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I Just Got an Indigo T-Shirt and I'm Afraid

You’re right to be scared of indigo dye.

A man in an indigo shirt and sunglasses. Photo: Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

What do I do with this very precious indigo T-shirt now that I own it? The dye has already gotten on my clothes how do I prevent that?? How do I get the dye out of the stuff it's already on? How should I care for it? I'm worried about losing the beautiful indigo color!

Also, how should I store it? I'm worried hanging it will create weird marks on the shoulders but worried keeping it in a drawer with other things will result in indigo all over the other stuff in the drawer. Help!! — Cam Wolf

Cam, you're right to worry about indigo dye. Help is here, but your fears, they are founded ones. Because indigo dye is an animal unto itself in the greater dye world, and it is a very tricky dye indeed.

In fact, it's so tricky that for the past few years, a tiny voice inside my head has whispered to me "Jolie, you can keep putting off the research into indigo dye, but I won't forget…" (The voices inside my head are vaguely threatening, yes, but only on matters relating to the laundering of your most beloved garments.) You see, there was a wisp of an idea that had taken root in my brain that I had yet to fully explore because, if I'm being incredibly honest with you, I knew that untangling this potential mystery was going to be a difficult task that was unlikely to yield the answers I wanted. Now, I don't at all mind spending many more hours than are sane or necessary unraveling the mysteries of the fabric-care world, but when I suspect that the end of the journey won't include a happy ending, well... there's a reason that burying one's head in the proverbial sand is such a popular and long-lasting coping technique.

But then Cam came a-knockin', and I knew that the time had come to face this challenge head-on and get an answer once and for all, regardless of how disappointing said answer might be. The issue at hand, the one that's kept me up for nights, is this: Indigo dye, it is said, functions entirely differently from other dyes, and cannot be "set" using the usual methods one might use to fix dyes so that they don't run, bleed, or transfer onto other textiles or hides.

So What's the Deal With Indigo Dye?

As I said, this journey started with a mere whisper, a hint that there was a fabric-care mystery in need of solving. In fits and starts over the years, I've scoured the internet for more information, and maybe some solutions. But my usual sources turned up nothing, and the deeper I fell into this rabbit hole, the more confusing and unreliable the information became. It was time to call in some trusted experts.

Liz Eggert, a textile expert for Tide and Downy, confirmed that there is indeed a problem that's specific to indigo dyes. "Indigo is notorious for losing its color, and it can be severe enough to transfer color onto other items in the wash or onto other items like sofas,” she says. “There is no way to prevent indigo from bleeding onto other clothes or to prevent transfer (crocking) to sofas or bags."

Devastated by the confirmation of my worst fears, I turned to John Mahdessian, owner of the specialty dry cleaning concern Madame Paulette, who offered his take on the problem of indigo dyes: "All indigos are inherently fugitive dyes by nature. The internet is littered with home remedies, like salt baths and vinegar baths, but none of these truly work."

The experts at Madame Paulette suggest that the use of a fixative may help to improve the fastness of indigo dyes, but add that "nothing is guaranteed. Good luck."


But What Are These Fixatives of Which They Speak?

A fixative, or mordant, is a substance used to set dyes in fabric to prevent color loss and transfer. When it comes to indigo dyes, even with the use of a fixative, the dye will likely transfer — but, in my expert opinion, it's still very much worth using a fixative on indigo garments that are transferring color onto your belongings.

There are, however, certain fixatives that are more likely to be effective on indigo dyes than others. The Rit-brand fixative won’t do the trick, which is frustrating news to deliver, because it's the most commonly available and easy-to-find option out there. Unfortunately, it's not gonna touch indigo. Instead, opt for either Dharma Dye Fixative or Raycafix Dye Fixative, which are highly regarded products that are the most likely among the fixatives out there to set indigo dyes. Another popular fixative, Retayne Color Fixative, gets mixed reviews when it comes to setting indigos.

If We Can't Prevent the Root Cause, We Can Still Protect Against Color Transfer

As Cam has already discovered, his beloved T-shirt, much like the darkest of your jeans, is leaving its lovely blue hue all over whatever else he's wearing that day, as well as, presumably, anything he sits on, or any garments that are in direct contact with the shirt when it's not being worn.

That means that it's going to require special handling when it comes to washing, wearing, and storing. Given that fact, it's best to view your indigo garments as specialty items, in the same way you would a calf hair belt or a pair of velvet shoes. It's simply the case that you can't treat an indigo T-shirt the same way you would your favorite ratty old sleeper tee, which means we need to establish some rules and regulation for the wearing of indigo garments that are prone to crocking. (Guys, I'm so in love with the term "crocking.")

The Rules and Regulations as They Pertain to Indigo Dyed Garments

  1. Thou shalt not wear indigo-dyed garments with light-colored clothing or accessories.
  2. Thou shalt not sit on any light-colored upholstery while wearing indigo clothing.
  3. Thou shalt turn the garment inside out and wash it with like colors, using cold water.
  4. Thou shalt include a color catcher in a load of laundry that contains an indigo garment.
  5. Thou shalt consider hand-washing indigo-dyed clothing to prevent fugitive dye from transferring onto other clothing.
  6. Thou shalt treat garments that have been stained by fugitive indigo dye by soaking them in an oxygen bleach solution for an hour up to overnight, then laundering as usual.
  7. Thou shalt keep your indigo clothing with like colors, or wrapped in acid-free tissue or cotton (an old pillowcase or cotton shoe bag is perfect for this purpose), to prevent dye transfer from occurring in storage.

So let it be written, so let it be done.