colors in Fabric: 6 Methods1. Washing Machine2. Hand Washing3. Vinegar4. Palmolive Dish Soap5. Epsom Salts6. Commercial Dye FixativeHow Do You Seal Colored Fabric?How to Stop Red Fabric From BleedingHow to Set Color In:Cotton FabricPolyester FabricJeansConclusion

What Makes Clothes Bleed Dye?

Clothes can bleed dye for many reasons, including moisture and friction in the washing machine, poor dyeing practices, and lack of a dye fixer in the fabric fibers. As you know, if you have ever accidentally turned an entire load of laundry pink when you added that one brand-new red t-shirt to the wash, color bleeding in clothing is a pretty common issue!

When clothes get wet, they often leak a small number of dye particles into the water. Ideally, this happens in such a microscopic amount that you cannot see the color in the water. Over time, many types of clothes will display color fading, meaning that the fabric has lost enough dye particles that no longer has a vibrant color.

Color bleeding, in contrast, occurs when a huge amount of dye washes out of the fabric into the water. This damages the garment losing its dye, of course, but it can also cause the dye to transfer onto other clothes in the wash, ruining those garments!

Unfortunately, most of the causes for color bleeding happen during the production of a garment, meaning that they are out of your control.

One of the biggest causes of color bleeding is overdyeing a garment or not rinsing the dye after the final dyeing during the manufacturing process. This creates clothes that look boldly colorful on the rack in a store. But when you take them home and wash them for the first time, the extra dye that could not absorb into the fabric will flood your washing machine!

Another common issue caused by cheap manufacturing procedures is that the factory may have chosen not to use a mordant or dye fixer. For some types of dye and some types of fabric, this mordant is necessary to help the color particles adhere to the fibers in the fabric. Without it, the color will essentially swim away into the water!

This is less common in mass-produced clothing, but handmade or home-dyed clothing can bleed dye if the wrong type of dye is used on the wrong type of fabric. Animal-based fabric such as wool and silk requires a different kind of dye from plant-based fabrics like cotton. Plus, synthetic fabrics like polyester also need their own unique kind of dye!

This matters quite a bit as you figure out how to fix color in your clothing because you will need to use different procedures based on the type of fabric in your garments as well.

Finally, you can also get color bleed in clothing if the mordant or dye fixer has washed out of the garment over time, especially if you repeatedly wash your clothes in hot water. Prolonged exposure to friction can eventually break down the fabric and let the dye leak out.

You can deal with color bleed in your clothes in two different ways. First, you can use one of the “how to set the color in your clothes” methods in the next section to fix the problem. Second, you can deal with color bleed by drycleaning or handwashing the problem garments.

How to Set Colors in Fabric: 6 Methods

Setting Colors in FabricSetting Colors in Fabric

You can set colors in the fabric to prevent color bleeding in your clothes using methods like a vinegar bath, an Epsom salt soak, or a commercial dye fixative. You can also bypass the problem of color bleed by choosing to handwash your problem garments separately instead of putting them in the laundry with other clothing.

Before you begin, keep in mind that other methods described here will work best on specific kinds of fabrics and certain types of dyes. If you dye your own clothes, you can prevent color bleeding from the get-go by making sure you match the right dye to the right fabric!

Plus, using better-quality dyes such as fiber-reactive dyes instead of cheap all-purpose dyes will help you avoid color bleed. This is even true for tie-dye kits. Try to find a kit that uses fiber-reactive dyes if you want your tie-dye t-shirts to remain bright and colorful in the long term!

1. Washing Machine

You can use several techniques to set colors in fabric or prevent color bleeding from the fabric in your washing machine. These methods give you the quickest and easiest way to handle clothes that bleed color!

