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How do I get red dye out of fabric?

By Dr. Laundry January 30, 2015

Q: I washed a new quilt and the red fabric color faded onto everything else. What do I do?


A: Dye transfer problems are so disheartening. Usually items that pick up color can be restored—that’s the good news!  The challenge here will be adapting the techniques that work on smaller items using a plastic for use on a large, bulky item.  Bleach and water soaking is a very effective technique, but the item does need to be colorfast to bleach, so I always recommend testing first on a hidden area.  I realize this is problematic on a one-sided item like a quilt because if the fabric doesn’t pass the test that means you are left with a light colored spot where you tested. Of course if this is a quilt you constructed yourself, you can always do the test on fabric scraps you have left over.  Otherwise select an area of the quilt that is less visible when the quilt is on a bed. 

Here’s how you test:  add 1 ½ teaspoons Clorox Regular-Bleach to ¼ cup water and apply a drop to a each color/fabric used for the quilt in as discreet area as possible (or ideally on fabric scraps).  Wait 1 minute then blot dry and look for any color change.  No change means you can safely treat the quilt.

Assuming it passes, you can try the bleach and water soak–you just won’t be able to use a dishpan!  If you have a top loading deep fill washer, that will help.  Start by selecting the “cold” wash temperature, the large load size, and the “delicate” cycle.  Then start the machine so the empty washer can fill with water.  Once the machine has finished filling with water, then you add the bleach.  The correct ratio for a bleach soak is 3 tablespoons Clorox Regular-Bleach per gallon of water.  Your “large” wash setting probably uses between 16 and 18 gallons of water so I would add 3 cups of bleach to the washer and swirl the central agitator to mix it in.  Now you can gently lower the quilt into the bleach and water solution so until it is entirely submerged.  Let it soak (no agitation—don’t turn on the washer again) for up to 5 minutes.  The color may come off right away or it may take a few minutes; just don’t let it sit in the soaking solution longer than 5 minutes.  Next, advance the dial on the washer to the end of the wash cycle so the machine will drain and then refill for the rinse. Be sure you have selected “delicate” so the machine uses a slower spin speed (to keep it from getting off balance).  I would avoid letting the machine agitate the quilt; you are really just using the machine as a convenient place to hold a larger quantity of water for the bleach soak. Rinse the quilt twice.  If you can carefully distribute the quilt around the washer basket, then you can let the machine spin the water out.  You can also roll the quilt in a cotton blanket to squeeze excess moisture out.

If you don’t have a deep-fill clothes washer, you could also do this in a large utility sink that you can stop from draining; a bathtub could also work.  Just be sure to use the appropriate amount of bleach for however much water you are using.  A clean 1 gallon milk container is a great way to conveniently measure water as it comes out of the tap.  Also, there are 16 tablespoons in a cup so, for example, if you end up with 10 gallons of water in your sink then you will need 30 tablespoons bleach, which is 1 + 7/8 cups of bleach.

This could be a very messy project, so it’s important to wear gloves as you handle the quilt in the bleach solution, and old work clothes since they may get splashed.  Safety glasses are also a good idea, and be sure to work in a well-ventilated area.

If your quilt does NOT pass the bleachability test, then you can try RIT Color Remover, which is usually available at craft, fabric, and hardware stores.  The trick with RIT is to mix up the solution so it’s just strong enough to get the unwanted color off, but not so strong that it takes away the colors you do want.  Follow the instructions on the package, including all safety precautions.

So that’s the basics of how to remove dye that transferred to an item.  It’s important before you go to all this work to consider whether or not the red fabric has finished bleeding.  If it hasn’t, then it will continue to bleed as you try to restore the quilt, and continue to discolor the quilt.  If you have fabric scraps available to work with, you could evaluate the colorfastness of the fabric by placing a fabric scrap in a glass of water and see how many times it is rinsed before no more color comes off. If it stops losing color after a few rinses, then you may want to rinse the quilt a few times in plain water before starting the restoration.  When you are ready to start, set the quilt aside in a large plastic clothes basket someplace where the floor can get a little wet (it will drip out of the basket) while you fill the washer.

And finally, once the quilt is restored tumble it dry on medium.

As a quilter myself, I understand how tempting it is to work with unwashed fabric to construct a quilt.  However, the chance of bleeding (especially with reds and purples) ruining hours and hours of work helps motivate me to prewash fabric first.  If you have any other questions or would like to provide more detail about your quilt, please let me know.  Good luck, and let me know how it turns out.

–Dr. Laundry