Q & A: Do You Pre-Wash Your Fabric?

Photo courtesy of jenburn on Flickr.

Pre-washing any kind of home-washable fabric before you sew is considered best practice. There are a few good reasons one might choose not to pre-wash quilt fabrics, though:

Sew a Quilt runs down the pros and cons of washing and not washing 100% cotton fabrics for quilting projects. This about.com article has similar arguments.

In The Modern Quilt Workshop, Bill Kerr and Weeks Ringle recommend always pre-washing your quilting fabrics. They write:

Over the years we have had even high quality fabrics bleed. Some fabrics shrink at quicker rates than others. One fabric maker told us that imported fabrics are sometimes manufactured using chemicals that are not considered safe in the United States. You’re going to be handling this fabric a lot. Make sure it’s clean.

They add that baby shampoo or laundry soap (I like Charlie’s Soap) is preferable over detergent.

Quilter’s Buzz asked this same question a while back and got numerous responses. Many people make it a practice to wash some fabrics but not others.

These arguments and considerations about pre-washing quilting cotton can be extended to all other washable fabric types.

You should always pre-wash vintage fabrics (see the bottom of this post for one very compelling reason). See this post for more on vintage fabric care.

One thing that bugs me about pre-washing woven fabrics is the raveling. Even when I cut my fabric with pinking shears, there tends to be raveling. I hate dealing with the strangled mess that comes out of the washer and dryer. If you have any tips on avoiding that, please let me know. I’ve pre-washed and line-dried my fabrics by hand before, which circumvented the problem, but it’s not the most convenient option.

I admit that I don’t always pre-wash — sometimes I forget, sometimes I’m too excited to get sewing. What about you — do you pre-wash? Why or why not? If you pre-wash only some of the time, why?

35 Comments

  1. Sewer-Sewist says:

    I prewash my fabrics every single time. It’s one of those things that my mom drilled into me when I was little and first learning to sew. That, and always use a fresh needle in your machine and clean the lint out of the machine after each project. Since I primarily sew clothes, it’s particularly essential to prewash to both get any nasty solvents off of the fabric and account for potential shrinkage, which is particularly important since I only sew with natural fibers. Sometimes, I’ll even prewash twice, if the fabric seems like it hasn’t had as much shrinkage as I’d expect. Unless the fabric doesn’t handle it well, I always machine dry, too, so that it shrinks as much as possible before it’s a garment. (Which is funny, since I line dry most of my clothing.) There’s nothing worse that making an elaborate pair of pants (or whatever) and then having them shrink immediately after the first washing. To prevent fraying I pink the edges with a rotary cutter with a pinking blade. For fabrics that fray a lot, I will zigzag the raw edges. I do this primarily with corduroy or cotton velveteen, both of which fray, fray, fray. Using the “gentle” or “delicate” cycle on the washer will help with a fabric that frays severely as well.

    Whew! Who knew I could write so much about fabric prewashing?

    ~Sarah

  2. allison says:

    I pretty much always pre-wash/-shrink; I made an apron once w/o washing first (lightweight cotton), and the interfacing I applied got all bubbly and funky after washing it the first time. Lesson learned! Also, I hate drycleaning & would rather get an idea of the effects (slash-consequences) of machine or hand-washing before investing X hours into a project. For ravelly fabrics, I usually straight-stitch a line ~1/4″-1/8″ from the cut edge. It at least minimizes the amount of fabric that turns into thready knots in the cycle.

  3. laura r. says:

    YES! on Charlie’s Soap!! it is great!
    powder works better than liquid (cleans better) & the packaging is minimal with Charlie’s Soap.
    p.s. always pre-wash.

  4. Karen says:

    I used to ALWAYS prewash. But then a few years ago I got lazy and decided that my quilts look better when they shrink post putting together. I just love the old-style wrinkled look, and I figure that unwahsed fabrics will do that better.
    I will say that I made a quilt last year that had a lot of white in it (with bright reds and hot pinks) and I was so nervous about dye running. So I read online and found these Shout Brand fabric dye catchers- surprisingly very little dye was caught in the sheet, and the quilt looked great (and run free).

    I do always wash fabric before making clothes though.

  5. nanann says:

    I ALWAYS pre-wash my cottons. All fabrics start life in my laundry room and don’t come out until they’ve been run through the washer and dryer. My main concern has always been running dyes.

