How to Set Dye

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While the vast majority of fabric items on the retail market are colorfast, it's still possible to get tripped up by an piece that isn't. Dye from a new towel, for example, might tint white items in the same laundry load. Another example is dye from new blue jeans rubbing off onto your skin or light-colored furniture. When this happens, you may be able to reduce the dye bleeding from the culprit item with a simple soaking solution.

Tip

  • Always follow the label instructions for fabric care. If you've followed the instructions and the dye still bleeds, consider returning it to the manufacturer with an explanation, and requesting a replacement item.

Setting Dye in Purchased Items

Things You'll Need

  • Large bowl or bucket
  • Table salt
  • White vinegar
  • Measuring cup
  • Mixing spoon

Step 1

Fill the bowl or bucket with enough water to cover the item. For every gallon of water used, add 1/4 cup of salt and 1 cup of vinegar. Stir to mix the solution.

Step 2

Add the fabric item to the water, pushing it down so that it is completely saturated with the solution. Allow the item to soak for 24 hours. Some of the excess dye may appear in the water, but that won't affect the results.

Step 3

Remove the item from the soaking water and rinse it thoroughly in clean water. Check to see if any dye is released into the rinse water. If so, repeat the salt-and-vinegar soak for another 24 hours; then rinse again.

Step 4

Hang the item to air dry. Make sure it is completely dry before wearing or laundering it.

Warning

  • Salt-and-vinegar soaks may reduce dye bleed without completely setting the dye. Make sure you launder the item by itself or with similar colors, even after the soaking treatment.

Fixing Dye Bleeds

If you've discovered that an item is not colorfast because it colored other pieces in the wash, you may be able to remove or reduce those dye bleeds. Your options include:

Soak the item in diluted bleach if the fabric is a solid white cotton or cotton blend and the item has no elastic in it. Add 3 tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of cold water and mix well. Add the fabric to the solution, making sure it is fully submerged. Allow the item to soak for 1 to 5 minutes. Remove the fabric and rinse thoroughly in cold water; then let it air dry. Examine the item to make sure all of the dye has been removed. If some dye remains, you can repeat the bleach soak or try another option.

Warning

    • Don't use the bleach solution with any fabrics that contain spandex, Lycra or Elastane, which are elastic fibers.
    • Don't allow the item to soak for more than 5 minutes. You can remove the item as soon as you see the dye bleed disappearing.
    • Don't expose the fabric to hot water or dryer heat until you are sure the dye bleed has been completely removed.

Use a commercial color-remover product, following manufacturer's directions. Color removers are safer to use on items that contain elastic or are otherwise unsuitable for bleach.

Over-dye with a household dye product in a color similar but darker than the dye bleed. This can conceal the dye bleed while updating the item's look, and it's the only option for items that are not completely white, that have prints or stripes, or are light in color. Follow the instructions for the dye product you use. The results are unpredictable, so keep an open mind.

Setting Dye in DIY Projects

When carrying out your own dying projects, whether you use commercial dyes or natural plant-based dyes, you need to know how to set the dye. In general, the two ways to set freshly-dyed fabrics are:

  • Use a fixative or mordant. This is a substance which is dissolved into a solution to help the fibers open and accept the dye. Salt and vinegar are common fixatives used in household dying. The pre-washed fabric is usually soaked in the mordant solution before putting it in the dye bath. However, some commercial dyes require simply adding the mordant to the dye bath itself.
  • Set the dye with heat. This is often done by ironing the dyed fabric or using dryer heat. Some fine-art dyes, such as those used for painting silk, require setting with a steam bath.

Setting requirements may vary with fiber content, even for the same dye product. For example, one commercial household dye product calls for using salt with cotton fabrics and vinegar with silk, nylon or wool. Always read the product directions and follow them carefully when dying fabric. When in doubt, test-dye a sample piece.

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