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How to Prevent Fabric Color Transfer, Bleeding, and Fading

Updated on January 09, 2017
How to Prevent Fabric Color Transfer, Bleeding, and Fading
How to Prevent Fabric Color Transfer, Bleeding, and Fading | Source

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, or 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 dye left in the product because the item 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 fabric's exposure to bleaching products, heat, and/or sun.

What Is a Mordant?

A mordant is a substance that is used to set dyes on fabrics.

Color bleed, run, and transfer occurs when the fabric gets wet and dye leaches out.
Color bleed, run, and transfer occurs when the fabric gets wet and dye leaches out.

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 has removed the last bits of the unattached dye. The only real ways to prevent color transferring and fading are the following:

  • Do loads of laundry that are the same color and be aware that it’s not just new clothes that run. The chemical fixers or mordants used to hold the dye to the fiber can wear off after repeated washing, 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 try to wash 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.

Don't leave your wash sitting in the machine too long, otherwise color transfer can occur.
Don't leave your wash sitting in the machine too long, otherwise color transfer can occur. | Source
  • Wash with cool or cold water. Hot water tends to open up the fibers of the fabric which encourages the dye to escape and 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 you are using a detergent that is designed to perform in cold water.
  • The friction that occurs 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 or a gentle cycle to help reduce friction.
  • Try using a color catcher product such as Shout color catcher sheets in your wash. The sheets are designed to absorb and trap loose dyes, but be aware that they are not completely failsafe. Washing with like colors is the only way to prevent color transfer.

Re-dyeing clothing is a great way to get more wear out of faded clothes.
Re-dyeing clothing is a great way to get more wear out of faded clothes. | Source
  • Don’t leave wet clothes in a pile or sitting in the machine for too long as this gives the colors time to leech out.
  • 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 and become discolored despite following the care 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 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. This process helps maintain vibrancy much longer, greatly extending the life of my garments.

Does Vinegar and Salt Prevent Colors From Crocking?

No. This is a myth. With certain fabrics it does help during the dying process itself, but not afterward, once the dye has supposedly set.

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 affects the outer ring of the cotton fiber, leaving the inside core white, so 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.

Tate-ochi or vertical falling: the forming of faded vertical lines.
Tate-ochi or vertical falling: the forming of faded vertical lines.

A recent desire for unfaded 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 for 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 your jeans were 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 that thread creates a white line.

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 part of the jeans has its own terminology:

  • Thigh and crotch wear: Whiskers
  • Ankle wear: Stacks
  • Back of knees wear: Honeycombs

How to Prevent Jeans From Bleeding, Crocking, and Fading

Place the jeans in a very hot wash to remove the unattached particles of dye. Set the washing machine's 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 do this for the first wash.

Can I Use a Fixative?

Fixatives may not work on denim. Products like Retayne work well on many types of dye, but not on the indigo used to dye most denim.

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. 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.

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.

Retayne Color Fixative

G&K Craft Industries Retayne 16 oz
G&K Craft Industries Retayne 16 oz

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. Note: This product does not work with indigo, so it won't prevent most jeans from fading.


Unfortunately there is no way to make the indigo in jeans stay dark forever. The only way to prevent the indigo 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. 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 the stained item 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.
  1. 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.
  2. Spread this concentrated mix over the stained areas and allow it to penetrate for 5 minutes.
  3. While your items are soaking, dissolve two additional scoops of the oxy bleach powder into a bucket with a little warm water.
  4. Once dissolved, stir in 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.
  5. This process may need to be repeated if not all traces of dye have been removed.

Use powdered oxygen bleach to soak garments affected by laundry color bleed.
Use powdered oxygen bleach to soak garments affected by laundry color bleed. | Source

What to Look for When Shopping

  • Feel the cloth's texture before purchasing. Does it feel kind of stiff and crunchy? This indicates that there may be excess dye left in the fabric. Be aware that you will need to wash this item 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—these warnings can appear on a range of fabrics and colors because it’s dependent on what type of dye 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.

Make an informed decision: Check the label for warning words about color fade.
Make an informed decision: Check the label for warning words about color fade. | Source


Crews, Patricia Cox. Effectiveness of Dye Setting Treatments on Cotton Fabrics Dyed with Direct, Reactive, and Vat Dyes. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 7(4) Summer 1989, 1-7.

