Yes, you really do need to wash your fabric!

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.


OrvusEtc copy

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.


FabricInLaundryBags copy

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.)

Prewash-1

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.




61 thoughts on “Yes, you really do need to wash your fabric!

  1. AND, you forgot to mention that some ladies are ALLERGIC to the sizing or other chemicals used on fabric while its being made and dyed. So, if anyone has allergies, they should always prewash. Have seen a few folks at quilt shops wearing gloves due to allergy problems.
    I have a front loading machine and the twisting on the fabric is not quite as bad as when I had a top loading machine.

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  2. Excellent article! I’m a strong supporter of pre-washing all my fabric. It gets thrown into the washing machine the moment I get the fabric home from the store. It doesn’t go into my studio until it is wash and dried. I had a bad experience with a group quilt when someone (actually, several people) did not follow the directions to pre-wash their fabric. Yes, it bled all over the finished quilt. Fortunately, I was able to get the excess dye out!

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  3. Thank you so much for this article. I have always pre-washed my fabric but I’ve wondered about the ironing sprays or starches. I’ve never used, but I reading blogs makes me wonder if I should. Thanks for the clarification.

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  4. Mostly I dont buy precuts because they are too hard to wash. If I was determined to wash them, Id use a lingerie bag but they are still going to twist and fray. And shrink. In some ways it simplifies my fabric shopping. I dont even look at them.

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  5. I always wash my fabrics! It’s the first thing I do when I get home from the quilt shop! Washing, drying and ironing my fabric before I cut and use it in a quilt helps me to appreciate the fabric that I have. Some are softer, some are stiffer, some bleed a little, some don’t bleed at all….. it’s all about getting to know the fabrics that I’m putting into a quilt. And since I hand quilt all of my quilts, I get to know them very well! By the way…. I’m just beginning to needleturn applique using your book and videos and I must say…. I love your techniques and tips! Thanks a million, Becky!

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  6. Thank you – I always wash fabric when it walks in the door. Stop 1 Laundry room — I was in a block swap a few years ago. I received, 1 set of blocks that ran horribly when I spray a little water on them. (Before I put them in the quilt.) All that work ruined and put in the trash.
    Hope you will let us know when Bear makes an appearance.

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  7. I bought Orvus paste on your recommendation a couple years ago. I’m still on my first gallon – it lasts forever! And, I can vouch for the fact that it cleans my fabric and my quilts well, and has no scent, which I like.

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  8. In case you didn’t know, Retayne should NOT be used in a front-loader washing machine. I’d seen advice both ways and contacted the manufacturer. Front-loaders do not use enough water for the Retayne to do its thing. They recommended hand washing as follows:
    Hand wash
    1. Use an old enamel canning kettle or plastic bucket that is not used for food
    preparation and add water that has been heated to 140°F (60°C). The quantity of water
    must completely cover the cloth and allow it to move around freely.
    2. Add 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of Retayne for each yard of fabric.
    3. Add dry fabric. Swish your fabric around in the hot Retayne bath for 20 minutes with
    a spoon or wooden dowel. After 20 minutes, rinse with cold water and dry at once.

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  9. I have a front loader. I prewash all my fabrics (believe it or not) in Tide, sometimes with my regular wash. It tangles. I untangle. Because my washer wrings out so much water, I frequently hang the fabric on a drying rack and let it air dry. And yes, I use lingerie bags for my smaller pieces. I try to remember to wash all new fabric as it comes into the house, bur I sometimes fail, so some pieces either get machine washed twice, or I will hand wash small pieces. Seems to work.

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  10. Lingerie bags? Brilliant!!!! I’m a rabid pre-washer and I have ALL of the supplies in your photo to prove it LOL. I do get tired of cutting all those tangled strings when I prewash a fat quarter pack — I just know my life will change now that I know about lingerie bags. Thank You!!!

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  11. Thank you for your reply. I have a few rolls that were gifts and I love the fabrics. I think I will just steam before I use them. It is something I learned in garment construction classes. Love your blog and books.

