To wash or not to wash your fabric, that is the question!
Should you wash or not wash your fabric before you begin your quilting projects? You will find quilters on both sides of this debate, which is what we discovered when we surveyed our Lone Star Quiltworks Community Facebook group. Of 204 respondents, 162 (70%) voted “no,” they did not prewash their fabric, while 42 (30%) voted “yes,” they did. There were quite a few who only washed in certain circumstances. Many made compelling arguments, with strong justification, for why they chose one way or the other. This blog will discuss the pros and cons of prewashing your quilting fabric so you can make an informed decision.
Reasons to Prewash
The Facebook followers who prewashed fabric did so for three main reasons, shrinkage, bleeding, and removal of the chemicals present on the fabric. Let us look at these and a couple of other reasons.
1. Avoidance of Uneven Shrinkage: When a fabric is manufactured, threads are stretched on a loom, pulling fibers into an unnaturally straight position. Coatings are added to help stabilize the threads and make them taught. Part of the shrinkage is the relaxation of the cotton fibers as they return to a natural state. When a fabric is washed, the agitation of the washing machine and the wicking action that draws moisture into fibers allows the coated threads to relax and return to a position more like that in which they grew. Then, putting the fabric in the dryer gives the fibers another chance to relax.
Fabric will shrink whenever you wash it whether it is before you start on a project or after the quilt is finished. Fabrics will shrink at different rates depending on the type of fabric and if they are from different manufacturers. Most cotton fabric shrinks between 3% and 5%, while flannel fabrics can shrink even more. By prewashing your fabric, you can equalize the “playing field.” Preshrinking the fabric before you start on a project will allow you to minimize the uneven shrinkage that can occur when a finished quilt is subsequently washed. If you want a smooth flat finished quilt, throughout the long life of a quilt, then you will almost certainly wish to prewash your fabric. By doing so you will be able to avoid the crinkled, puckered look that we observe on many antique quilts.
2. Prevention of Bleeding: When a fabric is washed some of the excess dye in the threads of highly saturated colors, especially reds and purples, can leach out and leave a stain. This is known as “bleeding, which many quilters strive to avoid by prewashing their fabrics. While prewashing does remove most excess dye and can minimize color bleeding it is not always a sure-fire way to prevent bleeding in subsequent washings. Fortunately, there are products on the market that can aid in removing excess dye during washing or prewashing. (I see a future blog post here!)
3. Elimination of Chemicals: During the manufacturing process, fabrics are often finished with sizing and other chemicals, such as formaldehyde and even insecticides. These chemicals can be irritants to people with chemical sensitivities. Fortunately, prewashing fabrics eliminate most of these chemicals, which, if left in the fabrics, could trigger allergic reactions, including skin irritation and respiratory distress.
4. Elimination of Odors: Some quilters prewash fabrics to eliminate odor from the chemicals, smoke, or pets, particularly if they have been purchased from a garage/estate sale or thrift shop. Also, even when your fabric is new, that doesn’t necessarily imply that it has not picked up undesirable odors at some point in the supply chain. Before your fabrics are delivered to you or your local quilt store, they often have traveled very long distances, in boxes and shipping containers on boats, trains, or trucks. It is possible that anywhere along its travels your fabric could have acquired an unpleasant aroma.
5. Enhanced Accuracy: Prewashing will eliminate the embedded fold in your fabric, which is often not square to the grain of the fabric. After you have washed the fabric you can fold the fabric square precisely along the grain, allowing you to more accurately cut strips that follow the grain.
6. Enhanced Fusing: When you use a fusible product with your fabrics (for example raw-edge-fusible applique), you will want to prewash your fabric so that your fusible adheres to the fabric and performs to its’ best ability. Many appliquérs prefer a softer fabric to work with. Through washing the fabric and removing the chemicals the material will become softer. If it is too soft, you can always starch it to your preferred crispness. Needle-turn appliquers often advocate for prewashing fabrics because it makes it easier to position and turn under.
Reasons NOT to Prewash
For the non-washers in our survey, their favorite reason not to wash is that they can not wait to use the fabric!
1. Time: Prewashing and ironing fabric, is often unnecessary and it takes valuable time that could otherwise be better spent on the aspects of the quilting process that give us the most joy – like buying more fabric!
2. Fabric Bleeding is Now Rare: Most manufacturers of cotton quilting fabric now realize that many quilters do not prewash the fabric. Consequently, they continually strive to develop improved manufacturing processes to ensure their fabrics are essentially colorfast.
3. Vibrancy: A fabric’s color is always more vibrant before it is washed. If you do not prewash, your quilts will retain most of this vibrancy until the first time it is washed, if ever.
4. Ease: Unwashed fabric is often easier to cut and sew because the chemicals used in the finishing process give the fabric a crispness that makes it easier to work with.
5. Appearance: A quilt made with unwashed fabric, when finished, and then subsequently washed, will often shrink unevenly, giving it a desirable soft, crinkled, and antique appearance.
6. Avoiding Frays: When some fabrics are prewashed they can be damaged due to excessive fraying, Even when you are making a “rag quilt”, which will have frayed edges, you should first piece and sew the entire quilt before washing it to produce the desired fraying.
7. Use of Precuts and Kits: Many quilters are using precuts (jelly rolls, charm packs, layer cakes, etc.), and prewashing them will almost always change their size due to shrinkage. Also, if you are using a kit you purchased, or are doing a block of the month, there is usually just the required amount of fabric to complete the project. If you were to prewash you might not have enough.
8. Application: If you are making art quilts or wall hangings that do not get a lot of use, there is no need to prewash your fabric.
1. Be consistent – for every project you should either prewash all the fabrics or none of them.
2. Use a bleed test to check whether any of the fabrics chosen for a quilt will bleed. Then you can make an informed decision as to whether you wish to use this fabric in a quilt.
Should you prewash fabrics for a quilt? There is no right answer. Pre-washing is a personal choice and depends on how the fabric will be used, what techniques you will use to construct the quilt, how you want the fabric to look when the quilt is finished, how the quilt will be used, and, finally, whether you or others are sensitive to the chemicals used to finish the fabrics.