I tell this to nearly every class I teach because I think it's important. They don't like hearing it and you probably don't either. I'm sorry about that. I'm sharing this information because some of you may never have been given good reasons to wash (and dry) your fabric. You get to decide how to use the information.
I know that you probably don't wash your quilt fabric because when I talk about this in class only 5%-10% of students wash their fabric regularly. I ALWAYS pre-wash. Let me tell you why…
People quit washing their fabric when machine quilting entered the quilt world in the 1980s. It was noted that if you make your quilt with unwashed fabric, used a cotton batt, machine quilted and then washed the quilt, it would look more antique. This is true! Scores of quilters stopped washing their fabric and started machine quilting. They then washed their quilts and were happy with the shrunken, softer quilt.
Now, think about it – is it your goal to make a quilt that looks like an antique? If so, that's one sure way do it.
If you are not after the antique quilt look, you should prewash because:
- Fabric bleeds. How much has a lot to do with the water chemistry where you are. There is a lot of variation from place to place. Fabric that bleeds in one city may not in another.
- Fabric shrinks (more below). Different fabrics shrink at different rates. It is better if fabric is shrunk to size before being sewn into a quilt.
- Prewashed fabric behaves better for both applique and piecing. When the slick sizings and finishes are gone and the fabrics stay together better. You will find yourself pinning less when you piece. In applique, the pieces are easier to position and needleturn.
Fabric directly off the bolt has dyes, formaldehyde, insecticides, etc. I much prefer to wash those chemicals out of my fabric before I handle or store it.
I wash with Orvus Paste*. I almost always add a color catcher (made by Shout) in case something bleeds. I also have Synthrapol and Retayne on hand (the professional products for controlling bleeding). I wash in the washer in cold water. I dry my fabric in the dryer on warm. I fold it and put it on the shelf until I'm ready to use it, at which time I iron it.
Yes, my fabric twists together in the washer. I have to untwist and cut threads before moving the fabric to the dryer. I could serge or pink the raw edges but I don't. I do put small pieces of fabric in lingerie bags and that helps some. Front-loading machines may not have so much twisting.
Recently I found myself working on a quilt and I ran out of one fabric. I only needed about 1/3 yard and I had it on the bolt (which was nice). Being in a hurry, I thought maybe just this once I could skip washing this one piece of fabric. But I took a moment to check it against the same fabric that had been washed and dried. Oh my. This fabric, which is good fabric, had shrunk a full 3" from selvage to selvage! (The two fabrics are right sides together in the photo to make the top one easier to see.)
Some fabrics shrink more than others. Batiks have already been through so much in the manufacturing process that they rarely shrink. Hand dyes probably won't shrink – but they can and do bleed. Every other fabric that you buy off of a bolt will shrink and/or bleed a little or a lot and I can't tell by looking what will happen to any given fabric.
If you make a quilt with some fabric that won't shrink and other fabrics that shrink a lot and you wash it, the fabrics will shrink at different rates and you can end up with a ripply mess. (On the upside, it might look antique.)
You may imagine that your quilts will never be washed, and maybe they won't be. But what if they get dirty? Or spilled on? Or, or, or… stuff happens. For myself, I prefer to work with fabric that has been shrunk and that the excess dyes and chemicals washed have been washed out of.
If you have never worked with washed (and dried) fabric, you are used to the way fabric feels off the bolt. It feels thicker, stiffer, slicker than it will after you wash it. My suggestion is that you give working with washed fabric a try**. I think you might be surprised.
*You can find Orvus Paste at Tractor Supply or feed and seed sort of store. In a full-size top loader, I use something like a tablespoon of Orvus Paste for a full load. If I had a top loader I would use much less and mix it with water before using.
If you google Orvus Paste, you can read much more, some of it good, some not. I'll still use it because I don't see another better choice and it has worked well for me for years. That said, if I find a better soap, I'll try it.
**I decided to do the reverse – I sewed with fabric right off the bolt. It was as I remembered. The two pieces slid against each other, making piecing accurately trickier. I used a lot more pins than I normally do. Auditioning fabrics on the design wall is harder because the slicker fabric does not want to stay put.
FYI – I don't use any of the ironing sprays either. If I need to spritz the fabric I use plain water.