First and most importantly, set your machine to a cold water cycle! Hot water can cause the dye to bleed out of fabric much more rapidly than cold water. It can also wear away the mordant that helps hold dye particles to the fibers in the fabric.Secondly, the best way to “set” many items, such as new blue jeans, is to wash them two or three times in a cold water cycle. This will safely remove any oversaturation of dye particles, allowing you to wash that garment with other items in the future.Always turn your clothes inside out before washing them. This helps them avoid fading, as the outer surface of the garment will avoid the friction of rubbing against other garments in the basin of the machine.Go old-school and wash your clothes separately by color. For example, put all the white clothes in one load, all the red and pink clothes in another load, and so on. This does take longer, but it removes any possibility that your red clothes could dye all the white t-shirts and towels pink!When you buy a new garment, do a quick color test to find out if it is colorfast or not. To do this, dip a corner of the garment into warm water and then set it on a white paper towel for five minutes. Check the paper to see if any color has bled onto it!Finally, try not to stuff too much into the washer at one time. Overcrowded washing machine basins cause extra friction on all the garments, breaking down those essential dye fixers and cause more garments to lose color.

You may wonder if you can toss a cup of vinegar into the washing machine to set the colors in all the clothes at once. This does not work, as you will find out in the “vinegar” section later in this article! That said, adding half a cup of vinegar to every load of laundry will help your colorful clothes remain bright. It just won’t set the dye particles into most modern fabrics.

2. Hand Washing

Hand washing problem garments separately from the rest of your clothes takes a little time, but it is the most reliable way to treat colorful clothes that bleed.

Hand washing is the most gentle way to clean your clothes, as it removes all the friction of the rotating washing machine basin from the equation. This gentle method does not actually “fix” the issue of the color bleed in the garment, but it lets you avoid it by removing all the factors that make the dye particles escape the fabric.

To handwash your clothes:

Start by examining the clothing for any dirt or stains. If you find any, you should pretreat these areas with a gentle stain remover before washing.Next, turn the garment inside out. This matters most for delicate clothing, though it is also a good idea with printed tees or anything else that could fade over time.Fill a bucket two-thirds full of cool water. If it’s easier, you could also put a stopper in your kitchen sink and fill the sink halfway full of water. But make sure you clean the sink first if you go that route!Measure in about 1 teaspoon of a gentle laundry detergent for each gallon of water you used. Swish the water with your hand to make sure the soap dissolves.Lower the garment into the water. As an important note, make sure you only wash and soak one garment at a time to avoid any color transfer from one item to another!Gently swirl the garment through the water to make sure it has absorbed the water and detergent. Then let it soak for twenty to thirty minutes.Dump out the soapy water, or let it run down the drain. Hold the wet, soapy garment under the tap and let cool water rinse the soap away. Do not wring out or press the garment, as this could damage it!Once it does not feel soapy, turn off the water and roll up the wet garment inside a clean bath towel to absorb most of the water.Finally, hang it up to air dry.

3. Vinegar

VinegarVinegarVinegar is the most popular home remedy to set colors in fabric. But does vinegar keep colors from fading? Well, yes and no.

The claim that soaking a garment in vinegar will set the color is kind of an old wives’ tale. It does not work on many modern types of clothing, especially clothes made out of synthetic fabric like polyester.

That said, vinegar can help keep many kinds of clothes looking bright and clean in the wash, as it removes a build-up of dirt and old laundry detergent from the fabric. It does an especially good job with items like fluffy back towels that may get matted over time!

But it does not set every kind of dye into every kind of fabric. It is a popular DIY mordant, or dye fixer, during the dyeing process for use with acid-based and all-purpose dyes.

This means that vinegar will likely set colors in wool or silk fabric. It may also work on fabrics dyed with an all-purpose dye. But it will not work on most cotton or synthetic clothes, as these materials typically feature fiber-reactive or disperse dyes.

Does vinegar set tie-dye? Vinegar will help tie-dye remain more permanent if you use an all-purpose dye for the tie-dye pattern. You do not need to use a vinegar soak on your tie-dye if you use fiber-reactive dyes, though.

It does not hurt to try this popular homemade colorfast technique, though, as the vinegar will at least brighten up your colorful clothes!