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  12. I wash all fabric when it comes in the house. I have a front loader washer and use Shout Color Catchers. I fan fold the fabric, no matter the size, and safety pin the selvedge edge.
    I do not buy precuts. I don’t recall the largest amount of yardage that I have washed this way. Probably in the 7-8 yard range, I know that I have washed 6 yards of 108 backing fabric. I folded in half (selvedge) before fan folding and washing.
    Sure beats the tangles.
    I damp dry in the dryer amd lay it out on the ironing table or cutting table to finish drying. At some point, I will flip it over to complete the drying. I press it, fold it selvedge to selvedge and then fold to selvedge. I use a six inch wide rule to roll it up and slip out the ruler and place the fabric in the drawer. It is ready for me to use. I just have to roll off a foot or so and cut strips.
    Works for me. I have a 40×72 inch cutting table and a 2 foot x 8 foot ironing table.
    PS. Only time I had a problem was when I bought a premarked backing (to quilt from the back), I had to separate it from the other fabric and mark “Do Not Wash”. The smell was icky when I was quilting that quilt.

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  13. Wow, do I feel lazy! I just wash, dry, and fold my fabric! Fan folding is a good idea, but I know myself well enough that Ill bet I dont do it. But I think I should…

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  14. Wow, do I feel lazy! I just wash, dry, and fold my fabric! Fan folding is a good idea, but I know myself well enough that Ill bet I dont do it. But I think I should…

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  15. I’ve pre-washed ever since finding out all the different critters and varmin that can inhabit the warehouses and manufacturing sites where fabric can be found before it makes it to the local quilt shop! No way will I work with or store fabric in my home w/o washing it first. For small pieces (either precuts or scraps hijacked from fellow quilters) I use a small wash tub of luke warm water and just gently finger swish to wash and rinse–then lay them on a terry towel to dry.

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  16. Becky – You and I are on the same page. I ALWAYS wash my fabric too before I use it! Have been for decades. I think I know why quilters don’t like to wash, it’s because it’s too much trouble and they would rather not bother (laziness?). Here is my advice, take that extra step and you won’t be sorry later.

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  17. You know, we are all way too busy so I can understand the appeal of skipping steps. I streamline my life as much as I can and I know that I am guilty of skipping all sorts of important things. But this is one chore that I never skip.

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  18. I found the different water comment interesting. I had a quilt which took many years to complete. I pre-washed all fabrics in it. We moved and I noticed that the dark green fabric had bled into adjacent white. When I washed the remnant still in the stash at the new home it bled significantly. I think the bleeding on the quilt itself, came from being damp from removing applique guide marks, which was done after the move. A fellow guild member told me to wash with a cup of white vinegar and color catcher sheets. I did so and all came out well. The marks already on the quilt were gone and no further bleeding. Background of the quilt is white on white. Interestingly, the color catcher sheets had pink tone to them. No green!

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  19. I have been successful with getting excess dye out of precuts by placing them in a large over the sink colander a few at a time and running very hot water through them using a sink spray. I just air dry them over hangers or spread out on a heavy towel.

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  20. I was looking forwarding to purchasing Orvus, but after reading some of the information about it not preforming well in hard water I am reluctant to try it. Our water is very, very hard and difficult to get anything to rinse out. Any suggestions would be appreciated. I do wash with a very small amount of regular laundry detergent. I currently use Arm and Hammer.

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  21. Air drying is not quite the same as using a dryer. Ill bet the shrinkage rates are different. That said, I dont have any data to back up my supposition. It would be interesting to do some tests. I dont have time to. Do any of you?

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  22. We have hard water, but I dont if it is hard hard hard. If youve used Arm and Hammer with success, it probably makes sense to stick with that. I would look for a detergent/soap with as few additives as possible. That means doing research which is time spent not sewing. I do so wish there were universal, easy choices!

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  23. I do try to just air dry everything in a top if using precuts with yardage. They may eventually shrink more when all are machine washed together but not an obvious amount. No big problems.

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  24. Having used Sherman water for bathing and doing a little laundry I can safely say our water takes the prize. I don’t wish our aquifer hard water on anyone!

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  25. Ive gotten so used to our water that I only notice a difference when I am some place with softer water. My hair behaves better and soap feels very different. Here, we dont even bother with an ice maker any more. After replacing 3 we went back to making our own cubes.
    All of that said, I havent had a problem that Ive noticed with Orvus.

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  26. I really dont buy precuts for this very reason. But when I do have small pieces of fabric to wash, I use lingerie bags. It helps. But if you have precuts that are cut to a size ready to sew, they will not be that size after washing and drying.
    Some have suggested washing in the sink and air drying. That is better than not washing at all but Im not sure that you would get the same amount of shrinkage that you do from the washer and dryer.

