Vinegar to set color???

Over the years you may have purchased clothing that faded from its brilliant color after cleaning or laundering. The same thing has happened to me. You may have also heard about “home remedies” that were suppose to “set” dyes. I know I have had people recommend to me such things as vinegar and water; salt, alum and water; or a combination of vinegar, salt, alum and water to be added to the wash or rinse cycle to help prevent color loss. Unfortunately none of those methods substantially reduce color loss. Those remedies are basically a waste of time, energy and money. So it was interesting to me when I recently purchased a new top that the store included the two care cards you see pictured. When I asked about them the store clerk helping me said it was because the top was black.

Dyes can bleed in dry cleaning solvent or in water and cause the original color to fade or stain other colors. If excess dye remains on the surface of the fabric it can cause dye loss or transfer in water or solvent both by crocking or rubbing. If you have ever worn a new pair of jeans and sat on something light colored or worn a light colored top and seen blue streaks appear on the lighter color it is because the excess dye has rubbed or crocked off.

If excess dye is the main cause of color bleeding, the dye transfer may stop after a number of washings or cleanings but the color will fade as well. There are some things you might want to consider the next time you are contemplating buying a black or brilliant colored piece of clothing. Be a label reader. If the tag says “wash colors separately”, you could expect dye will bleed in washing. Washing your garments inside out in cold water will help some. There are commercial dye fixatives you might want to try. Retayne is a popular one on the market. Retayne is a liquid cationic dye fixing agent used as a pretreatment on commercially dyed cotton fabrics that tend to bleed easily. Retayne does NOT work in energy efficient front laoding washing machines. Those machines do not supply enough water to properly treat the fabric. Use a top loading washing machine or treat the garment in an old enamel canning kettle or plastic bucket that is not used for food. For the machine or the pot, use enough 140 degree water for the fabric to move around freely. If the hot water that enters your washing machine is not 140 degrees you will want to heat water on top of the stove to add to the machine. Leave the garment in the 140 degree water for 20 minutes, launder in cool water and rinse in cold water. This treatment only needs to be done once. After that continue to launder in cool water and rinse in cold water. Do not wash the garment in hot water. Synthrapol is often used in combination with Retayne. Synthrapol can be used as a pre-wash or an after-wash. As a pre-wash it works best in hot water to wash out excess loose dye molecules that have not been chemically bonded to the fabric. Used as an after-wash it keeps loose particles of dye in suspension so they don’t stain other areas of the fabric.

Rit ColorStay Dye Fixative is another popular product on the market. It is designed to also lock in color and reduce bleeding and fading. The procedure is much the same as with Retayne. Hot water is used again and you treat the garment before the first laundering.

Shout makes a product called Color Catcher Dye-Trapping Sheets. They are used in the wash water and the sheets are designed to lock up loose dyes found in the wash water to help prevent dyes from bleeding onto other clothes and helping preserve the bright vibrant original colors of your garment. If you are using a front loading machine it is recommend you put the Color Catcher in a mesh bag and place it at the back of the washer drum before adding the load of clothes to wash.

If you look at the reviews online or talk to people who have used any of these products you will find that none of them are 100 percent reliable. There are a lot of variables involved. If you decide to use one of the commercial products it is important to follow the directions as stated on the package. The use of vinegar to “set” color is not recommended however.

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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18 thoughts on “Vinegar to set color???

  1. Thank you for this. I’m disappointed there are no reliable options to keep dyed items colored as well as from the factory. What process is it that keeps dye so well that homemakers cannot do?

  2. Hi, you can purchase a product called Retayne that can set dyes. Manufacturers have changed the formulations of dyes since the days of using salt or vinegar to set colors. We do not know what they use to set their dyes but Retayne may help you maintain color in clothing.

  3. I am a quilter and I am in the process of setting up a t-shirt quilt that needs some red fabric in the setup. I always pre wash my fabrics mainly because I do not want to make a quilt and then see it ruined by bleeding colors into other blocks. That has happened to my friends and it is not a pretty site. For some reason the bleeding is becoming worse in the fabrics than it used to be. Are fabric manufactures dyeing their fabrics with a new process or what? These are expensive fabrics and should not be happening! This is happening in several different brands of fabric. Do you have any suggestions that could help with this problem? Would greatly appreciate any help!

  4. Judy, Thank you for your query. You are not alone in your frustration with the bleeding of fabrics. I reached out to Rachel Irwin at the Quilting Connection in Ames, IA knowing that someone in the business would have more knowledge of trends in manufacturing than I. Like many other quilting shops, the Quilting Connection sells quality fabrics and have had consumers express the same. Rachel shared that each manufacturer has their own means of dyeing and finishing fabrics and even within a label, there is inconsistency in how much dye residue is left on the fabric; and it does seems that red is the worst offender for bleeding. (However, from my own fabric science background of years ago, red dyes are not more prone to bleeding than similar dyes of other colors. The problem is that red-dyed fabrics and garments are often dyed by direct dye. Direct dye tends to bleed unless the fabric is treated with a cationic dye fixative of the right kind. Fabrics that are dyed by fiber reactive dyes are much more stable. So I suspect that the answer to your question lies somewhere in between the dyeing and fixative process being employed by the manufacturer.)
    Rachel offered some recommendations to prevent bleeding after construction: 1) prewash the fabric multiple times until the water is clear, 2) pre-soak in a bathtub with Dawn detergent changing the water frequently until clear, 3) use a color catcher (the shop has had success with Color Catcher by Shout). If at anytime I learn more about what manufacturers are doing, I will reply to you directly.

