What can you use to fix your dye in your fabric, so it stays bright through many washings?
The best way is to choose the right dye for your fiber. Good fiber reactive dye needs no additional fixative besides the soda ash that you typically soak your shirts in before applying dye.
If you choose a lower quality dye such as all-purpose dye, even correct application (which for all-purpose dye requires cooking your garment in the dye!) will not make the dye washfast, so a commercial dye fixative is required.
Dye fixatives are needed only for dyes that are not very washfast. The most washfast dyes on cotton are fiber reactive dyes such as Procion MX. The most washfast dyes for hand-dyeing wool are in the Lanaset series.
Soaking your already-dyed garment in salt and/or vinegar will not set your dye. At best, it will just add another washing, which will help to remove some of your excess dye. When you cook your garment in all-purpose or direct dye, salt in the dyebath helps the dye to approach the fabric instead of staying in the water, and vinegar helps dye nylon or wool, though not cotton. Neither is a dye fixative for already-dyed fiber, however.
If you are fortunate, you may find Retayne® at your local quilting store. Check there first. If not, you can mail-order it or alternative brands at many of the dye retailers around the world listed on my Sources for Dyeing Supplies page. In the US, brands to look for include Retayne from ProChem and all other dye suppliers; Dharma Trading Company carries Retayne and also Dharma Dye Fixative®, while Aljo Dyes carries Aljo Pro-fix PCD®. In Canada, G&S Dyes carries Raycafix®, which is said to be stronger than Retayne. In Australia, order Dyefix® from Batik Oetoro. In the UK, look for Deka L® fixative or Fixitol P®. iDye Fixative is made by Jacquard Products, so it should be available wherever Jacquard dyes or paints are sold, both in the US and in numerous other countries; if your local art supplier carries anything made by Jacquard Products, such as iDye, the Jacquard brand of Procion MX dye, or a fabric paint such as Lumiere or Neopaque, you can try asking them to special order the iDye Fixative for you.
Retayne and similar dye fixatives are cationic, which means that they have a positive charge. They are said to "swell" dye molecules in the fabric so that they stick better. Their positive charge allows them to cling to negatively charged dyes, such as the direct dyes and acid dyes found in all-purpose dye, and even fiber reactive dyes, though there is no need for them on the latter if the dye has been applied and washed out correctly. They cannot stick to basic dyes, which have a positive charge, and thus will have no benefit for washfastness of that class of dye.
Retayne is ideal for treating fabric before using it for quilting. It's also handy for commercial garments whose dye has not been fixed properly. Direct and all-purpose dyes on cotton and other cellulose fibers, such as linen or rayon, always require a cationic dye fixative for satisfactory washfastness. The use of these dye fixatives is now common in the textile industry, which is one reason why properly dyed clothing is less likely to run in the wash now than it was years ago.
To test whether your fabric is safe for use in quilting, dampen it and then, using a hot iron, press it dry between clean white cotton fabric. If any dye transfers to the white material, either wash the fabric again in hot water, repeatedly if necessary, in order to remove the excess dye (or, more effiicently, wash or soak in water that is close to boiling hot), or use Retayne or a similar product to attempt to seal the loose dye into the fabric. Repeat the ironing test before using the fabric in a quilt.
Properly fixed and washed, fiber reactive-dyed fabric should not require treatment with Retayne or any similar product. However, some industries find it economical to substitute the use of cationic dye fixatives for proper washing-out of excess fiber reactive dye. It is best to wash reactive-dyed fabric in very hot water until all unattached dye has been removed. The fiber reactive dye which has bonded to the fabric will not wash out and needs no additional fixative. If water supplies are limited, the use of a cationic dye fixative may cost less than the water needed for proper washing-out. Note that fiber reactive dyes other than Procion MX, such as Cibacron F and Drimarene K, do not require as much effort to wash out the excess unattached dye.
There is some evidence that cationic dye fixatives may reduce the lightfastness of some dyes. For archival artwork that will be endangered more by light than by laundering, it may be best to avoid the use of these products.
Dye that washes off in water may be rendered more permanent with Retayne, but dye that rubs off when dry - this process is called 'crocking' - will not benefit. Dye that rubs off is on the outside of the fiber, so making the dye particles larger by sticking cationic molecules to them will not help to lodge them into the fiber. Retayne has been observed by many people not to help fix fabric that has been dyed improperly with indigo.
G&S Dye claims that Raycafix can be helpful with crocking indigo. If so, I don't know how it works to do this (a polymer binder for pigment dyes would most likely be required). Cationic dye fixatives typically attach in place of a sodium or other positive small ion, at a sulfate group on the dye molecule, but the indigo dye molecule lacks a negative charge and contains no sulfate groups.
Cationic dye fixatives actually belong to the class of dyes known as basic dyes, because of their positive charge. Some basic dyes are hazardous due to carcinogenicity or other toxicity. Is there any reason to suspect the same of cationic dye fixatives? I have no reason to think that there is, but I would welcome information about safety testing of these products. Be sure to wear latex rubber or plastic gloves when handling fabric during the application of Retayne and other dye fixatives; it's such an easy safety step that there is no excuse to omit it. Avoid direct contact or extended exposure to fumes.
For people with sensitive skin and for babies, I think it might be best to stick to the use of inherently washfast dyes such as Procion MX dyes on cotton and rayon, fixing them properly with soda ash and then thoroughly washing out unattached dye; if Procion MX dyes and similar dyes are used properly, and washed out properly, there is no need for a cationic dye fixative.
Apply according to manufacturer's instructions. Cationic dye fixatives are applied in the washing machine or a bucket of very hot water, and cannot be used for items colored with dyes that are not attached at all, because the items must be capable of at least a single immersion without running very badly.
Retayne is used by adding 5 ml (one teaspoonful) to hot water (140°F or 60°C) for each yard of fabric and agitating for twenty minutes, then rinsing.
No. Hot water can remove cationic dye fixatives.
Last updated: May 19, 2011
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