To wash or not to wash? A prewash fabric guide

prewash preshrink fabric

how to wash prewash preshrink fabric

To wash or not to wash? Let the great debate begin. There are sewist and quilters on both sides of this debate and we want to provide you with information so you can decide which side of the fence to sit on and how to wash the material if you decide it is the course you want to take.
This is just a general guideline and an open discussion to help you figure out what works best for your situation. Not all fabric is manufactured the same so you have to pay attention to how it is made and that should help you with your decision. If you are new to quilting you might want to adapt the thought “Better to prewash all your fabrics than to have some surprises when your first quilt or project is finished”.
The easiest way to determine fiber content, and other useful information, is to read the end of the bolt or tag hanging from the roll. Manufacturers provide you with the exact fiber content and care instructions. This is your guide to how you should care for your fabric and it is your call if you are going to wash it before or after your project is finished. If you buy fabric to add to your stash, always include a few care and content notes before you put it away.

Prewashing or preshrinking:

Manufacturers of high quality cotton say you do not have to prewash for shrinkage. However, you can wash to remove dust, sizing or keep highly saturated colors from running. The standard wisdom is: “If you preshrink one thing, preshrink everything.”
If you are a garment sewer we advocate preshrinking because if the fabric shrinks after the fact, the garment won’t fit. Plus, garments need regular cleaning and care.

Prewashing the fabric prepares it by:

  1. Removes chemicals from the manufacturing process.
  2. Removes the embedded fold so you can fold the fabric square and cut strips perfectly on-grain.
  3. Removes any excess dyes from the fabric.
  4. Relaxes and preshrinks the fabric.

Tips on to wash or not to wash:

  1. When you are working on a project and want to wash one piece – you should wash it all as a general rule.
  2. If you are working with mixed materials like a Shannon® Cuddle Fabric and a cotton – the cotton will shrink and the Cuddle Fabric will not. Wash the cotton for best results.
  3. If the fabric is stiff or rigid and feels like it has an excessive amount of dye or sizing – you should wash.
  4. When you are using lights and darks or lights and reds you should consider washing the fabrics separately first to keep the whites and lights the appropriate color and avoid color bleeding when you wash the finished project.
  5. Use a Color Catcher when washing mixed color fabrics.
  6. If you are using precuts – wash once the fabric is sewn together.
  7. Lingerie bags help with small pieces like fat quarters.
  8. If it is hand dyed fabric – test before washing.
  9. If you want the sized feel you can iron with starch after you prewash.
  10. When you are washing a small piece of fabric consider basting the ends together to form a tube. It will help with fraying. You can also baste or serge edges.
If you choose to wash a fabric at home to preshrink, or take it to the dry cleaner, you need to go right back to fiber content. Below is a brief category list of fabric types, which we’ve divided into “preshrink at home” and “take to the dry cleaner” categories. Almost all fabrics need to be laundered in the same manner that you plan to launder the completed piece and you can also eliminate this step if you will never launder the item, such as a wall hanging.

Fabrics you can wash at home:

  • Cotton
  • Linen – some, not all
  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Acrylic
  • Micro-Fiber
Take to the dry cleaner for preshrinking:
  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Linen – some, not all
  • Rayon
  • Acetate
  • Most can be used without preshrinking.
  • If you plan to add any type of piping or specialty trim to your sewn project, you should prewash them too.
  • Use a lingerie bag or a pillow case to keep trim in the best condition.
  • Preshrinking is not really recommended. However, some shrinkage is expected with 100% cotton batting. Once a project with batting is washed, it can shrink up a bit. This is what contributes to the “antique look” we all love.

Selecting the right method for washing the fabric:

  • Voile does better with a gentle or hand-wash cycle in your washing machine, or hand washing is also an option. A few minutes in the dryer followed by hanging to dry is fine.
  • Broadcloth or quilting weight cotton can be machine washed and dried. Be sure to use the temperature settings that you plan to use for the finished piece.
  • Flannel and knits love to shrink use the hottest water setting and the hottest dryer setting for maximum results. After the piece is made use the lowest temperature setting on the dryer.
  • For yardage wash on gentle in warm water, and dry in a low to medium dryer. Air dry if possible
  • Keep all rayon out of the dryer after construction.
  • Linen will soften up after laundering. Dry-clean or hand wash in cold with mild detergent. Air dry.
  • Hand wash with a gentle detergent and then hang dry. Dry-cleaning is another option.
  • Wash wool as little as possible.
  • Soak in cold water before washing and use cold water and a gentle setting on the washing machine.
  • Air dry
Polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, and acetate won’t shrink and will resist water-based stains.
  • Machine wash in warm with all-purpose detergent.
  • Dry on low. A dryer sheet or wool dryer balls will help reduce static.


3 thoughts on “To wash or not to wash? A prewash fabric guide”

  1. Karen says:

    This debate has been going on for a long time…. it didn’t just begin. It will also never be solved. At least not for many of us. What ever anyone thinks about prewashing fabric before sewing, many of us do it not so much for the for fabric bleeding or shrinking but allergies.
    I have to many problems with allergies to not prewash any fabric.

    Plus I don’t want to take a chance of bleeding which can occur in colors that are not black, purple, red and navy.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Do you use detergent in the washer and fabric softner. I can’t find this answer any where. I am a beginner sewer. Please help.

    1. Robin Dann says:

      There are many long-time quilters that feel strongly on both positions. Our short answer is that it really depends on the fabric you are using. If you feel that your fabric will shrink and you do not desire the puckering of an old-fashioned quilt, then it is best to prewash.

      Also, if you want to make sure that your fabric is colorfast, or you need to remove any sizing due to allergies, it is best to prewash.

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