© 2015 C L Mitchell


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    • Linda 3 months ago

      Hello, I am wondering if I can dye my blue jeans another colour? I am hoping to create a plum colour for a pair of denim jeans that are a medium blue. I wonder if I would need to find a pair of light coloured denim to do this with if it is possible. Thank you for your time if you have it.

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 3 months ago

      Hi Linda, sorry for my slow response, I've been on holiday. For best results you'll need to bleach the colour out of them first. Fill a bucket with hot water and about 4 cups of bleach (be careful of the bleach steam fumes and use gloves). Place your jeans in there for about 30minutes. Depending on how dark your jeans are to start with, you may need to dump the water and repeat this process. Then finally, give them a good wash before commencing the dying process.

    • Sarah Carlisle 3 months ago

      I have just finished making a quilt. I got s stain on it and tried removing it, and discovered the purple patch is bleeding on to the cream patch. Can I do anything to set the dye, before giving the quilt to my granddaughter?

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 3 months ago

      Try using Retayne colour fixative (product link in the article above). It's popular with quilters as it helps to prevent colour bleed between the fabrics.

    • Torr 2 months ago

      Found a grammar mistake. In the bullet point below the Febreze advertisement, it should be "you're" not "your".

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 2 months ago

      Thanks for that Torr.

    • C Midgley 2 months ago

      I have two pillows from Pier One and I need to clean them. The dry cleaner wouldn't do it because he said they would bleed. They are bright orange and pinks. I don't mind trying myself, I just don't want to ruin them. Any suggestions?

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 2 months ago

      What kind of material are they made from? Can you remove the covers and wash them separately? I would suggest that you wash them by hand in cold water and don't leave them soaking - only give then a very quick hand wash. You could also try the product I suggest above - Retayne. It's a colour fixative.

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 2 months ago

      C Midgley - I should also have added a warning about being careful during the drying process. When you take the pillow covers out of the tub after handwashing them, gently squeeze out excess water by hand and then place them onto some old clean white towels (that you don't mind if they get some colour transfer onto them). Place toweling either side of the pillow case and then roll it up like a swiss roll (so the material is pressed up against the towel, not against itself). Then squeeze out the water more - I usually stand on it! Then unroll them and lay them out flat on a dry old white towel to dry. Don't hang them on the line otherwise the colour may bleed down the pillow case. Hope this makes sense.

    • Talha Malik 2 months ago

      Hi. I have bought blue canvas shoes . they have blue fabric on them . its been 3 months and there colour has started to fade . they have become very light blue now and look bad because of that. please tell me how i can make them dark blue again

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 2 months ago

      If the sole is the same colour as the material, then you can just use normal clothing dye following the directions on the packet using a bucket. However, I'm going to guess that they are probably blue canvas uppers with a white rubber sole? If that's the case then your going to need to cover all of the non blue canvas parts of your shoes with painters tape to protect this area. Then buy a fabric spray paint (just google it) in the colour you want and spray them.

    • sharon 7 weeks ago

      I have just come back from India.while there i was told to soak the clothes in vinegar before washing them in cold water. But now i see posts online that says that doesn't work.

      I don't want to ruin the clothes before i even wear them. They are lovely tunics and pants, and shawls. some cotton some looser weave and very thin.

      stretchy legging type bottoms.

      thank you for your advice. Can't wait to wear my treasures.

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 7 weeks ago

      Yes, vinegar is not going to prevent the dye running, so not much point in doing this. Unnecessary soaking could cause a lot of dye to leach out of the fabrics which would be a shame as this could make them appear duller and I can imagine your Indian fabrics are beautifully vibrant.

    • J. Evans 7 weeks ago

      I bought my husband a bed back rest pillow in a material that looks sort of like dark brown leather but is actually polyester cloth. It is transferring some of the brown dye onto our cotton sheets! Is there a spray I could use to keep this transfer from happening?

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 7 weeks ago

      Unfortunately material can still have a lot of unattached particles of dye, causing crocking (colour transfer). Washing it in a hot wash (as long as the material can take it, check the label) will help remove these unattached dye particles. You could even try using the product I recommend in the article above - Retayne.

      Can you remove the pillow cover to wash it? If not, will the pillow fit in the washing machine? Alternatively you could try washing in the bath if you have one (try standing on it to help squeeze out the water).

    • donkeyhodey 2 weeks ago

      I don't agree with you about vinegar not setting the color in cotton such as cotton towels or in denim. I've been using that technique for decades and also have experimented with and without using it. The vinegar treated towels by far hold there color and brightness much better than the ones not treated with vinegar. I am wondering what scientific analysis did you use to back up your statements.

