How to Prevent Fabric Color Transfer, Bleeding, and Fading
What is a Mordant?
A mordant is a substance that is used to set dyes on fabrics.
Why Do Fabrics Bleed, Crock and Fade?
Firstly, let’s begin with the basic terminology.
Crocking is the color transfer that occurs when fabric rubs against something, such as furniture, shoes and skin. This happens when the dye has not properly adhered to the fabric. An example of this, that I’m sure we can all attest to, is jeans which I will discuss more in detail later in this article.
Color bleed occurs when the fabric gets wet and dye leaches out of the fibers. This commonly occurs in the washing machine and can result in color transfer between items in the load.
Color fading is when the fabric has lost much of its dye and therefore lacks vibrancy and depth of color.
There are a number of reasons for the dye to crock, bleed and fade. For example:
- Poor quality dye
- Incorrect dying technique
- 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 fixer or ‘mordant’ to bind the dye to the fabric.
- The mordant has washed out of the fabric due to prolonged hot washing and so is no longer holding the dye to the fibers.
- “Wear and tear” - friction between fabrics that can cause micro-breakages in the fibers and lead to the release of dye.
- Bleaching which can be caused by the fabrics exposure to bleaching products and/or heat and sun.
What is a Mordant?
A mordant is a substance that is used to set dyes on fabrics.
How to Prevent Fabric Color Bleeding, Crocking and Fading
A common myth circulating the internet is that washing the item in either vinegar or salt “sets” the dye and prevents it from running. Unfortunately this is not true. Although vinegar does help set some acid dyes, it only works during the dyeing process and not for cotton dyes. Similarly salt is used in the dying process to encourage the fiber to take the dye, but it will not stop the color from running or crocking after the garment has been dyed. If you tried it and it appeared to work then it's only because the additional washing itself has removed the last bits of the unattached dye. The only real ways to prevent color transferring and fading is to do the following:
- Sort clothes into like colors and be aware that it’s not just new clothes that run. Unfortunately the chemical fixers or mordant’s used to hold the dye to the fiber can wear off after repeated washing and cause color bleed. So always wash similar colors together to prevent color run, regardless of the age of the garment and how many times you may have washed it before.
- Many of us over wash our clothes for fear of been seen as dirty or smelly, but with delicate clothes you should be aiming to wash it as little as necessary. Before washing an item ask yourself, “Is it really dirty, and does it really need to be washed?” If it only has an odor, try airing it or using an odor eliminating product like Febreze. If it’s only dirty in a small area, then spot clean it.
Does Vinegar and Salt Prevent Colors from Crocking?
No, washing your clothes with vinegar and salt does not stop the fabric dye from crocking or bleeding.
Febreze will remove odors from your clothing, reducing the need to wash them which will preserve the color of your fabrics for longer.
- Wash with cool or cold water to prevent color run. Hot water tends to open up the fibers of the fabric which encourages the dye to escape and the colors to run. If you live in a very cold area, the water may get too cold during the winter so you may need to set the washer to “warm” 30ºC (86ºF). Make sure your using a detergent that is designed to perform in cold water.
- The friction that occurs between fabrics during a wash cycle can cause micro-breakages in the fibers and lead to the release of dye. This is one of the reasons why you see fading in fabrics over time. You can minimize this friction by washing heavy items, like jeans, in a load together. Also, fasten zippers and hooks and turn items inside out. This is particularly effective with jeans.
- For clothes that fade quickly like jeans, use a short wash cycle or a gentle cycle to help reduce friction and preserve your clothing’s color.
- Try using a color catcher product such as Shout Colour Catcher Sheets in your wash. The sheets are designed to absorb and trap loose dyes, but be aware that they are not completely fail safe. Washing with like colors is the only way to prevent the color bleeding onto other items.
- Don’t leave wet washing in a pile or sitting in the machine for too long as it gives the colors time to leech onto one another.
- Dry your clothes in the shade as the sun can act as a bleach, and try not to use the dryer.
- If your garment has heavily bled its colors and become discolored despite following the washing instructions, then you should consider returning the item for a refund.
- For faded clothes with plenty of wear left in them, try re-dying the item using the home dye kits that are available.
Simply by turning my clothes inside out during the washing and drying process and using cool water, there is a significant color difference between the inside and outside of my clothes. The inside becomes much more faded than the outside, which maintains its vibrancy much longer, greatly extending the life of my garments.
Color Bleeding, Crocking and Fading in Jeans
I’m sure we've all had those embarrassing and frustrating experiences when jeans have crocked blue onto our legs and hands. I've had many clothes and shoes ruined (even my favorite cream knee high ugg boots), not to mention the mortifying moment when I realized that I had dyed my friend’s expensive white couch blue.
The indigo dye used in blue jeans is applied using a purposely inferior dyeing practice called ring dyeing. This method only dyes the outer ring of the cotton fiber, leaving the inside core white so that after a small amount of wear and tear this top layer of dyed fiber wears off to expose the white undyed yarn. This enables us to “wear” in our jeans and achieve the perfect “worn” look. This method is also used in jeans that are sold as pre-washed or pre-worn because it’s easy to create an instant age effect using a little abrasion. The downside to all of this of course is that it makes the jeans crock and bleed.
