Why Does Light Fabric Turn Yellow and What Can I Do About It?


I have a set of embroidered, cream-colored Christmas towels that are only used for decoration.  They have never been washed and reside in my linen closet. I recently took them out of the closet, and they have yellowed in certain places. I am extremely upset as these towels are my favorite and were pretty expensive.

What causes this yellowing and is there a solution to getting the stains out without damaging the embroidered design on the towels?

Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you!
Yellow in Yellowstone

Why do light fabrics turn yellow?

Many fabrics will turn yellow with age; it’s just much more noticeable on lighter colors. Fabric yellowing is frustrating and is exacerbated by a few factors. In your case, I wouldn’t blame the most common culprit, too much bleach, but it’s good to know it can cause the problem. 

Some fibers turn yellow as they age and sometimes blends of different fibers will yellow faster than those made of only one type.

Materials fabric comes in contact with can cause yellowing through chemical transfer. Think plastics, papers, wood shelving, cardboard, etc

When fabrics are made, they are often treated with chemicals before being sent to warehouses or stores. This process is called finishing. These chemicals can break down over time creating the yellow you have observed. This breakdown can be exacerbated by heat. 

When someone hangs towels for decoration, the hope is that no one uses them. The reality is that people may touch those towels and soap or lotion residue can be transferred. Since the effect isn’t immediately obvious, most people are unaware that there’s any harm.

In the case described above, I would suspect some combination of the latter two causes. 

How to fix yellowed fabric

Keep in mind that sometimes the yellowing is irreversible or only fixable if a method strong enough to damage the embroidery is used. 

I would suggest soaking the towels in an oxygen bleach solution; it’s the safest bet for removing the yellow without damaging the embroidery. While your towels aren’t silk or wool, it should be said that oxygen bleach is not safe for either of these fabrics. Follow the package directions as concentrations vary by brand and try an overnight soak. 

In other cases where there isn’t the concern of damaging other colors you have more options available:

How to reduce the chance of fabric yellowing

Launder fabrics without the use of fabric softener (or dryer sheets) before storage. The fabric should be fully dry, and your hands should be impeccably clean (with no lotion) before handling. Fold the fabric and wrap it in acid and lignin free tissue paper to prevent contact with materials that can cause yellowing through chemical transfer. The fabric should then be stored in a cool, dry place. If your linen closet is in a bathroom, it is unlikely to be dry. If you want to store the fabric in plastic, be sure that it is polypropylene. 

As far as soap and lotion transfer, good luck. Explain to family members why wiping their clean hands on the towels can cause harm. Just saying don’t do it wouldn’t have been enough for me as a kid if I understood why it may have helped. (I say may because I was, ok am, rather mule-headed.) You can reduce the chance of a guest inadvertently using your towels by making sure there is a hand towel for use in a very conspicuous place. 

People are imperfect, and while it’s frustrating to feel like you just can’t have nice things, it’s the people you’re decorating for.

Best of luck!

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

1 Comment

  1. Anne on May 11, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    Regarding embroidered fabric that has yellowed with age: If you look at linen that is sold for embroidering, you’ll see that it is often offered in many shades of “beige.” These colors give an heirloom look to the handiwork. It is one that many people cherish.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.