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

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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4 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.

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