I would like to discuss a topic today that can be a hotbed of controversy among quilters. It’s a topic that’s only been approached by the bravest of quilt bloggers and it’s one that I’ve seen guild’s nearly split apart over.
And that topic is pre-washing your fabric. Should you, or shouldn’t you? Being the PC person that I am, I’ve always thought it was a personal choice and it was none of my business (or anyone else’s) about what you do with your fabric. It’s a personal decision and it’s your choice. Nobody should try to tell you what to do with your own fabric.
Okay, so maybe that’s a little extreme. However, it does tend to be a hot topic of discussion among fiber artists. Some folks feel that it’s an extra step that takes away time from piecing and quilting. Others believe that with the advent of Color Catchers and better dyeing methods, it’s obsolete. And then there’s that die-hard group of traditionalists that prewash any piece of fabric that comes their way.
So, with all this controversy, who’s correct?
First, let’s differentiate between prewashing fabric and bleeding fabric. Yes, one of the reasons to prewash fabric is to try to prevent one color fabric from fading onto another fabric (bleeding), but some fabrics will bleed regardless of prewashing. We will pick up the topic of bleeding fabric at the end of this blog. For right now, let’s just consider the reasons why you should seriously think about prewashing your fabric.
- It may be dirty
Yes, even though it just came out of the quilt/fabric shop, it still could be dirty. Just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily clean. Consider this: It’s manufactured in one place, may be dyed and treated at another location, shipped to a warehouse for distribution, trucked to your local store, and may be stored there as well before it’s placed on a shelf where God knows how many hands have touched it. Yes. It may be dirty.
- You may want a soft fabric to work with
This is especially true with hand piecing, hand quilting, or hand applique. Sometimes removing the finishing chemicals off the fabric makes it easier to handle. This also gives you the option of using the amount of starch or sizing you want to give it the feel you need it to have in order to execute the technique you’re using well.
- You may want a smooth-looking quilt
Prewashing the fabric removes the shrinkage factor. If a quilter is working with 100% cotton fabrics, some shrinkage will occur and often it will occur at different rates between fabric manufacturers, even though all your fabric may be 100% cotton. If you throw different types of fabric into the equation (homespun, sateens, cottons, etc.), you really have upped the differences in shrinkage. Homespuns shrink more than cottons. Cottons shrink more than sateens. When every inch of material is prewashed, that shrinkage factor is removed and if a smooth quilt is what you’re working towards, this is just about guarantees that appearance
- Allergy Irritants
I have a pretty low-tolerance for allergens. Perfumes, powders, dust and the like sends me into a sneezing frenzy. By prewashing fabrics, I’ve removed the chemicals used to finish the fabric (the compounds used to make the fabric look “pretty” on the bolt) that tend to flake off and irritate my allergies. If you’re like me and have a sensitive nose, you may want to prewash your fabrics just to make your sewing life more comfortable. You don’t want to sneeze all over your pretty, new fabric.
- Most of the time, prewashing will help prevent bleeding
Prewashing does remove excess dye; however, it does not in and of itself, prevent all bleeding. Please continue reading to the end of the blog to refer to bleeding fabrics.
Are there reasons not to prewash? Certainly. A few of them are:
- Unwashed fabrics have a crisper hand
When the finishing chemicals are left on the fabric, it’s crisper. It also sews and presses better.
- You want an “antique” look for your quilt
Unwashed cottons used in a quilt, along with untreated cotton batting can produce the soft look and feel of an antique quilt. Don’t prewash your fabric and quilt the top with an untreated cotton batting. Bind it. Throw it in the washer on a delicate cycle and let it air dry. It’s at this point, the fabric and batting will “pucker” due to shrinkage and give your quilt that soft, antique look.
- Perhaps the quilt will never be washed
If the quilt is destined to be a wall hanging, it can certainly fall into this category. If it’s an heirloom quilt that will be looked at more than it is used, that also falls into this category. I guess my question is at this point, do you really know that for sure? Who’s to say that your great-great descendants won’t throw the quilt into their Maytag?
As I said in at the beginning of this blog, it’s another step and it’s time that could be spend cutting the quilt out or piecing the blocks.
The fact is, to prewash or not to prewash is entirely up to you, what you want your quilt to look like, and what kind of time you have at your disposal. No matter what method you decide on, please do:
- Be consistent – Either prewash it all, or prewash none of it. That way you will know how all of your stash has been handled, no matter when you acquired the fabric.
- Use the bleed test – This will be given in detail a little further down in my blog.
- If the quilt is for a child, prewash the fabric for no other reason than to make sure the fabric is clean.
- Despite whatever anyone tells you, there are no quilt police – No one needs to “fabric-shame” you no matter what technique you decide to use.
So what side of the fence to I come down on? I prewash everything, primarily due to my sensitivity to allergens. I also prewash because I’ve had some horrendous experience with bleeding fabrics. It’s an extra step, but I’ve prewashed all of my fabric since I started quilting in the mid-eighties, so it’s just a natural step for me. Is prewashing fabric any different than doing laundry?
Yes. But it’s no harder. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind. First, use cool water and the delicate cycle. If you dry the fabric in the dryer, use a low heat setting and a delicate setting. Otherwise, sort your fabrics into lights and darks. One thing to consider here is soap. A pH balanced soap is best, such as Orvus (which may simply be label “Quilt Soap” at your LQS). If you can’t find that, it’s fine to use regular laundry detergent, just don’t use one with the optical brighteners (Ivory Snow works well).