    However, I have recently jumped into making dress-up outfits & costumes for my 3-yr-old daughter, and used sateens, etc. I haven’t washed those and don’t even know what the washing instructions are. I guess I better go read the ends of some bolts!

  6. Sarah says:

    I always prewash. First, fabric manufacturing is a chemically intense process. I’m going to be exposing myself to that fabric for hours, if not days. I’m with Bill Kerr and Weeks Ringle on this one, prewash for your own safety.
    Second, my primary fabric art is quilts intended for daily use, mostly by infants. This both seconds the safety argument and also argues for prewashing as a test of durability. I torture my fabric in prewashing. I wash it with the hottest water and dry it on the highest temperature, figuring parents trying to sanitize a blankie are going to do at least that. If the fabric can’t stand up to hot water washing and hot temperature drying, it’s certainly not going to survive being used as a teething toy.
    Third, I’ve seen too many colors run and ruin a lot of hard work. Especially when I use hand-dyed fabric, I run it through the wash with Synthrapol to remove any loose dye molecules. Even after that I do a test soak with a swatch of white and the hand-dyed fabric to make sure the color doesn’t run.
    My quilts still shrink a little after they’re quilted, giving that grandma’s attic look. This is probably because I don’t prewash my batting (not that batting manufacturing is clean and healthy – I just fear creating a giant lint monster in my washing machine) and I sew with 100% cotton thread.
    Between the washing machine and the dryer I trim loose threads, separate each piece of fabric from anything it has attached to, and I use my hand to smooth the fabric. This is partially to avoid bird nests and partially to avoid the dryer setting super wrinkles. It’s an extra step, but I find it cuts my nests in half and reduces my ironing time.

  7. Jacqui says:

    I always prewash if it’s a fabric that might shrink – like cotton or wool. I usually try and subject it to the worst treatment it’s likely to experience when made up because then I’m confident it won’t shrink further or run – that’s usually a hot wash and a run through the dryer. Normally my clothes and objects get a cool or warm wash and line drying, but it’s best to be safe! Fabric doesn’t shrink or run as much as it used to but I’d rather not take the chance.

    To stop ravelling I just run a zig-zag stitch down the raw edges, stops ravelling in its tracks! It is an extra step though, so if I don’t really care if I lose a cm or so then I just bung the fabric in to the washer and live with the rat’s nests :)

  8. Michelle says:

    Thank you putting this question out there…I’m relatively new to all of this, and have heard conflicting accounts of the pre-wash saga. I’m like you, though…I sometimes forget or am over-eager to start whatever I’m working on!! Plus, I don’t have a lot of storage space, so I don’t have a good way to differentiate between washed & unwashed, other than by feel and wrinkles.

    I just did a load of fabric with “2X Ultra Tide Free,” and that seemed to work well, little fading, and no bleeding (and I was bold and mixed black & white together!).

  9. Kathleen says:

    I must admit that I’m in the minority and DON’T prewash. If I use red I will test it first but that’s about it.

  10. Lara H says:

    I also toss a hunk of anything that is labeled “dry-clean only” through the washer. If it looks to have survived the washer I toss half of the chunk into the dryer as well. You’d be amazed what you can get away with machine washing/drying as well as some of the cool things that happen to the stuff you really shouldn’t have.

  11. I always pre-wash my fabrics, so I don’t have to worry about shrinking or running colors… I have found that if I just go ahead and pop the fabrics in the wash right after I get any new fabrics, it helps me remember to pre-wash & I don’t have to think about pre-washing right before I start a project. (It also helps because then you know that all your fabrics in your stash are pre-washed, so you don’t have to do extra work & wash again if you can’t remember…) For unraveling, a trick I love is just sewing a straight line down the raw edge of the fabric. (You can set your stitch length for longer, since it doesn’t need to stay in for long and that makes the stitching go faster.) Simple & quick! :)

  12. Ann says:

    We buy lots of bolts and wash hundreds of yards of fabric a year for the charity. To avoid the raveling issue and make dealing with the fabric easier, we use a serger to cut it into one yard pieces and bind the edges before washing.

  13. Concha says:

    I always pre-wash my cotton fabrics. After bringing them home, they go directly to the kitchen into the washing machine. I wash them at 60°C (hot) and then I line-dry them.

    I have a question though: sometimes it’s impossible to iron all those wrinkles off. Quilting fabrics are fairly easy, but sometimes canvas and home-décor are so difficult to iron…

    Anyone shares this problem?

