washed fabric in a bin

Why You Need to Start Washing Your Fabric Before You Sew With It

Yes folks, you really need to start washing your fabric first. This can be a contentious topic in the home sewing sphere, with many people saying they never wash their fabric and it’s worked out fine for them for years. Well OK, I also rode around in the back of cars without my seatbelt on and made it out of childhood fine, but let’s not take chances with fabrics. 🙂

Reason #1 To Pre-Wash Fabric

Natural Fibers Shrink
100% Cotton is notorious for shrinking. Linen and even rayon will shrink on you too. The percentage of shrinkage will vary depending on the fiber and fabric weave. As a novice sewist, I sewed my first tailored shirt from a lovely loose weave madras cotton… I proudly wore it- once- because after laundering it shrunk an amazing 5 inches! Don’t be like me, wash first.

Reason 1.5:
Since different fabrics shrink at different percentages if you sew two different fabrics together and they shrink differently then one will be all puckery at the seams. Yuck!

Reason #2 To Pre-Wash Fabric

Nasty Chemicals
Fabric is treated with an array of chemicals to keep it crisp and wrinkle free on the bolts. There may be extra dyes that need to be washed out. I know several people that have developed allergic reactions to working with unwashed fabric after years of sewing. Be kind to your body and wash it first in my favorite non-nasty chemical of them all- H2O!

Reason #3 To Pre-Wash Fabric

It might be dirty
Fabrics have been through multiple warehouses and sometimes they’ve been dragged on the floor. Fabrics on display might have had sticky, sneezed-on-or-worse toddler hands grab them (not my little angels, but just sayin…).

Reason #4 To Pre-Wash Fabric

The dye might bleed… Yes, they make these awesome things called color catchers, but why take the chance? Keep your whites white, not pink.

Any exceptions? Well, as in life… Yes.

While I ALWAYS prewash fabric that will be made into a garment for shrinkage reasons alone, I don’t always wash my quilting fabric. (Eek! Sorry!) If it’s a high-end quilting fabric brand that I’ve used before and I know won’t bleed or shrink excessively sometimes I don’t prewash. I also don’t prewash pre-cut stacks of quilting strips or squares. I just flout my own rules and deal with the chemical smell while pressing. I actually love the crinkly look a quilt gets after you wash it and the cotton batting and fabric have shrunk just a bit, it’s so homey and snuggly.

However I ALWAYS make sure to wash my quilts before using or gifting, that’s a non-negotiable.

Other exceptions to the always wash rule include items made from leather, suede, vinyl or fur. Wool and silk need careful handling as well.

How about “Dry Clean Only?”

Yup, wash it. I hate dry cleaning so I choose to abuse my fabric and see if it can withstand the rigors of the washing machine rather than end up with a blouse that I have to dry clean. If I had spent hours making a tailored suit then I would suck it up and dry clean already, but in general, I’m sewing regular day-to-day clothing that needs to withstand being spit up on by a baby and getting soaked in oxyclean for stain removal.

Wanna know a secret? There are lots of fabrics marked “Dry Clean Only” that are actually washable, but because of labeling regulations that require testing to be done to back up washing instructions, it’s easier and cheaper for the manufacturer to mark it as “dry clean only” and not do any tests at all. As long as the fabric isn’t expensive, too delicate or a fiber that shouldn’t be machine washed I just toss it in the washing machine and hope for the best. PS- If your fabric falls apart I’m sorry.

How to wash Fabric Yardage

Make sure you are taking photos of the fiber content and washing instructions printed on the end of the fabric bolt before handing it over at the cutting counter. The fiber content will dictate how you wash your fabrics and handle them while pressing.

Wash the fabric as soon as it enters the home. Never store some fabric washed and other fabrics unwashed or you’re bound to mistakenly think you’ve already washed something and have an awesome piece you made shrink on you.

In general, wash it the way you’ll be washing the finished product. I actually usually wash and dry in hotter temperatures than I use with my finished pieces to shrink the fabric as much as possible so that if my garment gets accidentally thrown in the wash with towels it will come out the same size.

Cotton

Wash on hot, dry on hot. Twice if it’s flannel or something that you think might shrink even more in the wash. For example, Joanne’s Doodles line of cotton interlock prints for children is notorious for shrinking so wash these twice for sure. Most cuts of fabric will be fine just washing once.
Delicate fabric weaves like voile or lawn might get torn with such harsh treatment so it’s best to wash on the gentle cycle or even just handwash (as long as you are committed to continuing to handwash that garment later) and line dry.

Linen

Wash and dry and hot setting. The fabric will shrink and will soften and crinkle up into its signature texture.

Rayon

I wash rayon with cold water and line dry, but when pre-shrinking this fabric I wash with warm water and throw it in the dryer. Take it out immediately and smooth out wrinkles while it’s still warm as it can really wrinkle up.

Wool

Don’t wash this in the washing machine or it will felt!! This is not the kind of pre-shrinking we are looking for. However, you can avoid dry cleaning! There are different methods that I’ve read about to pre-shrink that you can use, which range from a tub bath to steaming to wrapping in wet blankets and letting it sit for a while. Do your own research on this since this Florida girl doesn’t get to do much sewing with wool, unfortunately, and I don’t want to steer you wrong.

Silk

I grew up hand-washing silk with woolite in the sink. Dry clean or hand wash, the choice is yours. It’s best practice to do a swatch test and see how it reacts to being washed though. Also, don’t put in the dryer.

Polyester

It’s not strictly necessary to pre-wash since plastic fibers are not going to shrink on you, but I always do for all the other reasons. Also, when sewing with Polyester fleece I like to get all the lint washed off before I put my project in with a load of laundry so the other items don’t get fuzzy on me.

Trims

Bias tape, ribbons and cotton lace appliques could also shrink. It’s best to wash these in a garment bag or by hand depending on the fiber type.

And always finish edges!

Use a serger to finish your edges (or use the zigzag stitch on your sewing machine) before laundering. If you don’t feel like busting out the machine you can also use pinking shears on most fabrics (not if they are especially prone to unraveling though). If you skip this step be prepared to find a tangled mess of threads you’ll need to cut away.

I actually tested zig-zag stitches vs. pinking shears on some cottons and flannels I had to pre-wash the other day and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the pinked edges only frayed a little bit more than the zig-zagged edges.

Remove Promptly From the Dryer
Remove fabric right away to avoid unnecessary wrinkling. Smooth out fabric and fold to put away for the future. When it’s time to use if it’s still wrinkled you may still need to iron it out before cutting out your pattern pieces. And if it’s linen have a spray bottle of water handy while pressing.

I hope I answered any questions you may have had about the great Washing Fabric First debate! Let me know if there are any other questions you have! Now that you’ve washed your fabrics, how about organizing them? Check out THIS POST where I explain how I organize my fabric!

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Christine from That Sewing Life

Hi, I’m Christine!  My goal is to help you sew something awesome- even if you have no time.  Just one step at a time and anything is possible!