Yes, you do need to wash your fabric.

I’ve written 5 posts since 2008 about why I always wash my fabric in the washer and dry it in the dryer. I still recommend pre-washing your fabric because…

1. Cotton fabric shrinks when washed in the washer and dried in the dryer. The photo below is a good example. The fabric was 2 1/2″ shorter (selvage to selvage) after washing. I was surprised — it didn’t feel like a fabric that would shrink very much.

Prewash-1

  • Be aware that different fabrics shrink at different rates. Batiks don’t shrink much, other cottons can shrink a lot, or a little, and you can’t tell by looking at them. My Moda rep tells me that bolts in the same collection can also shrink at different rates.

I want all my fabric to be the same size when I use them in a quilt. That way, if/when the quilt is washed, I don’t have to worry about uneven shrinkage.

2. Cotton can bleed. I want the excess dye, sizing, and other chemicals out of my fabric before I work with it. It is my experience that water chemistry has a lot to do with the amount of bleeding.

Here’s how I wash  fabric now:

OrvusEtc copy

I sort my fabrics by value and/or color.

  • I use Orvus Paste instead of laundry detergent. I like the feel of the fabric better with Orvus. Orvus is a sheep shampoo that you can find at Tractor Supply or Amazon. A little bit goes a long way. In my HE (high efficiency) top-loading machine I use 1 teaspoon of Orvus in about 1/2-cup of water.
  • When washing dark colors, I use Orvus and Retayne (not shown). Retayne is a color fixative. I’m not following the manufacturer’s instructions. You are supposed to “use one teaspoon per yard of fabric in HOT water (at least 140º F) and soak for 20-30 minutes, with enough water to cover the fabric. – Dharma Trading” 

I am not sure how to make my HE washer fill with enough hot water to soak the fabric and I can’t picture myself soaking fabric in my tub. So I add Retayne to the washer, wash with hot water, and hope for the best.

  • When washing light colors, I use Orvus and Synthrapol in hot water. Synthrapol removes excess dye. Online instructions say: “After using Retayne, wash in hot water and Synthrapol to get out any remaining, unfixed dye. If you don’t do this last step with the Synthrapol, then only wash in cool water rinse and cool water for the life of the fabric. You do risk some fading when using the Synthrapol and hot water, as it will remove any remaining “fugitive” dye. – Dharma Trading”

I haven’t noticed fabric fading, but it could happen with some fabrics.

In addition to Orvus, Retayne, and Synthrapol, I add a Shout Color Catcher to each load.

  • Color Catchers grab excess dye not handled by the other chemicals. I never reuse a color catcher, even if it comes out white, because I assume that the chemicals in each sheet are washed out with one use.

Shout doesn’t tell us what is in Color Catchers, but it sounds like Synthrapol.

Fabric can still bleed after washing, especially if you wash in water from a different source. Be sure to use Synthrapol, Color Catchers, and maybe Retayne, when you wash your quilts until you are sure they are not going to bleed. Watch them as they dry and if you see any bleeding, get them back in the wash.

3. Cotton feels, and behaves, differently after it has been washed and dried. Washing and drying raises the grain, or the nap, of the fabric.

  • Unwashed fabric is slick and stiff. When you sew two pieces of un-washed fabric together, there is more movement between them because they are slick. There is more ‘creep’ that comes from the feed dogs pulling the fabric one way and the presser foot pushing it the other way which makes controlling the fabric more difficult.

When you put two pieces of washed fabric together, they stay put. The ‘nap’ in the fabrics grab each other. I have found this to be good in both piecing and appliqué.

  • You may have noticed that unwashed fabric does not stick to most design walls. Washed fabric stays put on my flannel design wall. I can layer many pieces and they still stay put. This may not be important to you but I find it much easier to work with pieces that stay put on the wall.

Here you can see The Magical Unicorn in progress on my design wall. There may be a few pins, but not very many, because the fabric stays put.

Photo-3

So why haven’t you heard this before? My guess is that most quilters have never been told why they should wash their fabric, so they don’t. It takes time and isn’t fun. But I think this information is important to share and so I have. Now I can go sew :-).

 

 

35 thoughts on “Yes, you do need to wash your fabric.

  1. I have always washed and starched my fabrics. That’s one reason why I don’t use jelly rolls, besides the fact that they aren’t accurate and that annoys me.

    If I buy a kit, and it has small pieces of fabric, I’ll lay them out and spritz with water and press them dry. If they are fabrics that might run, I’ll soak them in a sink with synthrapol or retayne air dry and then press.

    I never could understand when people tell me they don’t prewash. I know a teacher that uses civil war fabrics and she doesn’t prewash. I’ve had black, indigo, and red civil wars that run. She says she’s never had a problem.

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    • I use jelly rolls & charm packs. I use a salad spinner to wash & rinse. I use as hot of water as I can, swish them around, dump the water, then spin, rinse & spin again. I lay the pieces out and they dry on no time. This really works great for me.

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  2. Thank you for discussing this so thoroughly. I have an HE front loader. Are the directions different?
    I will make sure all my fabrics are washed before starting. Do you sew the raw edges-serge or zigzag before you wash?

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    • I haven’t used a front loader. There may be less water in the wash cycle. (You could do some googling to see what you can find out about that.) I’d start with less Orvus and see how it goes.

      >

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  3. Love it, love it. When I started quilting, I used to prewash my fabric in a sink. Pretty quick, that white sink turned black with dye and chemicals – that was enough for me – everything gets washed (but now i use the washing machine !) and fortunately a little bleach fixed the sink ! thanks for this great post.