  5. I was just encouraged to use apple cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar to lock in color or free vigorate faded colors. I googled this and read that 20 or 30 minutes would suffice. I thought to play it safe and soak a piece of garment overnight. The faded pair of twill shorts seemed to be reinvigorate. But certainly not to the point of a newly purchased product. Then I was thinking about the time that I spilled olive oil on my shirt once at a Italian restaurant and how the shirt still mocks me everytime I attempt to wear it. Lol why can’t we “stain” our new purchases?

  6. Hi Edward, I’m glad you found the blog helpful in restoring your garment. I am confused with your last sentence–is this a question you wish me to answer? If so, please message again.

  7. I went to a ‘grape stomp’ and stomped my feet onto a t-shirt. Usually we are trying to get red wine out of clothes. This time I want to make sure the red wine stains stay on the t-shirt. Any advice to set those wine stains?

  8. Hi Terrie, what fun! You will have better luck retaining the wine stains if the t-shirt is 100% cotton and less luck if it is synthetic. Also since the staining is similar to tie-dying, better retention will be achieved if it is an older t-shirt that has been washed often. If it was new, then soaking in vinegar water prior to staining helps get the stain into the fibers better. It is hard to know how much of the stain you will be able to retain but the best chance is to heat set it with an iron. After heat setting, it might also be wise to rinse it in salt water. Mix 1/2 cup salt with enough cold water to cover the shirt until dissolved. Let your T-shirt soak for 15-30 minutes.

  9. I just purchased a brightly colored 109% cotton quilt. Will soaking it in vinegar & salt solution help or should I use another product the retain the bright colors?

  10. Hi Kris, soaking your quilt in a vinegar and salt solution will help with color retention. When cotton yarn or fabrics are dyed, salt is added to the dye bath as a mordant to help the fibers absorb the dye but salt is not a dye fixative for already dyed fabric or fibers. There are two commercial dye fixatives that can be purchased for home use–Retayne and Rit Dye Fixative. If you choose to use either, follow directions carefully.

  11. Edward hasn’t responded, but I think I know where he was going. I once splashed oil (can’t remember if it was olive or veggie) on a red tee shirt. The oil stain never came out. That stained bit looks as bright as when it got stained compared to the rest of the shir. I often think of experimenting with 2 (cheap) tee shirts. Treat one normally; soak the other in olive oil and see how the color stands up over time/multiple washings. But who has time for experiments…

  12. Hi Audrey, you pose an interesting experiment. However, I would not encourage you to proceed with it. Sorry, to say, soaking clothing in oil is not going to help retain color in a desirable way. Oil stains do darken fabric but it’s hard to control the saturation and in turn, wash it out evenly. Natural and manmade fibers take color differently and as such, different kinds of dyes are needed for each fiber type. The same is true with oil; some fibers absorb oil to the point of bonding with it; others have less afinity for it. These factors are what makes getting oil stains out of clothing difficult. I’ve found that oil stains in clothing respond best to rubbing a bit of liquid dishwashing detergent into the dry fabric, letting it sit overnight, and washing wash it out the next day.

  13. I am using leaves, roots, etc. from my yard as a dye.. they work well.. berries are another matter as I am told red, blue and purple berries are not permanent. I am using alum as a mordant. will treating with vinegar, or adding vinegar to my dye, then treat with retayne help with fugitive dyes?

  14. Hi Pat, I am not familiar with the process you are using. Mordants, such as alum, are used to treat protein fibers like wool and silk to ensure color fastness. Fixatives (vinegar, salt, baking soda) are used to set natural dyes in cellulose fibers like cotton and linen. Having said that, I am not sure why you would want to use a mordant and a fixative??? Vinegar needs to be cautiously used as the acidic pH can change the colors. When vinegar is used as a fixative, it is usually mixed with water with the fiber allowed to soak in it for an extended time at a simmer temperature before immersing it in the dye bath. There are DyeSet products that are supposed to set fugitive colors in both cellulose and protein fibers. Retayne is a product that is used to prevent bleeding; I am not sure that it actually sets fugitive colors. Natural dyeing is a fun process and involves lots of experimentation.

  15. I use the Rit fixative and get excellent results. I am surprised that any stores that carry the fabric dye do not stock that fixative. I will not start any die project without it. I use 5 gallon buckets from the hardware store and follow the directions for dye and fixative exactly.

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