Stopping color bleed

Take a look at this writeup by Paula Burch:

FAQ: Is there any way to “set” dye in purchased clothing or fabric?

Paula Burch is a hobbyist dyer that also happens to be a scientist with a PhD. I’ve found her website, along with the Dharma Trading Information Center, the most useful for learning more about dyeing. I came across the website a while ago when searching for more information on dyeing nylon/spandex blends, such as powernet. (Her answer confirmed my instincts: it is a balance between keeping the dye bath hot enough for the acid dye to actually work and remembering that spandex does not like excessive heat.)

I see many, many people recommend vinegar for stopping color bleed. Ever since I started dyeing fabrics myself I really started to question this. Dyes typically used for cotton and other cellulose (plant-based) fibers use soda ash as part of the process. When you add the soda ash to the dye bath it raises the ph, which encourages the dye to chemically  bond to the fabric. So using vinegar, which makes the water it is added to more acidic, doesn’t make sense.

Now acid dyes, typically used to dye silks and wool (along with nylon), do use vinegar and citric acid as part of the dye process. However, acid dyes require heat in addition to vinegar in order to create the chemical reaction that fixes the dye. After adding the vinegar/citric acid (which is done at around 120°F) the dye bath needs to be slowly heated to 185ºF (85°C) for silk. I’m still there stirring the fabric in the dye bath, keeping at that 185°F temperature, for at least another half hour after adding the vinegar or citric acid. It really isn’t a matter of adding some vinegar when you throw it in the washing machine.

Here’s another catch with acid dyes: the leveling class dyes (which is what most of the Dharma Trading acid dyes are) are known for dyeing very evenly. But that same characteristic means that the dye bonds are easily broken, especially when washed in water over 105°F/40°C. (Source: How Acid Dye Works.)  That’s why most manufacturers and fabric retailers recommend dry cleaning silk. It is less about protecting the fabric and more about preserving the dye job.

I hand wash my silks but I always use cool water, and I accept that there’s going to be a certain amount of color bleed. Blues seem to be the worst – I read somewhere this is due to the blue dye molecules being slightly larger in size. I do add white vinegar to the rinse, but this is to help balance the ph of my slightly alkaline water rather than to set the dye. Silk and wool prefer a slightly more acidic environment, so adding the vinegar helps lower the ph and remove mineral build-up from my hard water. The result is a softer, more lustrous fabric. (I use a diluted vinegar rinse for my hair at least once a week for the same reason.)

In case if you’re wondering about using salt to fix dyes, that doesn’t work either.

The one thing that probably will help is using Retayne. (I use the Dharma Dye Fixative, which is probably the same thing.) This treatment is almost like glue in that it creates a physical rather than chemical bond of the excess dye to the fabric. I found it extremely helpful when I dyed some silk using Sapphire Blue, which is a leveling dye with a poor washfastness rating. If you do use Retayne or Dharma Dye Fixative, make sure you always wash the fabric in cool water after treatment. If you wash it with hot water it will just remove the Retayne.

16 thoughts on “Stopping color bleed

    1. For bra findings I like to put them in one of those little tea infuser balls. Much easier than fishing them out of the dye bath! I found that tip in the book Sewing Lingerie that Fits.


  1. Reds are another color family that is notorious for bleeding. I’m always wary of a very rich red color because it often fades to a dull hue. (It’s not a bad color, but if it’s not the one I want…)

    There’s a yahoogroup called DyeHappy (I was part of it a long time ago) that is a wonderful resource for all your synthetic dye questions. Could get lost for days in the archives. Most participants are dyers of wool (yarn, fiber, rug hook strips, etc), but it’s a treasure trove of info.


    1. Yes, reds, blues, and purples are the worst for color bleed.

      I like the Dharma and Paula Burch websites the most because they give the most scientific background of why something works. The same with cooking – I like Fine Cooking because they go into more depth about why certain ingredients and techniques have the effect they do rather than just blindly recommending something. If only I was interested in dyeing and cooking when I was taking chemistry classes…it would have made it so much more interesting and useful!


