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.
- 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:
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.
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 :-).