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.)


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. Thanks for your topic and information. I used Synthropol on an antique quilt top that had blood or food stains, and some red dye bleeding onto light fabric. The Synthropol took out the stains and the red dye bleeding and made the fabric look almost new! Pretty good on 100 yr old fabric (dated by Barbara Brackman.)


  2. Thank you Becky for a great article! I have always washed my fabrics. (I never realized it made it easier to piece!) Years ago a friend told me to “clip” off the corners of the fabrics (on the diagonal) before washing. She thought it helped to reduce the thready tangles. I’ve done it ever since — do still get some tangles but not as much as before!


  3. Can’t agree with you more. I do have my serger set up with a simple over long 3 thread serge to keep from having to deal with the raveling. As to Orvus, it is a base in gredient in every non-soap, non-detergent product made – including your shampoos, body washes, etc. It’s a great pet wash!


  4. I open my fabric up and swish in warm water, no soap, in my deep sink. Then I spin the water out in the washer and dry in dryer. My primary purpose is to relax the fabric so that I can refold without any twist so that my rotary cutting gives me a straight cut across the fabric. It also allows me to fold my fabric a consistent size for storage on my shelves. Bleeding comes mostly from Batiks or dark or deeply dyed colors. Finishes seem to rinse out sufficiently and I don’t notice shrinkage, as I treat all my fabrics this way. I seldom buy fatt quarters and almost never precuts, but I give the quarters the same treatment. Promptly folding or laying out flat almost always eliminates the need to iron except for some woven plaids or stripes. I don’t see the need to use soap or subject the fabric to a whole wash cycle. Fabrics will “crock”, which is color loss from friction. I have used Orvus successfully for my antique or new quilts if they need laundering for some reason.


  5. So TRUE! I prewash every fabric that comes into my home because of chemical sensitivities and allergies.
    {Sensitivity is a mild word, but my reactions are dramatic and can earn me a 911 trip to the hospital.}
    The great sewing benefit is, as Becky writes, the fabrics are softer, easier to work with and give a better result. If I want an antique look, I use batting that shrinks.


  6. I’m a Pre-washer, Too. For lots of reasons. Had a Nightmare SWAP quilt… I use the Color Catchers and warm water with normal soap. Just like I would the finished Quilt.


  7. I’m a huge fan of pre-washing! I learned the hard way 40+ years ago. I made myself a really cute blouse for Christmas. I didn’t pre-wash the fabric because I was in a hurry. It fit really well. I wore it Christmas Day then I washed it. It shrunk so much, I couldn’t wear it again.

    I want to point out a typo- when mentioning how much Orvus pasted to use, you say top loader twice.


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