Fill the washer tub with water, put the soap in and agitate it enough to mix the soap evenly. Turn the machine off, unfold your fabric (this helps to prevent the folds from “setting” into the material), and distribute them evenly throughout the washing machine. Turn on the machine and complete the cycle as normal. If you use a dryer (I don’t – I air dry my fabric), tumble on low heat and take out while the fabric is still slightly damp. If you’re using the material immediately, press it. If it’s going in your stash, fold it neatly.
Now remember what I said about prewashing in and of itself does not prevent bleeding? What are you supposed to do about a fabric that tend to still bleed despite prewashing? How do you know if a fabric may be a bleeder?
Commercial fabrics are colored with dyes, that are for the most part, pretty color-fast. Dyes today are greatly improved than the dyes used even 10 years ago. However, there are still some fabrics that will lose color when they’re washed. If this color is transferred to surrounding fabrics, then your fabric is a “bleeder.” This is where washing material in cold water is a good idea – cold water tends to limit bleeding altogether or at least minimizes it.
When the bleeder fabric transfers its color to an adjacent fabric as they rub together, it’s called “crocking.” This can happen whether the material is wet or dry. I’ve had backing crock on me when the quilt was in the process of being quilted, even though I had prewashed the fabric. For me, if a fabric has that much potential to crock or bleed, I toss it. It’s just not worth the risk. Darker fabrics tend to have more of a reputation to crock and bleed – reds, deep blues and purples, dark browns, dark greens, and blacks – they all could possible undo months of patient work. I’ve also discovered that batiks are notoriously risky fabrics to use unless they’ve passed the bleeder test. What’s that?
Glad you asked. It’s a simple, quick test that will let you know how much of a risk that beautiful fabric is. Take about a 3-inch square the fabric you need to test. Then cut a 3-inch white squares of material. Fill a container with cool water – somewhere in the 80-85 degree range – and add 1/8-teaspoon of Orvus Soap (Ivory Snow will do in a pinch, but use a teaspoon of it). Stir to distribute the soap and add the two fabric squares to the container. Stir often for the first few minutes and then let it sit for 30 minutes. Check the container and see if there is any dye in the water. If it’s not then you’re good to go.
If there is, repeat this process, but when you take the fabric out of the water, lay the white fabric square right next to the colored fabric square and let them dry. If no dye transfers to the white square, you’re probably okay to use the darker fabric.
If the colored dye has transferred, there still are a couple of steps you can take to see if it’s usable. First of all, there is a product on the market called Retayne.
It is a color fixative intended specifically for commercially dyed fabric. This can be purchased at most quilt shops and big box stores. Follow the manufacturer’s directions completely. The material must be agitated in hot, hot water (read 140 degrees) for 20 minutes, rinsed in cool and dried immediately. Since the water has to be so hot, use not only the “Hot” cycle on your washing machine, but also cut the cold water off in the back of the machine – just in case. Treat the fabric before putting it in the quilt. After treating with Retayne, use only cool water on the finished project.
Truthfully, if you read the product reviews about Retayne, it’s a mixed bag. Some people had great results, some people had horrible results. I personally think it depends on if you can get the water up to that 140 degrees that makes the difference. Rit also has a dye fixative, but it’s only for projects that have used Rit dye in the process.
There is also this little product called Synthrapol.
Synthrapol is a surfactant that is usually used in the hand dyeing process. Chemically, it’s a cool product. It keeps the unattached dye molecules suspended in the wash water instead of allowing them to settle back onto the fabric. You may use a surfactant every day and not realize it. If you wash dishes with the blue Dawn dish detergent, you know the power that a surfactant has. It’s the surfactant that doesn’t allow the grease molecules to settle back onto your hands or your dishes. And the surfactant is only found in the blue Dawn.
Could you use blue Dawn for small pieces of fabric as a surfactant? Yes. But if you’re stabilizing yardage, you will probably want to stick with Synthrapol. And keep in mind that neither Synthrapol nor Retayne are 100 percent effective 100 percent of the time.
If all else fails, and you just have to have that particular fabric in your quilt, you can keep prewashing it until it doesn’t bleed anymore. However, if there is any question at all about the fabric, I wouldn’t use it no matter how much I loved it. The possibility of it bleeding all over a quilt I had spent hours and hours on just isn’t worth it no matter how much love is there.
And if you had the heartbreaking, soul-numbing experience of having a fabric bleed on your already completely constructed quilt, there are a few things you can do to try to salvage it. First, don’t use heat of any kind on it – no warm water, no hot water, no dryer, no iron. Heat sets the stain permanently. Don’t let the quilt stay folded up when it’s wet – that’s a sure-fire way for it to crock more. Let it dry flat and try some hydrogen peroxide on the stain. If all else fails, after it dries, wash it again and use a Color Catcher.
I know what some of you are thinking. “That’s a whole day’s worth of work that I could spend cutting my fabric or sewing on my quilt.”
However, an ounce of prevention has always been worth a pound of cure. I steadfastly admit that I wash every piece of fabric I get. After it’s washed, dried, starched, and ironed, I clip a small corner off of the piece. This indicates to me that I have processed the fabric. Generally, I do this as soon as I purchase it and get it home. I treat the fabric the same way I would a quilt – it’s washed in cold water, on a delicate cycle, and air dried.
Does it take a lot of my time? Yes.
Have I ever had a fabric bleed on a quilt I made? Nope.
I rest my case.
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam
**Notes from Julie Baird’s blog, Generations Quilt have been used in this blog.