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  27. I always prewash my fabric before it goes into my stash as my nose drips and I sneeze whenever working around “new” fabric; have to bring a box of tissues with me when taking classes at quilt shops…such a nuisance!! (Guess it means I have an allergy to those chemicals…).
    My question: what is the reason for using the special soap? I’ve just always used my laundry detergent and, of late, have been sending it out to be laundered…even lazier than those who don’t want to wash theirs first…lol…Thanks!

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  28. You made me laugh! I had not thought of sending fabric out. If I had a place I trusted locally, Id be tempted.
    I think that regular detergents have additives that help to repel dirt, etc. I have noticed that when Ive washed a piece of fabric in detergent with my laundry, it feels a little different, a little softer. Perhaps thats because of our hard water. At any rate, I prefer the feel of it when I use Orvus.

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  29. I have used every method I’ve ever heard of to stop the tangling threads when pre-washing fabrics. The ONLY method was one I thought of myself, in desperation. This is for fabric yardage too large to put in laundry bags. This will not work if you must conserve very tightly on your fabric use. But if you have large pieces, and can cut with scissors down into the fabric on the cut ends about 1 -1&1/2 inches. and about 2 to 3 inches apart from selvage to selvage on both ends, you will not have that tangled mess. This has been successful for me several times, and I lose just as much from tangling as from cutting, so lose nothing but the tangling mess. Do try this and see if it works for you!

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  30. I’ll have to get some Orvus and give it a try. I do promise one thing, though. I am NOT rewashing all the fabric I own. It would probably take me a month of Sundays…Thanks for your informative blog!

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  31. I’m a pre washer as well. Funny, that orvis soap was what I used to wash my cow when I was a kid in 4H. Made your hands so soft, the cows hair and tail so white and soft, I love it!

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  32. I used to prewash and then due to time constraints I stopped, the last year or so I was troubled by a niggling cough, it was only when I had been away from my workroom for a couple of weeks that I realised that working with the unwashed fabric was part of the reason for the cough.
    Any new fabric is now washed and I am slowly working through the older fabric, I usually put the fabric in a lingerie bag and wash it with my bathroom towels. For large amounts of fabric I have a couple of larger bags and they seem to work well at preventing twisting and fraying.
    Best of all my cough has all but disappeared 🙂

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  33. I always pre-wash. I try to convince all my quilting friends to do it…. I had a nightmare situation back when I was a costumer with a rayon fabric that grew to 3 times the size when dyed. We had to take the dress apart and recut all the pieces smaller. We were making 7 of the same dress!
    My front-loading washer is *much* better at not making the raw edges fray, and the pieces of fabric don’t tangle up nearly as badly as in my old top-loader.

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  34. That is interesting. I often tell people that they should be careful with large amounts of unwashed fabric if they have lung conditions or allergies. I had never thought about the fabric being the cause! I had been thinking of it as in irritant.

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  35. I tend to wash all my fabrics on a hot wash once before sewing with them. I then tumble dry them quite hot with a fabric sheet softener. But after reading your post I’m strangely intrigued about what would happen if I didn’t do this!

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  36. Thank you for your post. I used to be an avid pre-washer, but have become more relaxed about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that it really is a personal preference and one should test it for oneself. However, I do want to say that colour migration or bleeding can be the result of two fabrics next together, causing a chemical reaction. Neither fabric would have bleed in the pre-wash process. In my quilting classes I talk about both pros and cons and let the student decide for themselves. Harriet Hargrave has done some extensive work on that subject – Her book From Fiber to Fabric is a wealth of information. Thank you again for taking the time to blog about this! Cheers!

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  37. Whoah, Kim, let’s not be too hasty to judge, eh? I don’t pre-wash, and it’s not because I’m lazy. I always test for bleed, which is a separate issue. I machine piece, and hand applique and quilt (these days, I have done the machine quilting and am now in a calm quiet place where I want to stitch quietly.) I am not allergic to any finishes, but appreciate it may be an issue for some.
    I finish my quilt and into the washer it goes. All to shrink together beautifully, and the hand-quilting does that lovely antique thing. Before it goes on a bed/sofa/round a child it is quite soft and weathered and ‘finish free’.
    So, a deliberate decision on my part, not through laziness, and taking all your issues into account, Becky. I still think it horses for courses, and as long as you are aware of the facts you should go ahead and do what you prefer. But a great post, and some very helpful and useful information, many thanks!

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  38. Thank you so much for posting this information and to everyone for their follow up information. I used to wash but had people tell me I was wasting my time, now I’ll go back to washing, all the reasons you have listed make so much sense.

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