Pre-washing fabric is a little bit controversial in the sewing world. Quilters in particular are inclined to say that it’s better not to because the original starch that the fabric has in it makes it easier to cut accurately. This is true, but if you do pre-wash you can still use spray starch of some sort to make the fabric more stable for cutting.
I have several reasons for being an avid pre-washer myself. My first love in sewing was clothing, and there are few things more discouraging than going to all the trouble to make something nice and then having it ruined or marred when you wash it. As a quilter, I’d have to say the same thing holds true in some ways. I’ll share my reasons with you and you can decide for yourself what you want to do with it. :-)
If you are sewing clothing from dry-clean only fabric I’d guess that it isn’t an issue and in that case pre-washing wouldn’t be necessary. Anything that is washable, I recommend washing it according to the instructions, or according to the manner in which you intend to wash it. For example, some cotton cloth has the instructions to wash in cold water. For clothing or quilts that are going to be used a lot and very personal to someone’s use, that is not always the best way to wash. If you’re going to wash it in warm or hot water, at least cut a sample and put it through the cycle you intend to use or might find necessary. (In all honesty, kids do get pink eye and lice and other assorted contagious things that require hot water for washing. If that’s a remote possibility, wash a sample in hot water.)
In any case, for gifts, be sure to mark the label or include specific instructions for washing so the new owner knows what they can and can’t do with it.
Reasons I Pre-wash
1. Many fabrics shrink. Some only shrink a small amount and some don’t shrink at all. Some shrink a lot. I’ve learned the hard way that you don’t want it shrinking after the item is sewn.
And, it’s not just cotton that shrinks. The worse shrinkage I had was with some kind of synthetic lace. [See below.]
This is a corduroy vest I made years ago. I put lace over the front in two places. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I had not pre-washed the lace and, disappointingly, it shrank! You can see the wrinkle in the corduroy under the lace here that formed from the lace shrinking. I was till able to wear it, but it was rather awkward, not to mention frustrating.
In quilting with cotton shrinkage may not be as much of a problem since it adds to the appeal in some people’s eyes – making a sort of soft wrinkly texture that can give apparent age to a quilt. However, in some cases it could be a problem so consider the situation.
Whatever your project, if you have some fabrics that are pre-washed and some that aren’t, and the item will be washed later you may want to wash them all just to make sure you don’t end up with a problem.
For small pre-cuts and scraps that I received from others, I tend to not pre-wash for the sake of shrinkage, but I do still wash some of them for another reason…
2. Fabric colors can bleed or run.
I had a friend who was given a lovely red and white quilt. I think it was made for her by her mother-in-law. She was uncertain if the fabric had been per-washed and she was quite worried about the colors running, so she decided she wouldn’t wash it. I don’t remember if she even used it because of being concerned about soiling it and then needing to wash it. She may have been using it but just very carefully. Anyway, I know from personal experience that it’s a bit of a disappointment to receive a gift that you are afraid to wash for fear of ruining it. I was given a vest once pieced of bright colors mixed with a white print. I never did wash it because I knew the lady who made it didn’t pre-wash and one of the colors was a shade that I’d seen bleed badly before. It limits the use of a garment or quilt considerably when you’re afraid to wash it!
Here is a t-shirt dress that I made years ago. I did pre-wash the shirt before I made the dress, but I got a small grape juice stain on it one day and when it was washed we used stain remover on it. The stain remover caused the red to bleed again, and it stained the white background of the skirt.
Imagine how awful this would look in a quilt project where it was more obvious.
Mostly I only put larger pieces in the washing machine, other smaller cuts I hand wash. As I said, even with some pre-cuts and small scraps I do pre-wash. If it’s a very dark color and I’m mixing it with lights I probably would. In the case of small pieces, I hand wash them since the washing machine would only fray them – possibly beyond use. From experience of hand washing and seeing the water turn color, I tend to focus on pre-washing richer reds and blues since they appear to run the most. The quality of the fabric can influence the amount that the dyes will run too.