Start by filling a bucket half full of cold water. Add one cup of distilled white vinegar and ¼ cup of table salt. Stir to dissolve.Submerge the garment in the water. It probably goes without saying, but you only want to try this with one garment at a time!Let the garment soak for 24 hours, or at least overnight.Dump out the water and rinse the garment under cool running water.Fill the bucket half full of cold water again, and place the wet garment back into it.Let it sit for half an hour.Finally, check the water by dipping a white paper towel into the bucket. If the paper comes out dyed the same color as the garment, this process did not work! But if it looks clean, you have successfully set the dye into the fabric.Make sure you allow the garment to air dry after pressing out most of the water by rolling it up in a bath towel.

4. Palmolive Dish Soap

Palmolive Original Dishwashing Liquid, 1 GalPalmolive Original Dishwashing Liquid, 1 Gal

One great way to set the color in fabric, especially boldly dyed quilting cotton, is to soak it in water infused with Palmolive dish soap. This will gently wash away the excess dye particles without fading the beautiful printed design you like in the material!

Fill a bucket or sink basin two-thirds full with cool water.Add about 2 tablespoons of Palmolive dish soap. (You can probably try this with off-brand dish soap or Dawn dish soap as well, though the gentle ingredients in Palmolive’s original green variety work especially well).Lower the fabric into the sudsy water and give it a good swishing around.Let the fabric soak for half an hour, but come back to swish it through the water once every ten minutes.Let the water drain away and rinse the fabric under cool running water.Air-dry the fabric overnight.Test the colorfastness of the fabric by dampening a piece of white paper towel and rubbing it on an inconspicuous edge of the cloth for a moment. If no dye transfers to the paper, you succeeded! If you do see faint color smearing the paper, repeat the Palmolive soak two or three more times.

5. Epsom Salts

Sky Organics Epsom Salt for Body to Soak, Soothe & Refresh, 5 lbs.Sky Organics Epsom Salt for Body to Soak, Soothe & Refresh, 5 lbs.

Another popular way to set the color in the fabric is to soak a garment in a solution of vinegar and Epsom salts. Epsom salts contain something called magnesium sulfate, which is a mineral made out of magnesium, oxygen, and sulfur. Plus, this product will not damage your clothes, as Epsom salts often form an essential ingredient in many commercial laundry softeners.

You can typically locate Epsom salts in the cleaning products aisle of a grocery store or in the bathing and toiletries aisle of a big box or drugstore.

Fill a bucket of water with two quarts of cold water.Measure in half a cup of distilled white vinegar and one tablespoon of Epsom salts.Stir to dissolve all the ingredients.Lower the garment into this solution and let it soak for two hours.Rinse the garment under cool running water, then roll it up in a clean towel to gently remove some of the water.Finally, launder the garment as usual in your washing machine.

Does this work? Again, yes and no. It will work on some items better than others.

Like most DIY home remedies designed fifty years ago, this method does not work on newer dyes like the disperse dyes used in synthetic fabrics today. However, it may work well on wool or cotton.

6. Commercial Dye Fixative

Commercial dye fixatives and color-catchers can also help set colors in fabric.

G&K Craft Color Fixative, Original VersionG&K Craft Color Fixative, Original Version

Retayne is one of the best-known commercial products for setting colors in fabric. This product works especially well as a prewash treatment for quilting fabrics before you cut and sew them together.

Heat a pot of water to 140℉, and then pour it into a large bucket that can comfortably hold the fabric or garment and the water. (you do not want to simply use the pot, as you should never put food in a container after using it for Retayne!).Measure in one teaspoon of Retayne for every yard of fabric.Add the fabric to the water, using a long-handled spoon to avoid putting your hands into the hot mixture.Stir the fabric through the solution for twenty minutes.Rinse the fabric under cool running water, then put it in the dryer.Always wash the fabric or garments in cold water in your washing machine following this treatment.

You can also try a Synthrapol treatment. Synthrapol is one of the ingredients sometimes used in soaps, but it is also commonly used during the dyeing process to help set certain types of dye into fabrics. It can suspend particles of dye, holding them away from the fabric and preventing excess color from sticking to the material.

