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.

Two five inch cotton fabric squares, unwashed. Shown with two five inch paper squares.

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.

Same squares, on top of the paper pieces. Washed, dried, and pressed.

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!


About thecuriousquilter

Quilter, sewer, writer, gardener, mother, sister, friend, always learning, always curious.
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9 Responses to Pre-washing?

  1. J. Johnson says:

    Wow, that surprised me. I did not think that shrinkage would be noticable on something as small as a 5″ piece of fabric. Explains why I never can cut as much as I expect out of a straight 1/4 yard of some fun fabric.

  2. Patty says:

    What do you do or suggest in the ever growing market of pre cuts?

    • Pre-cuts are convenient, many people do not like cutting out their pieces! Take care mixing pre-washed fabrics with non-washed ones. If you sew an item entirely of pre-cut pieces like charm squares, all from one “group” of fabric, shrinking SHOULD be at nearly the same rate throughout, so the finished item would shrink uniformly. Jelly roll 2.5 inch strips will shrink more, probably only really noticable if you use long strips in your quilt. If in doubt, you could “sacrific” one and wash it to see how much is shrinks.

    • Patty says:

      I am of the not washing my fabrics first side of the fence. I think mostly cause I am just lazy or don’t have the time to do so. The many quilts I have completed have not suffered to my knowledge.

  3. Donna says:

    A few years ago I made a quilt for a little girl’s gift. It was needle turned applique featuring Sunbonnet Sue using scraps of every color a little girl loves. I carefully prewashed the cream Kona cotton I appliqued on. Then I picked out a lovely pink color Kona for alternating squares. Being in a hurry to finish, I apparently forget to prewash that fabric. I used it for backing and binding as well. Finished. Wrapped. Gifted. Gone.

    A few months later I visited their home, and the quilt was nowhere to be seen. Oh well. Then the mom said, “I am so embarrassed but I washed your lovely quilt and ruined it!” But really I was the embarrassed one, the backing, binding and alternating squares shrank lots but the Sunbonnets did not. They stood out like marshmallows on a lumpy, pink, crinkly cookie.

    I always prewash now!

  4. Shellie says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights. I’m really enjoying your blog.
    I hadn’t really thought about the wash/don’t wash argument from the angle of the chemical residues in the fabrics. I rarely prewash my fabrics (laziness) but insist that all clothing be washed before use. I’m going to have to seriously rethink my choice.

    • The chemicals are reason enough in my book too, but not just for the finished product’s use. The same formaldehyde that is being phased out in many building materials because of health concerns is often used in the manufacturing of fabrics, along with dozens of other chemicals. Check out my post on The Cotton We Love, How it Starts, and watch for The Cotton We Love, From Fiber to Fabric coming later in July.

      But I do not think that paranoia about chemicals is needed either, unless you have a particular sensitivity to one, or some other health concern that they may aggravate. Washing removes a significant amount of the residuals from manufacturing. Not all fabrics have heavy chemicals in them, you cannot tell from the labels or look of the fabric. Use the fabrics you love! Let manufacturers know if you have a reaction to one. I hope we can all help to keep the discussion alive, and let shop owners and manufacturers know we care about what we are bringing home, and how it is made.

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