  2. Wow, fantastic post! I have a silk shirt that has bled really unevenly in the wash. I knew I should have been hand washing, but since the fit wasn’t great anyway, I haven’t been very careful with it. I do have retayne, so I’ll see if I can stop it getting any worse. Thanks for the info!


    1. I always handwash my silks because I favor blues, purples, and pinks, and those are the worst colors for color bleed. Even though I’ve started using the Dharma fixative I still don’t trust them enough to put them in the machine with other fabrics!


  3. Hi, my name is Sarah and I work at Appleanniefabrics where we all have been following you. I also do a lot of fabric dying. I take classes at a place in Fall River, MA called Pro chemical and dye or Prochem for short At the end of the dying process, the fabric is soaked in cold water and then washed in synthropol (a gentle soap) until the color stops bleeding. Prochem has great over the phone technical support as well as great products. I make both clothes and “art quilts” ( a title I am not very fond of) with my dyed fabrics. I really like your site and following your adventures.


    1. Hi Sarah! I’ve heard of Pro-Chem, but I haven’t ordered from them yet. From a complete beginner point of view I found their website not as informative or user-friendly, and Dharma has many more fabrics available. The blue washfast acid dyes from Pro-Chem are next on my list though! I had no idea they offered classes.

      I followed a similar process as you did when the last time I dyed silk, only I treated it with the Dharma dye fixative before washing everything out because as I mentioned I do not dry clean and wanted the dye to have a little extra help. I still get a little color bleed every time I wash it, especially if I use water that approaches the key 105F temperature, but it is more like a slight tint rather than completely changing the color of the water. For the Fiber Reactive Procion dyes it says to rinse in very hot water with the synthrapol. I followed their instructions and the fabric ended up vibrantly colored and the water clear after the first few rinses. It makes me wonder if the dye process isn’t another thing some RTW and fabric manufacturers decided to cut corners on!


  4. Great post, thank you for this information and the links! I’ve been looking around for a while to try to find out how to prevent natural indigo dyes (shibori dyes) in linen and silk from bleeding, and I couldn’t find anything that sounded like it would work – vinegar and salt definitely didn’t sound promising. I will have to look into that Retayne product – I haven’t seen it around but it sounds like it should be available through my local quilting shop. Those quilters always seem to have all the coolest sewing stuff!


    1. Yes, there’s a good chance you can find it there. I heard quilters love it! I don’t know how well it would work for indigo, which is kind of an oddball as far as dyes go. Definitely do a search on the pburch website.


    1. Paula Burch is the only one I’ve seen that’s backed up her position from a scientific standpoint. I suspect some of the claims that salt or vinegar stopped color bleed (especially color bleed on cotton fabrics) were actually a result of a good rinse rather than the salt or vinegar doing anything. If it was possible to set the acid dyes for silks and wools with just some vinegar and no heat there would be no need for me to cook it on the stove 🙂

      Natural dyes are in their own class. In general synthetic dyes are easier and safer to work with, and they usually don’t require mordents. A lot of the natural dyes use pretty toxic mordents (alum, chromium, tannic acid) in order to prepare the fabric for dyeing, and the mordents stay in the fabric forever. (I think the fabric is boiled with the mordents prior to adding the dye.) So not so nice for either you or the environment. I have not experimented with them, nor will I ever, for that reason. Tea and indigo are pretty safe but there’s better synthetic options now.


  5. Thanks for posting about dyeing fabrics. I’ve procured the necessary supplies for my first attempt and it’s all very interesting. I got ivory silk jersey from Banksville for under $20/yard 🙂


    1. I recommend picking up some ph test strips, if you haven’t done so already, and getting a baseline on your water. Depending on the acidity/alkalinity of your water you may need to add more (or less) vinegar/citric acid than what is recommended. Dharma has a nice chart in their How Acid Dyes Work article which gives the ideal ph for each type of dye. The levelling dyes require a lower ph than the milling and premetallized dyes. Also be prepared to be a bit open minded about color…the acid dye color chart on Dharma’s website is for wool, and silk sometimes dyes very differently!

      Banksville is such a gem. I wish they had online ordering…


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