Sunday, February 14, 2016

Dye-Bleeding in Quilts: A 5 Point Plan to Save Your Project and/or Sanity

Nothing focuses a quilter's mind as much as bleeding, and I'm not talking about the pins, needles, or rotary cutter-inflicted kind: I'm talking about color.

Discovering that a fabric in your just-finished quilt has bled into its neighboring fabrics is an awful moment. Not even stomping around the house yelling "J'accuse!" at yourself will help.

The only thing that will help is fixing the problem.

That's what I learned a couple of weeks ago. Spoiler alert: This story has a happy ending. thanks to Synthrapol. If you've arrived on this page due to a dye-bleeding emergency, and you need the solution immediately, scroll down to "Here's What Worked for Me" near the bottom of this post. Remain calm.

For those of you who are not currently frantic, it all began because I have been working  on a series of quilts using my batik scraps, a heap collection 20 years in the making.
One of the problems with working from elderly distinguished scraps is that I forget crucial facts such as why the bleep I ever bought that fabric, and whether the dye in it runs like crazy.

I did find an enigmatic note from my younger self pinned to a group of dark blue scraps. I had written: "Not colorfast but big piece is." ? To play it safe, I didn't use any of those pieces. (I am guessing "the big piece" meant the one on my shelf rather than in the scrap department.)
But I did use other dark blue scraps that were not attached to that group without thinking twice. Plus there were pieces from a magenta-and-purple batik yard that I had no memory of ever causing bleeding problems, so I didn't even bother checking.
Construction  went well, until it was time to block the quilt - wetting and shaping it, then letting it dry. I soaked the quilt in cold water in my washing machine, spun off the excess, then pinned it to a multicolored striped bath towel, straightening the sides.
This is a hashtag quilt. Can you see the hashtag?
Late in the evening, I was admiring it. "Gosh, I like this quilt. I really like it. Come to think of it, I almost love it. To celebrate my growing affection for it, I would now like to break off a modest piece of dark chocolate and gnaw on it...but...but...wait...what? WHA???...oh no...Oh No...OH NOOOOOO!!!!"

I was too upset to take pictures, but here's a dramatic Photoshop reenactment of the stain that had appeared on a centrally-located white block:
There were some purply spots, plus a reddish brownish spot. (They weren't actually as round as my Photoshop blobs.)

Also, in different parts of the quilts, there were some more streaky stains. Here's another recreation (circled in white with Photoshop):
Both stains were next to two different dark blue batiks,  In addition, the magenta pieces had soaked pink to the back, though fortunately, not on top.

I tore through the eight stages of grief: Shock, Denial, Guilt, High Blood Pressure, Anger, Stomping, Self-recrimination in English and high-school French, and finally, the Internet.

Quick, search terms, what do I use? "How to stop bleeding?" No that's about tourniquets, clotting and xarelto/coumadin. "How to stop color bleeding?" What does that even mean? "How to stop dyed colors from leaching?"  Those are dyers' sites. Plus, is leaching even an American word? Wasn't Cary Grant's real name Archibald Leach?

Mostly, I found sites that talk about laundry, usually a red shirt that turns all the family underwear pink.

I finally honed in on useful key words. "Fix dye bleeding in quilts."

There I discovered a world of desperate home chemistry experiments. Potential remedies included: Dawn; Oxiclean; a pantry's worth of salad dressing ingredients (vinegar, lemon juice and/or salt); Kirkland detergent, and above all, Retayne and Synthrapol. One quilter basted 96 Shout 'Color Catcher' sheets to her stained quilt, I kid you not. But whatever the remedy - it didn't always work.

The Difference Between Retayne and Synthrapol
I know about Retayne and Synthrapol, and I keep a bottle of each in my laundry area (well out of reach of children.) R & S are to dye what clotting agents are to our blood, and or, one could argue. anti-depressants to our brains. In completely different ways, R or S (or both) can save your life, your quilt, and your sanity.  Even if you don't have them in your house you should know where you can obtain them quickly. Some quilt shops and yarn shops carry them. Online, go to or They're cheap.

Retayne is used by careful quilters BEFORE cutting or sewing a piece of solid-colored (or near-solid) fabric that looks suspicious. If, for example, after buying that lurid magenta fabric, I had tested it, I would very quickly have realized that the dye runs. Then I would have washed it with Retayne, and tested it again to see if the Retayne worked. Some say that it can change the look or hand of the fabric, and I do think it causes a bit of dulling and lightening.  (More about Retayne here.)

But I hadn't done that. And once an untreated, bleed-prone fabric has been cut up and pieced into a quilt next to other fabrics, you DON'T want to use Retayne. It will not remove - AND MIGHT EVEN SET - the wandering dye, including dye that has migrated to neighboring fabrics.

After it's stitched to other fabrics, you need Synthrapol.

Synthrapol  might either (a) fix your problem or, (b) not.  It takes away excess unset dye, and theoretically reduces the bleeding the next time the quilt is washed. Since the purple blobs and streaks on my quilt weren't chemically-set, the theory was that the Synthrapol could float them away.

