As I neared the completion of my ribbon quilt, I started thinking about fabric options for the backing. Unfortunately, I had not obtained enough of the red wide-back fabric to cover the quilt but I thought I could pull in a blue on each side and use the red down the center. But first I needed to prewash my fabric.
In the twenty or more years that I have been quilting, I have never had problems with a fabric color bleeding. I prewash all my fabrics with color catcher sheets to make sure the sheets come out white and show no evidence of a fabric color bleeding. So far I have been lucky. But this red! Oh my goodness, did this red bleed! After the first washing, the color catcher was dark red. I washed that fabric 6 more times, soaked it twice in a utility sink with dishwashing liquid overnight and washed it in the machine another 3 or 4 times. The color catchers faded to a dark pink but still were not clear. To top it all off, the fabric itself was beginning to show white spots, indicating that the color was completely coming out of the fabric!
At this point I knew that this particular piece of fabric would be used for test blocks and would never go into a quilt. But that left me without a backing. As I browsed my local quilt shop looking for a backing, I mentioned my problem of fabric bleed. I had read a number of quilt postings online that had mentioned two products, called Retayne and Synthrapol but none of them indicated whether one was better over another, or, if one should be used first and then treated with the second. The owner of the shop suggested I try them and report my results back to her. So I left the shop, not only with an experiment to run, but with a wonderfully, wild fabric that would complement the quilt front as well as match the personality of the recipient for this quilt.
Coming from a family with backgrounds in math, science, and engineering, my husband and I decided to use the scientific method to conduct my color experiment. My control group would be a piece of fabric thrown into the washing machine with a color catcher. Another group would be treated with the Retayne per the directions on the bottle, then washed with a color catcher. The third group would first be treated with the Retayne, then treated with the Synthrapol before being washed with a color catcher. The final group would be treated with only the Synthrapol and then washed with a color catcher. I probably should have done another group using the Retayne after using the Synthrapol first but I figured the four samples would give me enough information to reach a conclusion.
Having read some information on the manufacturer’s web site, I discovered that Synthrapol was basically a concentrated detergent that would remove sizing as well as excess dye from hand dyed fabrics. The Retayne was described as a dye fixing agent used on commercially dyed cotton fabrics that tend to bleed easily. Processing this information, I developed a hunch that the Retayne would be the product that a quilter would want to use first.
First I need to find some cheap, red fabric for my experiment. Wouldn’t you know, after washing this fabric the color catcher came out absolutely clean. Now what! I didn’t want to spend a lot of money trying to purchase a fabric that would run, so I turned back to my original red fabric hoping that there would still be enough color bleed left in it to complete the experiment. After running the control I decided that there was enough color still bleeding out of my original red fabric and went on with the rest of the experiment. The next group was pretreated with the Retayne and then washed with the color catcher. It came out absolutely clean. I ran the third group, (using the Synthrapol after the Retayne) anyway just for the sake of completeness and as suspected the sheet was clean. Finally I treated the fourth group with just Synthrapol and after washing this piece of fabric discovered that there was still some color bleeding onto my color catcher.
This proved my hypothesis of using the Retayne as a first measure. It made sense to me since the product was described as a dye fixative and I would want any loose dye to fix itself to the fabric to prevent bleeding. The Synthrapol, described as removing excess dye would still have that excess dye floating around to bleed on nearby fabrics. I might use the Synthrapol on a finished quilt where one fabric color bled onto another in the hopes of removing the stain but it would not be my first choice on new fabric. Going forward I would still use the color catchers as a first pass and then if necessary use the Retayne.
Shortly after this, I had a chance to prove the accuracy of this experiment. I set about washing the vibrant backing fabric for my ribbon quilt and was surprised to find that the color catcher came out a very dark purple. I immediately treated the fabric with the Retayne and washed it again. The color catcher was clean and I had only washed the fabric twice as opposed to more than a dozen time.