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  4. A thousand thank you for this concise explanation of how and (I think more importantly) why everyone should pre wash.
    I think I need to print this out for future reference.
    Happy sewing.
    Barb

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  5. Thank you for sharing such great info Becky. I hope you’ve convinced a few of the great unwashed out there. :-). I’ve sort of given up trying to convince my non-washing friends – it’s sort of like politics – they already have their minds made up. Now I’ll tell them to consult you LOL. And I have that same container of Orvis that I’ve had for 20 years – it never occurred to me to use it for washing fabrics – I use it for my quilts. It’s lasted for so long because I try not to wash them too much.

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  6. I heard you give this information at the Galveston guild workshop. I’m so glad you have put all this great information here in writing. You have changed my mind about washing fabrics. Thank you!

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    • Nope, no starch, no sizing, none of the scented sprays. If I need more oomph that my steam iron provides, I spritz with water.

      Once you get used to working with un-starched fabric you won’t miss it.

      >

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    • I don’t use charm squares, layer cakes, or jelly rolls. When I was carrying fabric on my site, I never sold them because I knew that I would not use them myself.

      Kits can be a problem for the same reason. Linda and I always cut kits with fabric pieces large enough to be washable but most places do not.

      Darn, right?

      >

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  7. I haven’t been washing my fabrics (though I know better) and now I have a competed quilt with wool batting (king size) with one of the reds that bled from perspiration….I have been debating for a year on how best to wash this quilt and minimize further bleeding.
    Could have prevented if I had prewashed!

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    • I have a quilt that I made years ago and, even though the fabric had been washed in Tulsa, when I washed it in Sherman, 1 block bled.

      I ignored it for a very long time until last month when I decided to try to fix it. I pre-soaked the bad part with OxiClean mixed with water. This can cause more bleeding, so I watched it carefully. Then I washed the quilt, in the washer, with Orvus, more OxiCkean, Synthrapol, and 2 Color Catchers. I’m happy to say that It’s not all the way fixed, but it’s a lot better.

      You have to decide if you are willing to risk more bleeding, or if you can live with it the way it is.

      >

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  8. Great info B.
    I have always been a fabric ‘washer/dryer’. Many friends think it a waste of time. If I use precuts (even BOM fabrics) I will soak in the sink and dry on a towel.
    I am an antique quilt restorer and always test the dark fabrics before I wash a customer’s quilt. Even our Grandmother’s didn’t alway wash new fabrics. I see this a lot with appliquéd red and white quilts. A swab with warm water can save a lot of heartache! If the swab turns pink, Don’t Wash!
    I don’t want to leave a quilt of mine to my family that can never be washed.
    LS

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  9. Becky, I have heard lots of people weigh the pros and cons of pre-washing fabric, but I have never heard/seen such a persuasive argument as the one you present. I may have to rethink this whole idea. I don’t, however, use a design wall. I find that the fabric stretches and moves more after being washed when I try to cut it with a rotary cutter. .

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  10. Thank you Becky for all the explanation. I am a hand applique and hand quilter. I took your applique class in Nashville Tenn many years ago. I always wash my fabrics. I was trained to do so and love the results.

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  11. I have always washed and dried my fabric in the washer and dryer but now I know more reasons why it is important to do this. Plus I have more reasons to tell those who don’t why I do it myself.

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  12. Thanks for this very reasonable discussion of why we should pre-wash. So often it is, as another commenter said, like politics. I’ve been told I need to pre-wash, but the reasons amount to “because I believe in it with all my heart”. You have presented a rational case, and I’m this-close to changing my entire belief system. In fact, I think it’s a done deal!

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  13. I always pre wash because of the reasons you mention, especially not wanting to be exposed to the chemicals I. The fabric.

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  14. I try to wash all my new fabrics so when I want to start a project, I am ready to go! Washing also removes chemicals from the new fabrics. I cringe when people bring quilts for quilting with a backing right from the store and a top which has been made with prewashed fabric. On a queen size quilt, 3-5% shrinkage means 3-5″ which will leave an unpleasant result!

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  15. I love your clear explanation of the WHY of prewashing fabrics. I have been quilting for over 30 years and always prewash fabrics. I’ve saved myself from heartache more than once when I found fabric that bled excessively. I’ve struggled with trying to use jelly roll precuts though and after hand washing one (don’t do it!), I’ve mostly stopped using precut fabrics precisely because they are difficult to prewash.

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    • I don’t starch because: I don’t miss it when I don’t use it in piecing. I don’t like the feel of starch in the fabric when I hand applique. It seems sort of sticky, especially when it’s humid. I don’t necessarily wash every quilt but I would want to wash out the starch which would mean washing every quilt. It’s one more thing to do and I don’t want more to do

      >

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  16. I really enjoyed your post on washing fabrics. I have been burned a couple times by not washing. However, I have been concerned about washing for fear it would wash out the fabric and it wouldn’t look new. I’m going to try this method.

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  17. I’ve always machine washed and dried my fabrics before they are allowed into my studio. I have some fabrics on bolts that are unwashed, but they have to stay outside the studio door! I know some people starch their fabrics, but why? I’m never felt the need to work with stiff fabric.

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  18. I really never knew about the fabric tacking together better. I think I’m going to have to start washing the fabric first. But it will give me a little excitement waiting for it to get done. LOL

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