Back to our story.  I read everything I could find on the web and finally decided not to make any sudden moves. I waited until morning to call my favorite mental health hotline, a.k.a.'s customer service department, who helped me through my dupioni silk magenta leaching emergency last year. (Yes, this happens to me quite often: )

The Oxiclean Detour
The nurturing young woman affirmed that indeed it was too late for the Retayne, and time for the Synthrapol. As a last comment, however, she also tossed off that she had heard about one person who said Oxiclean lifted away the stains caused by errant dye, but that was only one person, and that person had DABBED the stains with Oxiclean.

Oxiclean-dabbing sounded less radical than the Synthrapol-bathing, (I wasn't thinking clearly), so I mixed up Oxiclean with water and carefully dabbed the navy stains. Indeed, about a half hour later, they had faded, but not vanished.

However, the Oxiclean didn't seem to be doing much about the stains on the light blue fabric. In fact, as the minutes ticked by, it seemed to be whitening the area around the stain. Plus, it suddenly occurred to me that I would have to wash the whole quilt again anyway, just to get the Oxiclean out!  That risked more dye migration!

Here's What Worked for Me
So I switched to Plan B - the Synthrapol bath. I used the hottest possible setting for my washing machine (some people boil water to make it ultra-hot), poured in a couple of caps of Synthrapol, and sunk my quilt, stirring it now and then with a metal ruler to make sure everything was submerged.

The Synthrapol label says to wash it for five to ten minutes. The Internets had led me to think I should soak it for between 20 minutes and a week. I compromised with about an hour. The machine rinsed and spun the quilt, then I spread it out on the towel to block it again - and voila - merci! - the stains were 98% gone! My self respect was 98% restored! The quilt overall seemed a bit paler for the ordeal, but then again, so was I.

Here's an unretouched photo of the affected black-and-white block, post Synthrapol.
The affected area was the black-and-white block on the center-right, below. You can't tell from a distance that it had been stained. 
Here's the light blue strip that used to have purple stain: 
The white splotches might be from Oxiclean, but all the batiks are mottled, so it's not conspicuous.  

Don't make my mistakes! Here's my...

5 Point Plan for Avoiding and/or Fixing Dye-Bleeding Incidents: 

1. TEST IT BEFORE YOU USE IT! (I should make a quilt with those words on it!) I was so lazy about this, and I paid the price! In my experience, dark blues, reds, pinks, and magentas are the most likely culprits, in silk and cotton. This includes prints from reputable manufacturers, as well as solids and batiks.

I test fabric by cutting off a small piece, soaking it well in water, and wrapping it tightly with a white paper towel. Bleeding appears very quickly.

2. If it bleeds, Retayne it. If a bleeding fabric hasn't been stitched to other fabrics yet, treat with Retayne, following the bottle direction. After treatment, test again. If some of it is going back into your stash,  pin a coherent, legible note to your future self saying how it was treated, and whether it is now colorfast. (Write it with permanent ink on a scrap of white fabric instead of paper - paper rips off too easily.)

Your future self will thank your former self for these courteous notes (assuming future self can decode former self's handwriting.)

Retayne manufacturers say that after treatment, the fabric should only be washed in cool water. They don't say why. so I need to look into that. In the meantime, if your treated fabric goes into a quilt, be sure to include a label that says only to wash in cool.

3.  If it's stitched to other fabrics, (in a quilt, a quilt top, or a quilt backing) and has already bled, go for the Synthrapol. Soak the quilt/top/backing in hot water with a cap or two of Synthrapol. (follow label directions for quantity). Send it through the rinse cycle, and let it dry flat. This will hopefully float all the bleeding dye away.

For succeeding washes, the Synthrapol label says to use warm, not hot water, so you should write "warm water only" on the quilt label. (But what if  the fabrics in one quilt are treated with both Retayne and Synthrapol? I'd go for luke-cold? This question also needs more investigation.)

UPDATE: Check the updates at the bottom of this post. In a subsequent bleeding episode, I used Dawn dishwashing liquid, and it worked as well as the Synthrapol. However, the effects may not be as lasting as Synthrapol. 

4. Wear gloves. Synthrapol and Retayne are skin and eye irritants.

5. If  it's a snuggle quilt, skip the chemicals. I would not use either Retayne or Synthrapol in fabrics destined for baby quilts. Dharma Trading sells a less-toxic and less expensive substitute for Synthrapol that apparently works just as well, here. (And see the updates below!)

Here's my finished quilt! Ta Daa! Time to gnaw on chocolate! (But nowhere near my quilt.)
(I call it "Hashtag Strips." It's part of a series. I'll blog on this in the future.)

What has worked for you? 

UPDATE, 2/11/17. I had another bleeding episode - a dark blue piece of Japanese furoshiki fabric bled onto the red front of a quilt. Inspired by the information on Vicki Welsh's page (link), I used regular Dawn dishwashing liquid - a half cup, in a full washing machine of hot water. Soaked for 6 hours, rinsed, and the blue stain vanished. 