Heat a large pot of water to 140℉, and then pour it into a plastic bucket.Measure in one teaspoon of Synthrapol for every gallon of hot water.Add the fabric or garment to the hot water bath.Stir slowly through the water and fabric for ten minutes.Finally, rinse out the Synthrapol solution under cold running water.

How Do You Seal Colored Fabric?

The best way to seal colored fabric or keep clothes from coloring is to wash them in cold water. All modern laundry detergents will work just fine in cold water, and you will save money on electricity because you won’t have to run your water heater!

Hot water causes the fibers in many types of fabric to expand or relax. This, in turn, allows the tiny dye particles embedded inside those fibers to break free. This is one of the main reasons for color bleeding in clothing.

How to Stop Red Fabric From Bleeding

The best way to stop red fabric from bleeding is to wash red garments or items separately or to try the Palmolive method described earlier in this article.

Red fabric does tend to bleed more prolifically than most other colors. This is because many commercial garments get oversaturated to make the reds pop and look vibrant in the store.

For red wool or silk items, you may find the vinegar method your best bet.For cotton or quilting fabric, try using Retayne or Synthrapol.For synthetic fabrics, you can try the Palmolive method, but you may find that your best bet is simply to set aside the red items and wash them on their own.

Also, it is always a good idea to handwash a brand-new red item when you first bring it home. If the water in your basin turns pink the moment the cloth touches the water, you know you have a bleeder on your hands! This way, you can avoid dyeing a whole batch of laundry pink.

How to Set Color In:

Now that you know the basics of how to set colors in fabric check out these tips for the best way to prevent color bleeding in cotton, polyester, and jeans!

Cotton Fabric

The best way to set the color in cotton fabric is to use a commercial color fixer such as Retayne or the Palmolive method described earlier in this article.

If you dyed your own cotton using an all-purpose dye, you can also use the vinegar or Epsom salt method effectively to set the color. But please note that most commercially dyed cotton will not respond as well to these techniques because mass-produced cotton clothes usually contain modern dyes that will not set in a vinegar soak.

Polyester Fabric

Unfortunately, there is no perfect way to set colors in polyester fabric, but the good news is that you do not often need to worry about this! Polyester goes through a heat-activated dye process using boiling water and a special synthetic dye called disperse dyes. During this process, the dye particles chemically bond with the plastic fibers inside the polyester.

This makes it unlikely that most polyester fabric will bleed dye because the original dyeing process sets the colors in the fabric well.

The bad news is that because of the synthetic nature of the dye, polyester does not react to most common treatments such as soaking or vinegar or even soaking in Retayne.

In cases where a manufacturer intentionally cut corners or oversaturated a polyester garment, you could still see color bleeding. In these instances, your best bet is simply to wash the garment separately.

Jeans

The best way to set colors in jeans is to wash them three times on their own using a cold water cycle in your washing machine.

You can use vinegar, Palmolive, or commercial color-fixer methods, as these will not hurt cotton fabric like denim. But you don’t need to! You just need to wash the brand-new jeans a few times to let the excess dye float away. After that, your jeans should remain color-fast.

As a pro tip, make sure you turn your jeans inside out when you wash them after this initial treatment. Avoid putting them in a crowded washing machine; always use cold water!

Conclusion

You can set colors in fabric using common home remedies like soaking vinegar or Epsom salt, commercial dye fixers like Retayne, or washing clothes separately in cold water. The simplest way to set colors in some clothes like jeans is to wash the garments separately in a cold water cycle several times after buying them. Another great way to handle difficult items that bleed dye is to handwash them, which does not create friction on the fabric and allows the dye to stay inside the fabric fibers.

There is no perfect recipe you can use to set colors in every type of fabric. For cotton, using Palmolive dish soap or commercial dye fixers often works best. For wool, vinegar may work best; for synthetic, washing separately or by hand offers the best solution.