How to Prevent Fabric Color Transfer, Bleeding, and Fading
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.
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.
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.
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 salt and it appeared to work, 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:
- Treat your fabrics with a color fixative. I use Retayne or Rit Dye Fixative as they reduce color bleeding in fabrics where the dye has not been properly fixed or washed out. These dye fixatives can "fix" these loose dyes and prevent further color bleeding in your fabrics. They are particularly popular with quilters in order to reduce bleeding between the patches of fabric. However, be aware that they are not very effective on polyester and acrylic materials.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- I use Shout Color Catcher Sheets in my wash as they 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 color transfer.
- Don’t leave wet clothes in a pile or sitting in the machine for too long as this gives the colors time to leach out.
- Since the sun can act as a bleach, dry your clothes in the shade and try not to use the dryer.
- If your garment has bled heavily 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 using the home dye kits that are available.
Simply by turning my clothes inside out during both 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 core white, so after a small amount of wear and tear, this top layer of dyed fiber wears off to expose the white inside. 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.
A recent desire for unfaded jeans has not necessarily led to a change in the manufacturers' dyeing processes 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
Earlier in this article, I warned against washing fabrics in hot water, as this can accelerate fading. However, for new jeans, 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 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 on 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.
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 your jeans have lost too much color, you could also consider re-dying them using Rit's Denim Blue dye. For darker, blue/black coloured jeans, you can achieve a similar color by mixing Rit's Denim Blue dye with their standard black dye. These dyes tend to work best with cotton jeans.
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 the item is 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 color safe oxygen bleach (don't mistake this for chlorine bleach).
- 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 a bucket with a little warm water.
- 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.
- This process may need to be repeated if not all traces of dye have been removed.
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
I bought some dark blue cotton cloth north of Vietnam a while ago. I am pretty sure that it is indigo. It colored some clothes in contact with my suitcase. How can I fix the material so that I can use it as a bedspread or wall hanging? I would be grateful for specific advice on the product to use and times of soaking and washing.
Colour fixatives like Retayne, which I mention in my article, actually work best on cotton, so it is definitely worth trying on your dark blue cotton cloth.
I have new bath towels that are mostly white with a dark blue band at each end. How can I prevent the blue from bleeding into the white?
If the colour runs, then this would indicate poorly dyed towels, so you really need to decide whether you want to keep them or not. If you really want them, and don't mind spending additional money on them, then you can treat them with a colour fixative like retayne.
I bought a scarlet wool coat, and after the worst snowstorm, I had to take it to the dry cleaners due to it picking up salt and road dirt from the car. The cleaners said they specialized in wool products. After they washed it, though, I’ve been having trouble with crocking; everything it touches turns red. I’m having trouble finding a dye fixative that lists wool as one of the fabrics it helps, especially for an already commercially produced product. Do you have any suggestions?
Did you take it back to the dry cleaners to discuss the issue with them? I'm not sure what chemicals they used and whether they could have destabilized the dye. However, the problem may not have been caused by the dry cleaning at all, likely the poor dying of the material. Only specialized dyes work well on wool fabrics, and they tend to cost more, so sometimes a poorer quality dye is used by manufacturers.
Unfortunately, color fixatives don't help much with crocking, only with color run/bleeding.
My maroon dress pants (63% polyester, 33% viscose, 4% elastane), which were washed about 2-3x without issue, have either faded or received bleach damage from leftover remnants in my washing machine. It’s hard to tell if it’s due to fading or bleach, but on various parts of the pants, the maroon color is a shade or two lighter and splotchy. My questions are: how do I know if it’s bleach or fade, and can anything be done to restore them?
It's hard for me to know without seeing them, but that fact that it is splotchy would suggest bleach caused it. You won't be able to restore the color, so your only option is to re-dye them.
© 2015 C L Mitchell