  14. Becka says:

    I am in the “always” category. My aunt, who was a home ec major in college, told me a story about making a really fantastic dress for a wedding she was going to. It had all kinds of details and turned out great. She was so excited about it that she didn’t pre-wash the fabric. So the first time she threw it in the washer it not only shrunk, but twisted as it did. She ended up with her side seams skewed around right down the front and back of the skirt. Total disaster. That was enough to convince me.

  15. Brian says:

    I always pre-wash. I have excema and the unwashed fabrics make me break out. I t also gives me a chance to line dry my fabrics. I just love the smell.

  16. Anita says:

    I don’t pre-wash, I like my quilts to get all scrunchy with the shrinking of the cotton fabric. I do use the shout color catchers if I think there might be any color bleed.

  17. Joan says:

    I pre-wash, gets rid of all nasty sizing and stiffeners, unless I know for sure the item will never touch water. Also, if you want to get all suuuper crazy about grain lines on plain weave fabric, I do a “snip and rip” before overlocking/zigzaging SOME fabrics. Take a little snip with scissors through the selvage, rip the fabric to the other selvage and snip through. Like I said, PLAIN weave, anything else will cause sad things to happen to the fabric.

    Synthrapol is awesome, and easy to order online from your favorite dye house. I don’t know how cheap it is vs. regular store-bought “dye-catchers”. Don’t let it scare you, it’s as easy to use as falling out of bed ;)

  18. Beth says:

    I always prewash, but I don’t always dry quilting fabric. Instead, I give it a good run through the spin cycle, spray with starch, and iron. Then, it’s nice and crisp for cutting. Fat quarters or smaller pieces go into a lingerie bag before getting tossed into the wash.
    Thanks for the tip on Charlie’s soap. I checked out their site- I’m sold!

  19. Julie Andrea says:

    I always pre-wash, here are my reasons why:

    - I don’t like the feel or smell of chemicals on the fabric, the sizing, starch, etc. I don’t use chemicals in my home unless absolutely needed, (less allergens in my home) so I wash in a perfume free, dye free laundry detergent, no fabric softener, no bounce sheets. Vinegar in the rinse will help get out any excess soap and won’t leave a residual smell.
    - Sometimes the fabrics have some ‘shop soil’ on them, if they are washed first, I can see if they will come clean or not and then cut accordingly!
    - I want to be sure that the dyes won’t run
    - I like my fabrics to be pre-shrunk, unless I am using flannel for rag quilts.

  20. ChrisC. says:

    I admit it, I pretty much never pre-wash. I don’t have a washer and dryer at home, and I only go to the laundromat maybe once a month. So going there to pre-wash before I start every project just ain’t gonna happen.

    To make up for my slacker-ness, I only hand-wash any clothing I’ve sewn, and I also sew with 100% cotton thread on cotton fabric, in the hopes that at least if the fabric shrinks the thread will, too, preventing crinkly seams. I haven’t had a disaster yet (but I’m fairly new to sewing, so I’m sure it’ll happen and then I’ll probably change my tune!).

  21. Vireya says:

    I always pre-wash. I am lucky to have an overlocker, so I run the cut edges through the overlocker just before I throw the fabric in the washing machine. That way, I don’t get the ravelling, and I don’t have to wonder which fabrics have been washed – if it has overlocked edges, it is ready to sew. I thought of this idea after once pre-washing denim – that was a nightmare of tangly thread!

  22. georgia says:

    I ONLY pre-wash knits because they always always shrink. I don’t like how cottons feel after I’ve washed them. Plus, life’s too short! I can barely keep my kids clothes clean, there’s no way I’d be able to wash every piece of fabric that came in this house–lol.

  23. mereteveian says:

    To wash and not to wash, – I’m not doing it regulary, but some of my firends do. Their reason for doin it, is the fuems that comes while ironing new unwashed fabric. Their astma get worse due to the fumes. We even had a quilt shop owner here in Norway (Bergen) who had to close because she started to react to new fabrics on the bolts. She can still sew, but have to wash all fabrics taht she brings into the house.

    I will start to wash all my fabrics, – I cannot stand to not being able to sew from all these gorgeous fabrics!

  24. RobinW says:

    To eliminate the twisting that makes yardage so wrinkled, just sew the cut ends together with a long machine stitch (or serger). I will laugh all day over “strangled mess”–such a perfect description!

  25. strikkelise says:

    I usually wash and iron all new fabrics when I buy them. I´ve had too many disasters with shrinking and bleeding not to. Also, with two small children in the house, I tend to expect that everything will need to be washed sooner or later anyway.
    The exception is usuually new curtains, I´d like to keep them new and crisp as long as possible. But I often need to re-hem them after washing.

