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Color Transfer Catastrophe

So, I knit with two colors

Okay, so this week I was on vacation, visiting my mama, and we planned to do lots and lots of natural dyeing. I also took a little project – a child’s dress version of Classic Colorblock – to work on. I finished the front and plopped it in a nice toasty bath to soak for blocking.

I’ve been blocking my knits in hot water for about a year now. I find that it creates a truly lovely ‘memory’ for the yarn of how I want it blocked, and it tends to take shape better as I block it to my schematic. It gets incredibly soft and malleable, just lovely.

Here’s the catch – my project was a bold mustard yellow at the hem, and a white body. I saw lots of yellow coming off into the water, so I strained it, leaving it in a colander to drip out for a while and cool. When I returned, the yellow had transferred to the white.


Those of you who frequently make multi-colored objects are probably shaking your heads and rolling your eyes. But I rarely do this! I went to the internet, to my Slack group, and found a bunch of conflicting information.

Clean it with vinegar! No, vinegar sets dye!

Most wool care sites suggest baking soda, rubbing alcohol, or white vinegar to clean errant dye.

I started with medical-grade rubbing alcohol. Nothing happened.

I moved on to baking soda, creating a room-temp, thick paste and gently massaging it into the fabric. I left it to sit for 8 hours. When I rinsed it, I learned it had felted where the paste was. The mild temp change and friction from the grit of the baking soda had been enough to ruin the piece.

So I did what any normal person would do – I felted the rest of it and cut it into a rectangle for a doll blanket. Solved!

A vintage doll bed with handmade animal dolls, antique doily sheets and a felted knit blanket.
But the big question remained: How can we have two incontrovertible facts: vinegar sets dye, AND vinegar is good for getting out stains and dye?!

What I learned about color transfer

Some dyes bond with a change in pH. We call them acid dyes. Some do not. In addition to the dyes we knitters already think of as acid dyes, some natural/botanic dyes also function as acid dyes, bonding to various degrees with a change in pH.

The brown in coffee is not an acid dye, so we can clean up coffee stains with white vinegar (well, we can try). But the acid dye yellow that transferred in my project would be a poor candidate for any cleaner with a low pH.

I was thinking I would need to do some experiments, but of course - it turns out someone already is. Big thanks to Marieke for turning me onto this series from Victoria Marchant.

My big reminder from this post was that I love blocking with hot water, but it can go wrong! Victoria reminded me that dye is just molecules sticking to stuff, and that molecules move the most when they’re hot.

I won’t be blocking multi-colored objects hot again.

Go Further

Elizabeth Margaret has a great article on getting a coffee stain out of her luxury handknit dress.

We were working from The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar, and the Dirt & Dye Leaflets from Rin of Modus Operandi Fibers for our natural dye exploits. Both of these resources are clear and fantastic!

I haven't tried these yet, but many of you suggested laundry color catchers.

Psst - if you wreck something and want to felt it, get it a little soapy and then rub furiously while plunging into hot water and then cold water. It won't take long!

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