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 2 weeks ago

      Hi Donkeyhody,

      for example: Crews, Patricia Cox. Effectiveness of Dye Setting Treatments on Cotton Fabrics Dyed with Direct, Reactive, and Vat Dyes. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 7(4) Summer 1989, 1-7.

      There is other research which you can find by googling it.

      Also, if you speak to people who work in the textiles industry (which I have) who know about the chemistry involved in fabric dyes, they will also advise you that there is no scientific reason or evidence that vinegar sets dye. In fact in some dyes it can actually cause it to cause colour loss.

      Vinegar is a good fabric softener alternative though.

    • Brianna 13 days ago

      I have a really nice pillow that's purple with white branch designs on it and after a few weeks it turned pink and faded! I've tried washing it on cold but nothing happened. I'm worried my other brand new pillows will fade too. What can I do to prevent them from fading and maybe restore my other pillow to its original look?

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 13 days ago

      Hi Brianna,

      I sympathise with you as I've been there! Some fabrics have been poorly dyed and no matter how careful you are, they just leach colour.

      Unfortunately the only way to get the colour back on your faded pillow is to redye it, however, as you've said - it has white branch designs on it, so it wouldn't really work.

      For your other pillows, you could try using a colour fixative like Retayne which I mention in my article.

      Also something to consider - are the pillows sitting in direct sunlight? Not sure where you live, but if its somewhere with strong sun, then this can speed up the fading. I lived in Australia for many years and I had to be careful of this.

      You should also try to reduce washing them unless absolutely necessary and when doing so use cold water (which I noted you did try anyway) and keep the wash to a quick cycle. Don't leave them to soak.

    • Jeanne 11 days ago

      I purchased some "Tangerine" brand yoga pants and jackets (black and navy) at Sam's Club. They have leached color onto French shellac fingernails, light colored leather purse and beige underwear. Anything you can suggest or should I just return them all?

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 10 days ago

      Jeanne - how long have you had them for? Have you washed them yet? If not, give them a good wash in some cool water about 30C or 86F. If they are still running, you could try buying some colour fixative like Retayne which I mention in the above article. However, I've not found colour run to be such a big problem in gym gear, so I worry that if this does not help, there might be a problem with way that they have been dyed which is causing the dye to leach out.

    • Deejar 6 days ago

      I was about to buy some upholstery fabric to recover a comfortable chair & ottoman, but the store's site says fabric may crock. I had never heard of crocking before. Your information is very helpful, but I obviously can't wash 15 yards of fabric before using (and it's dry clean only), so I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about what to do. I can't believe a reputable store would sell upholstery fabric that is going to rub off on clothes. Thank you.

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 5 days ago

      Hi Deejar,

      Yes, you would expect good upholstery fabrics to crock very little. Look up the Association for Contract Textiles (ACT) Performance Guidelines which provides specifications of woven textiles. Their Wet & Dry Crocking guidelines (symbol looks like a silhouette of a painters palette) recommend dry crocking at a Grade 4 minimum and wet crocking at a Grade 3 minimum.

      There are good quality upholstery fabrics available that come with a rating of 4-5 for both dry and wet crocking /rubbing. So before purchasing your material, ask the supplier about the ACT performance of the material.

    • Deejar 4 days ago

      Thank you.

    • Tammy 2 days ago

      My daughter purchased a black jacket (polyester/spandex) and has had several pieces of clothing ruined because the black is fading on not only her clothing underneath but it has also ended up on her skin. She absolutely loves this jacket, but decided to stay away from it as it has ruined several pieces. Looks like she should have just thrown it away because the last time she wore it, she folded it and put it in her dresser (after laundering of course :) and when cleaning out her dresser the other day, she realized that once again it ruined yet another "good" shirt.. simply from sitting on top of the shirt.. any solutions other than to throw it away?

    • C L Mitchell profile image

      C L Mitchell 2 days ago

      Hi Tammy,

      That black jacket sounds like it has been poorly dyed. It sounds like you've already washed it several times already, but have you tried washing it in really hot water? This will ensure that any excess dye is removed. If you have already tried this and it didn't work, then there is likely to have been a problem with the dying process.

      Unfortunately dye fixatives don't tend to work very well on polyester.

      You could try soaking it in hot water to get as much of the old dye out and then re-dying it. But you would need to ensure you used dye specially designed for polyesters (google it).

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