Sometimes, people send me emails to ask clarifying questions about something they’ve read or seen in a magazine or video. I usually respond back via email, but sometimes the questions are the kind that I think lots of people have, and I think it’s better to share them more broadly. This question about pre-washing fabrics comes from Irene in Canada:
I saw an article about Ebony Love in Quilty [magazine] and in the part of the article about “Is shrinkage a concern” she mentions that she doesn’t prewash her fabric or the batting. My question is – when do you wash the fabric? After the top is sewn but the “sandwich” isn’t made yet? Or after the quilt is completely finished right down to the binding? Or ……….?
I’m a new quilter and I’m kind of stymied as to when would be the best time to wash the fabric.
Isn’t that a really, really excellent question? “When to wash” is almost an article in itself, but I’ll tell you reasons you might want to wash and when is the best time to do so.
Reasons to Prewash
People prewash fabric either to shrink it, or to identify and contain fabrics that bleed dye.
I’m a little bit of a rebel in that I rarely prewash any fabrics, unless they are hand-dyed or batiks. And even most of my batiks I don’t bother. I’ve heard so many horror stories about ruined quilts from bleeding fabrics, but it just doesn’t motivate me to prewash. We already covered my chore nemesis, Laundry Day, which is followed very closely by Ironing Day. Do you know that I don’t even own an iron or board for ironing clothes? But the iron in my studio is a top-of-the-line steam generator and press. Even so, I’m not gonna create more laundry and ironing for myself if I don’t have to.
Another reason to prewash is because of allergies. You know fabrics go through so much manufacturing to get spun and woven and printed and dyed and sized and shipped and all sorts of things. You don’t really know what’s in the fabric, and you don’t know where its been. I’ve got the double-whammy of environmental allergies and atopic skin reactions, so I have the best reason of all to prewash. Do I? Nope. But those are very good reasons to do so.
Washing After Buying Fabric, Before You Do Anything Else
If you’re going to prewash, you should really do it up front. Prewashing can help with several things – shrinkage, determining if a fabric will bleed, and getting rid of all the sizing (which may contain irritating chemicals) from the fabric. It’s a great option if you have allergies or skin sensitivities. It’s also great because by pre-washing you’re also getting it to shrink to its true size in advance – so later on you won’t get wonky results.
Exceptions to this would be any precuts like jelly rolls, charms, layer cakes, etc. The patterns for these always assume NO washing beforehand, and if you wash your perfectly lovely 5″ squares, they won’t be 5″ by the time you finish washing them. Plus, it’s just messy.
If you buy fabric in 5- or 10-yard chunks, you may just want to wash what you need for a specific project, because that’s just an insane amount of fabric to wash at one time. If you do this, you’ll need to purchase or cut more than you need to account for the shrinkage factor.
Washing Selectively, Before Working on a Project
Some people will test specific projects for shrinkage and colorfastness, and base their decision to wash on how it performs. A way to test is with a 2″ square cut from the fabric, not including the selvage. In a bowl, use a bit of your normal detergent, the absolute hottest water coming out of your tap, and a little agitation & soaking for 5-10 minutes. If the water changes color, you pre-wash. (Blue and red are the usual suspects, but aren’t the only culprits.) Dry the piece under a hot iron. If it has dramatically changed in size from 2″, prewash.
Washing After Piecing, Before Quilting and Binding
The one time that you never, ever want to wash the quilt is when it’s just a top and not quilted – that would be a really, really ugly mess of tangled threads, shredded seams, and a balled up mockery of what you spent days and weeks piecing to perfection.
I have a friend who’s a longarmer, and one of her clients sent her a quilt top that had been washed, but it wasn’t ironed or cleaned up in any way that it could go on the long arm without lots of work beforehand. She was clipping threads for days to untangle the quilt from itself, before she could even press it. What a mess.
The only time I would recommend washing a pieced (but otherwise unfinished) quilt top is if something really gross happened to it, in which case you would want to soak it to get out any stains before they set. I wouldn’t toss it in a washing machine under heavy agitation. And if the stain were say, localized, I would probably just treat that stain and not the entire top.
Washing After Quilting, Before Binding
There is a technique that professional show quilters use called “blocking” where the quilt is wetted, soaked for a bit in the bathtub, rolled between towels to get out excess moisture, then squared, pinned to a flat surface and left to air dry under fans. This enables them to make sure the quilt will hang perfectly straight and square and be presented in its best light. If you’re doing show quilts, this is not the time to find out that your turkey-red fabric bleeds like the dickens, so show quilters usually do some sort of pre-washing or treatment to make sure this doesn’t happen.
If you’re going to block a quilt, or try to handle bleeding fabric at this stage, Vicki Welsh (who is a hand-dyeing phenom) has a whole guide for you to explain the process.
Washing After Binding, Before Enjoying
This is my preferred method of prewashing. I toss it in the washer with a couple of color catchers, then toss it in the dryer, and enjoy the wrinkly goodness. Also before I gift a baby quilt, I will also wash it, because you don’t want allergens around a new baby, and crinkly cuddly quilts make much better gifts.
Regardless of what you decide, do not stress about it! They are YOUR quilts, it’s YOUR fabric, and YOUR stash. The only caveat is consistency; make sure you know what’s prewashed and what’s not so you don’t get weird results at the end (or you know what you’re getting into).
Should You Wash Batting?
A lot of people say they don’t prewash because they like the way the quilt shrinks around the stitching and gets all puckered, but a quilt made from prewashed fabric can still shrink around the stitches if you choose a batting with a shrinkage factor. If you absolutely do not want any shrinkage at all, you’ll need to choose a synthetic batting and prewash your fabric to get it all shrunk.
In general, it’s not needed, unless you really don’t like wrinkly goodness. Check the packaging to see what shrinkage factor each batting has. For example, 100% cotton is probably always going to shrink about 5%, but 100% poly won’t shrink at all. Also, “washing” isn’t really the thing to do, it might just be a soak and a gentle wringing out; I don’t know that may battings could stand up to agitation in a washer on their own and come out better for it.
Do you prewash? Why or why not?