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What Shops Should Tell Customers During Dye Disasters

Posted By TNNA Editor, Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Updated: Friday, January 5, 2018

What Shops Should Tell Customers During Dye Disasters

By Shannon Herrick, dyer and social media maven for Frabjous Fibers 

You’ve spent the last 11 weeks knitting your masterpiece of color work, and painstakingly woven in all the ends. It’s time to plop it in a warm sink full of water and your favorite wool wash, which smells of deep woods and sunshine, so you can block it out into the perfect size and shape. To your horror, the water is quickly stained turquoise and the white, negative space which used to make all the other colors pop, is now dulled with dye re-adhering to the knitted fabric. This process, usually irreversible, is wildly frustrating, especially when, moments ago, your shawl was perfect.

Why did this happen? What could have been done? What can you do now?

Many factors can affect colorfastness after the manufacturer has set dye. In certain cases, it may not have been colorfast to begin with, whether commercially dyed by a large manufacturer, or hand dyed by a small, indie dye house, mistakes can happen with dye lots. For the purposes of this article, let us assume that the dyer did everything right, and when the yarn left the dye facility, it had been dyed and processed perfectly well. Maybe you’ve even used the same dyer’s yarn many times with no problem. But, your 10-color shawl is now a mess. So, what gives?

One hidden potential culprit is the fact that certain fragrances have the ability and tendency to pull dye from fabric or yarn. This means that your favorite eucalyptus scented wool soak might actually be a threat to the richly and/or multi-colored knits you’ve poured your heart and skill into. It may only affect certain colors, usually saturated hues and especially reds and turquoises, so it may be perfectly safe for the colorways of some knits and not others. The pH of your water could also be a factor that may compromise the integrity of the dye’s adherence. Temperature of the water, hardness or softness and added chemicals in treated city water…all these factors may be different from the water used when the yarn was dyed and could affect the chemistry.

So, what could you have done differently to prevent an unwelcome bleeding and blending of colors in your finished piece? Firstly, everyone’s favorite friend, the Gauge Swatch, can serve two purposes, especially with colorwork. Soak your swatch before you soak your actual piece of knitwear. Soak it in plain, hand-warm water first, and if the colors stay put, try soaking it again with that lavender garden wool wash and see if the color still holds. If you’re good, you’re good. If it bleeds only with the latter, than you know you need to use unscented wool wash or plain water for this particular item whenever you block or wash. If you don’t have a gauge swatch, you can either make one with your leftovers (recommended), or find the most obscure corner of your piece to do a test soak.

Now that you know to do a test next time, what can you do about the piece that’s ruined? There are a few products on the market, like color run removers and dye stain removers, but most people say they don’t work very well or at all with wool knits. Your best bet is to follow the steps above to prevent further bleeding in subsequent washings. For single-color bleeders, you could try to set the dye yourself with common household vinegar, but in order for that to work, you must also introduce heat. Vinegar alone in your blocking bath will not set dye, a commonly perpetuated myth and misunderstanding of the chemistry involved in using vinegar as a mordant.

In order to try dye-setting at home, you want to use a pot you can sacrifice from culinary use. Cover your yarn or knitted piece with water and add a generous glug of white vinegar. Bring slowly to a simmer over low heat and hold it there for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the item to cool in the water (to prevent felting in non-super wash items, and for safety’s sake…I mean, why bother handling simmering-hot fabric or yarn?), and then squeeze the excess water out and block/hang as normal.

Even the most well-dyed yarns from practiced and skilled dyers may bleed on occasion, due to either the saturation and richness of particular color families, or because of external factors affecting the chemistry of the dye process after the fact. Take care with the treasures you create, and always test before you wash. In this way, you should be able to enjoy your knits for years to come!


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