I have heard many theories on the topic of pre-washing cotton fabrics before cutting for quilts. In the fabric store, many sewers asked if they could skip this step, for clothing and for quilts. I am a strong believer in washing first, cutting later.
Shrinkage is no fun…
I pre-wash cotton fabrics 99.5% of the time. I learned this years ago while making clothes and costumes. Nothing is more disappointing than sewing a lovely shirt, washing it, and having it shrink and not fit correctly. I launder the fabric before cutting in the same manner as I want to launder the finished item.This is true for cotton quilting fabrics too. If I am making a baby quilt, I will probably both pre-wash and then wash the completed quilt before giving it. I try to wash fabric with the same level of care and vigor that I think the recipient of the finished item will use. A corduroy quilt for a college student will probably wind up in institutional washers and take a serious beating, I want to be sure it stands up to that before it leaves my home. Starch and sizing can restore the “new” feel of the fabric after washing. This is personal preference, but if you will be piecing curves or bias cuts it can save you a few headaches to starch your fabric. Going green note: I encourage you to use non-aerosol, non-scented products for starching and sizing! Most aerosol cans have extra chemicals added to propel the starch, and these will stay on your fabric, and also get into our oxygen supply. Also, there are many excellent laundry products now widely available that have greatly reduced or removed the petrochemicals commonly used in detergents.
When shrinkage isn’t an issue…
Some fabrics are not susceptible to shrinking. Many batiks have minimal shrinkage. The laundering process used to remove the resist and to set the colors usually deals with the bulk of shrinking. Non-cotton fabrics, if washable, I wash before cutting. This is another subject all on its’ own, for later.
If you are planning to dye your fabric, and you start with a “PFD” fabric commercially prepared for dyeing, it is best to not pre-wash before applying your dyes, paints, or resists. After you have completed the dyeing technique of your choice, follow the dye or paint manufacturer’s instructions for heat setting and laundering. Extra rinses will ensure that excess dye is removed, and diminish the chemicals used to make the fabric ready for dyeing.
Sometimes, a little shrinkage is a good thing!
One exception I make to my pre-wash theory for cottons is when I want shrinking in the finished piece. For instance to create a flannel quilt with an aged, puckered look, I use 100% cotton flannel fabric, with cotton batting and backing. After sewing the quilt, then I wash it to get that look. I would be certain to wash it well, however, to remove the dyes and other chemicals.
But there are more reasons than shrinkage…
In many fabric stores, new employees are asked to sign a form stating that they know they may be exposed to chemicals used in the manufacturing of fabrics. It does make you think! But fabric is full of chemicals, from the herbicides and pesticides used when the cotton grew, to the various treatments and dyes used to produce the finished bolts. Washing fabric will remove some of these. I hope you will keep watching my blog for more discussion on this topic, and on organic fabrics.
Are you skipping pre-washing? Do you have a special technique requiring unwashed fabrics? A funny story about a shrinking disaster? Please share a comment!