The more recent fashion for non-fading jeans has not necessarily led to a change in the manufacturers dyeing practices and many dark jeans are poorly dyed. This is partly due to the fact that indigo is a difficult dye to work with, especially when dyeing cotton (it works better with wool and silk). This is because it needs repeated applications in multiple dye baths using the correct equipment, techniques and a good understanding of chemistry. Due to these complexities it is often done poorly. Ultimately, this means that unless it was dyed correctly, then some crocking and fading are bound to occur, no matter what you do.
Denim Fade Types
Tate-ochi or “vertical falling” is the forming of faded vertical lines. This occurs when the thread width is not uniform. The color fades most where the thread is the thickest and creates a white line along the vertical thread.
Atari is the term used to describe the fading that occurs on your jeans with age. But it doesn’t stop there, the fading that appears in each of the areas also has its own terminology:
- Thigh and crotch wear: Whiskers
- Ankle wear: Stacks
- Back of knees wear: Honeycombs
How to Prevent Jeans Color Bleeding, Crocking and Fading
If you have problems with crocking, then place the jeans in a very hot wash to remove the unattached particles of dye. Set the washing machines temperature setting to its highest (usually 90ºC or 194ºF). This won’t work in the worst cases and will only help if the dyeing was done reasonably well. Of course, this won’t help preserve the original dark color of the denim and may in fact accelerate its loss, so only try this for the first wash.
As far as your jeans go, I need to warn you that the fixatives discussed in this article may not work. Fixatives such as Retayne work well on many types of dye, but it does not work on the indigo used to dye most denim. Unlike Retayne, the websites of Raycafix and Dharma dye fixatives claim to help keep indigo darker longer. Despite the science suggesting otherwise, it may be worth a try.
The only way that fixatives can help is if your jeans have been dyed using direct dye, another kind of cotton dye. It can also work with fiber reactive dye that has not been properly fixed to the fabric. Unfortunately there is usually no way of knowing what kind of dye was used, but it doesn’t hurt to try. However, fixatives are more likely to help in cases where the denim has been dyed other colors such as a blue-black, black, green, or brown etc...
Retayne Color Fixative
Retayne Color Fizative is for commercially dyed cotton, linen and rayon fabrics that bleed. Simply use in the washing machine or treat by hand washing with hot water.
Unfortunately there is no way to retroactively make the indigo in jeans stay dark forever. The only way to prevent the indigo dye from fading is to apply it correctly in the first place. However, the color will stay darker longer if you always wash your jeans following the instructions as discussed above in “How to Prevent Fabric Color Bleeding, Crocking and Fading”. When the garment has lost too much color, you could also consider re-dying it. For dark jeans, you can achieve a dark blue color by using a mix of blue and black dye.
How to Remove Color Run and Bleeding From Fabrics
First of all, don't panic. There are a number of steps that can be taken before it’s relegated to the “can only wear around the house” pile. Be aware that dark clothing utilizes dark dyes that can be especially difficult to remove.
- Don’t toss it aside to deal with later because when it dries the dye “sets” making it very difficult to remove.
- Treat the item with powdered oxygen bleach like Seventh Generation Natural Oxy Stain Remover.
- Make a solution of ½ scoop of oxy bleach to 2 cups of warm water. You may need to make a greater quantity if you have a number of affected items.
- Spread this concentrated mix over the stained areas and allow it to penetrate for 5 minutes.
- While your items are soaking, dissolve two additional scoops of the oxy bleach powder into some warm water.
- Once dissolved, stir this mix into a bucket containing 4 liters (1 gallon) of cool water and place the items into the bucket to soak for one to five hours, depending on how heavily stained they are.
- This process may need to be repeated if not all traces of dye have been removed.
- You could also try using a product like Dylon Color Run Remover. However, these kinds of products don’t seem to get many positive reviews.
- If color bleed has not completely come out and the item is white, then try these other methods to whiten the fabric 10 Ways to Whiten and Brighten Your Laundry. If it is a colored item, then you may need to re-dye it to return it to a similar color.
What to look for when shopping
- Feel the clothes texture before purchasing. Do they feel kind of stiff and crunchy? This indicates that there may be excess dye left in the fabric that has not been properly removed. When purchasing these types of items, be aware that you will need to wash them several times to remove the excess dye and that this could leave it a lighter color.
- Read the label for warning words such as “Turn inside out to launder,” “Wash in cold water,” and “Color may fade”. These are signs that the manufacturer knows the dyes are unstable. This doesn’t just apply to dark fabrics, as these warnings can be on a range of fabrics and colors because it’s dependent on what kind of dye and dyeing process was used. This shouldn’t prevent you from buying the item, but at least you will know what to expect.
- Fabrics like polyester and jersey knits are usually more resistant to bleeding than more delicate materials. The fabrics least likely to run are those made of synthetics, because the color is added to the fibers while they are being created.
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© 2015 C L Mitchell