UPDATE, 2/15/16: Israeli quilter Shulamit Ron had a similar episode, but with a masterpiece museum-quality quilt! Here's her story, which also has a mostly happy ending:
I had a similar experience with my Armenian Bird of Paradise quilt. [Ed note: Find this incredible piece at!bird-of-paradise/lihwn]. I finished most of it and was quilting the white background (the whole thing from applique to quilting was done by hand). The quilt was not supposed to be washed, ever, so I used many hand dyed fabrics, knowing that they might still bleed... 
I marked the background with a disappearing pen and midway through the quilting read a horror story about the disappearing pen rotting the fabric. So without thinking twice I dunked it into water to remove the toxic pen chemicals from the quilt. To my horror, the applique leaves and flowers started bleeding red, green and blue into the pristine white background. I freaked out, totally. I remembered reading about the color-catcher sheets. I left the quilt submerged in water so the dye doesn't dry out. Rushed to the nearest open supermarket and bought Woolite color catchers. Back at home I threw the quilt with a color catcher into the washer with some syntrapol and washed it. The color catcher came out brown, the quilt came out off-white. Not snow white, but without all the horrible dye stains. The quilting threads in the white background shrank and I had to take them out and quilt from scratch, but compared to losing the whole quilt, this was peanuts.
UPDATE 2/16/16. Kay Mackenzie, the Queen of Applique, fended off disaster with a Shout Color Catcher sheet.  Read her saga here:

UPDATE 2/24/16: Vicki Welsh is a quilter who ran lots of tests and concludes that soaking in Dawn is the best remedy for a bleed. Read about it here. Click "Download the Full Instructions Here" for the details. My supermarket doesn't carry the ultrapure Dawn, but I used regular Dawn and it worked fine.

UPDATE: Here's a promising method for removal of stains from quilts that you don't want to wet:

UPDATE 1/3/17:  Sue from Maine shared with me how she removed stains from her just-completed son's high school graduation tee shirt quilt, which had turned blue in the wash.  For her, Shout Color Catchers did the job. "I started with the least aggressive suggestions and decided to simply soak with the Shout Color Catchers. So yesterday into the tub it went, w/a whole box of Color Catchers, some beneath some on top (no reason why) and lukewarm water.  After an hour drained the very colored water, and filled again 2 more times over 6 hours.  Added new color catchers for good measure.  SUCCESS! Most of the dye is out, some of the patchwork fabric is a total new color, but I’ll live with it!"
"We carefully pulled it out, gently squeezed some water from the blue border only and hung to dry overnight .... A great windy day here in Maine today and the quilt is clean, smells great and now inside the house for final drying near the wood stove and a big warm cuddle to soften the line-dried crispness."

UPDATE 7/13/18 Oops, I did it again. I had a deep red-and-black geometric print fabric that I figured couldn't possibly bleed - it's from a reputable manufacturer. I sewed it into a pieced quilt backing, and was just about ready to baste the three layers together, when I started to worry. Just to be safe, I figured I should test it, by wetting a small area and resting that area on a wet paper towel Sure enough, it bled like crazy, including some bleeding onto a neighboring fabric. I ripped out the red fabric (it was an entire yard, in the middle of my backing!) and treated it with Retayne, in hot water in the washing machine. Success! When I pulled it out and tested again, there was no bleeding whatsoever. For the neighboring piece that had some red dye on it, I soaked it in Dawn dishwashing liquid, and most of the red vanished. Know hope! 


  1. What a terrific post Cathy! Thanks so much for letting us in on all your tips. Invaluable!!!!!

  2. Wow, I think I would still be sitting there crying, but what a good thing you are made of sterner stuff: your treated quilt looks fine now. And, lest this get overlooked, it is a fantastic quilt!

    1. I was not very stern when I first discovered the bleed. I was a mess! Glad you liked the quilt, too!

  3. Great story & tips. Love your humor.
    Elizabeth Janowitz

  4. Every time I read these stories I feel less inclined to ever sew with batiks or hand-dyed fabrics!

    1. Ms. Maud's Girl, this has happened to me with solid colored cottons (especially reds), and even with one silk print and one silk solid. It's always with something in the red family or the dark blue family. Wouldn't it be nice if the quilt stores could afford to cut us a tiny swatch to test on the spot - it just takes a minute or two to find out if it runs. Batiks are such a joy to work with - don't swear them off!

  5. I still don't know how retayne works. Going to follow your link. I am allergic to lots of chemicals so I always prewash. I loved the phrase, for those of you not currently frantic

    1. I don't know how either of them works! It takes a chemist!
      I'm glad you prewash. I don't, which is why I get into this sort of trouble so often. Actually, it's more a matter of taking the time to test the fabric. Even a prewashed bleeder will bleed on it's next go-rounds. Thanks for stopping by, LeeAnna!