  26. Perlin says:

    I really try to pre-wash, but being dependent on a laundromat, for smaller pieces sometimes I just wash out the sizing in the tub and iron dry (and hope it works out!). If I’m sewing clothes, though, I definitely pre-wash on hot!

    I will say that I recently ordered a set of smallish, pre-cut quilting squares from Etsy and did not know whether I should pre-wash or not. I didn’t pre-wash, made a small quilt and still haven’t washed it. I’m curious with so many of the fabric manufacturers promoting their “sweets” packs (jelly rolls, layer cakes, etc.) are they recommending pre-washing or not?

  27. Jacque says:

    I always try to pre-wash/dry my fabrics as soon as I buy them, to avoid having to think about it once the inspiration bug has hit. I’m really terrible at buying fabric for my stash with no idea what I’ll use it for – washing it as soon as I get it means I don’t have to wonder if it’s ready months later when I finally get around to using it.

    To avoid the tangles, I snip the corners of my fabric off (from about two inches into the selvedge from the cut edge to about two inches into the cut edge form the selvedge). I can’t remember where I read it, but for some reason it works REALLY well – mostly I have no threads come off at all (unless the weave is loose). It may not be a good solution for fat quarters/other small pieces, but they can fit in garment bags and don’t leave so many loose threads anyway. For bigger pieces (1 yard+) it works really well.

  28. Heather says:

    I’m making quilt numbers #2 & #3 at the moment, and I’ve prewashed everything for all 3 of my quilts. I prewashed all the fabrics for my 1st one on hot, and it has stood up well to (at least) weekly washes for the past 3 months now.

    In my latest batch of prewashing, I did the black separately from the colours, but my blue did leak dye into my yellow, making a cool lime green. Luckily I was using plain cottons and it worked well with my colour scheme, it was just not what I had planned!

  29. I prefer to wash all of my fabric but then I had to iron it all. Recently I have been doing samples from pre cut goods like charm packs so no washing (image 40 5 inch squares in your washing machine). Linen and cotton for clothes always get washed, fabric for purses, wall quilts even bed quilt rarely get prewashed. I have had a few disasters, but life’s short and there are sew many beautiful fabric waiting in the wings.

  30. Chloe says:

    After four years of working in a fabric store, I developed an allergy to fabric sizing – so pre-washing is a must! If I don’t wash the fabric I end up feeling like I’ve got the flu or with a nasty rash where ever the fabric has touched – not fun…

  31. jane says:

    I always prewash my fabric. I hate the smell of the perfumed pesticide and antifungals that they use on the fabric today in addition to sizing. I also react to it. I especially like to see the quality of the fabric and how it will feel after washing in order to decide what to make from it. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised and sometimes it saves me from wasting time on something that will be unwashable.

  32. Kerri says:

    I just bought a jelly roll to make a christmas quilt and am wondering if I am to pre-wash this. There are 40- 2 1/2 inch strips. I have always just naturally pre-washed my fabrics but am curious what other people do with the jelly rolls and charm packs?????? What would you do?

  33. [...] you can head on over to True Up and read up on the pros and cons of prewashing. This entry is filed under Fun Stuff, Techniques. You can follow any responses to this entry [...]

  34. Jenny says:

    I always pre-wash. 1) to remove all the sizing and chemicals and any gunk. 2)pre-shrink 3)remove the smell and they do have an odour. 4) check for fabrics that are not colour-fast.
    Beforehand I run the overlocker/serger over the two ends, takes hardly any time at all, and at any time if I have a senile moment, I know it has not been washed if there are not overlock stitches on each end.
    I tumble dry on hot for a little while, then straighten it out and hang on the line, indoor or outdoor. When I fold it up to put away I try to do it as neatly as possible to reduce ironing time.
    I make quilts also, and tear the fabric lengthways to get even pieces for binding and borders, and I don’t want to inhale any yuk stuff when the fibres float around.
    I do like the look of unwashed quilt fabric in quilts, it looks really professional and super neat, but I will stick to my washed pieces. At least there are no suprises when I wash the finished quilt and get it ready for the child I am giving it to.
    cheers
    Jenny from Australia

  35. Dawn says:

    To prevent the raveling, I cover the cut sides with masking tape, and then wash the fabric in the delicate cycle. It works well with quilting cotton.