There are products that you can buy that are supposed to absorb the running dyes in the washing machine and keep the colors from settling in other fabrics. I have not tried them, but I’d be somewhat skeptical of the effectiveness with something like a quilt or a garment with bright colored trim. It might work fine, but I’d rather not take the chance. I’ll pre-wash if possible. :-)
The last two are lesser reasons, but still figure in my view.
3. Fabrics vary in quality and you can learn things about them by washing them. I have had fabrics that I thought were pretty nice come out of the washer and dryer a mess. One piece I’d thought to make some clothing out of was so wrinkly that I ended up giving it away or selling it. I didn’t want the bother of ironing out that mess every time I washed it! Sometimes something that feels a little thin will shrink in the wash and can come out feeling a little better. Sometimes you’ll find something doesn’t feel as thick or perhaps it will lose it’s sheen or fray terribly. All of this will tell you things you may need to know about your fabric.
Some fabrics that are used for clothing are very bad about fraying. You may not want to pre-wash fabric like that since it could really take away a lot around the edges. For my own part, I tend to steer away from those types in general because I don’t like to deal with making sure all the inside seams and edges are covered or secured properly to avoid having the garment ruined. And, I’ve had some unpleasant experiences with “fray-stopping” type products.
4. Washing sometimes reveals unseen flaws in the fabric.
This may not be a problem for quilters because they usually work more closely with their fabric and probably look at it more than those making clothing. However, it could still be a problem, especially on quilt backing. For those making clothing, this can be very important since you might not notice a small hole or slit in the fabric until it’s too late.
Washing can reveal things like runs (in knits), holes and possibly mistakes in the weaving. Also, if you iron your fabric after washing it, you are more likely to notice holes, fade lines and possible print flaws. If the problem is in a bad location, it may make the fabric unsuitable for the item you intended to make. Quilters may be able to cut around it and still use the fabric for piecing, but for quilt backs or for garments, it’s important to find these things ahead of time.
I’ve had holes show up after washing more than once. In more than one case it made me change my plans for the fabric or I had to come up with a way to cover the spot. I’ve also had fabric which looked fine to me before washing, but which I noticed afterwards was not dyed evenly. I still used that piece, but it was an every day work type jumper/pinafore from the start.
This is a fabric that I washed recently and, to my surprise, this hole appeared. I had not noticed it before I put it in the wash and didn’t notice until I was ironing. I intend to use this in a quilt project, so I can still get the pieces out of it that I need. You can see how an unwashed hole might not show up till after a garment or quilt backing was finished and washed. This would be an unhappy problem on a finished item!
So, those are my reasons for pre-washing almost all my fabric. I hope this will be helpful to you. I probably should link to someone who tells all the reason to not pre-wash, but hopefully, if you’re interested in that you can find something useful somewhere online. :-)
IMPORTANT Afterthought: When I machine wash smallish cuts of fabric I generally don’t put them in the dryer because it can make the raveling even worse. I shake them out and hang them in the bathroom, smoothing the fabric or pulling it as straight as possible. It will still be somewhat wrinkly. (I also tend to trim off the tangles that form at this stage.)
I haven’t tested this, but recently I washed some fabric that had been torn across the grain instead of cut. (Some people prefer to tear lengths of cotton fabric they are selling. It gives a more accurate measurement because it tears straight across the grain.) When I washed these three pieces I noticed that they did not get that usual bird’s nest of strings coming off the ends. I am interested to try this on some other pieces of cotton to see if this holds true, or if it’s just those particular fabrics that were better than the rest.
Additional thoughts from a friend:
“Small lengths I run under a hot tap, then hot dry iron. Longer lengths I soak in hot water, then dry iron. Cotton of course. Some cottons look substantial until the finish washes out, when they are revealed to be cheesy [like cheesecloth]. It is good to get rid of the chemicals in modern finishes, I think. They probably rot fabric long term.” - Marion
Editor: These are good ideas for pre-washing small pieces. Also, I have had fabric that looked and felt pretty good come out of the wash looking and feeling quite like cheesecloth! And, removing the chemicals is another good point for pre-washing. I hadn’t really thought about that. It’s also something to think of in terms of handling the fabric.