With one of our first “official” blogs of 2023, I am bravely tiptoeing into a controversial territory. This hot-button topic is one I’ve seen quilt guilds nearly split over and quilters get a bit defensive about. What quilty topic could possibly be so contentious?
Before you either:
A. Shout down this idea because color catchers are now a “thing” and can even be found at your local Walmart
B. Declare with great certainty modern dye processes have reach the stage where fabric is completely color fast
C. State you only make art quilts or wall hangings, neither which will ever be washed
Indulge me for a few minutes about the subject of prewashing, bleeding fabric, laundry detergents, chemicals, and cleaning dirty quilts. I realize this is a lot of territory, but I promise we’ll cover it as succinctly as possible.
Let’s begin with a Zone of Truth. When I started quilting in the early eighties, I was taught to prewash my fabric. I considered this the very first step in beginning any quilt. As I developed my stash, any new purchase made its way into the laundry room to be washed and air dried. I thought everybody prewashed their fabric and was pretty confused when I discovered they didn’t. I found out some quilters thought prewashing was an unnecessary step which took time away from the actual quilting process. They had great confidence in modern dye methods and color catchers.
I get this. I really do. I understand why some quilters would simply rather not prewash their fabric. I also understand why some folks would only prewash because they fear a fabric would bleed. While still in this Zone of Truth, I will tell you yes, one of the reasons to prewash any fabric is to try to prevent one fabric from fading or bleeding onto another. However, prewashing is no guarantee your fabric won’t bleed. Bleeding is an entire subject unto itself, and it will be covered in this blog.
Why You Should Prewash
So, if prewashing is no certain guarantee to prevent bleeding, why prewash? I mean bleeding is essentially what A, B, and C deal with at the beginning of this blog. If prewashing serves up no sure-fire bleed prevention, why should any quilter take the time and energy to wash all their fabric? Glad you asked. There are actually several reasons.
- The fabric may be dirty. Just because the fabric is new-to-you, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily clean. Consider the process: Fabric is manufactured in one place, may be dyed and treated at another location, shipped to a warehouse for distribution, trucked to a local store, and then either displayed or stored. Between manufacturing and the LQS sales floor, hundreds of hands may have touched the fabric. So yes, the fabric could 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 finish off the surface of the fabric by prewashing makes the material easier to handle. This also gives you the option of using the just the right amount of starch or sizing to give it the feel you need in order to execute the technique you’re using.
- You may want a smooth-looking quilt. Prewashing does remove the shrinkage factor. If a quilter is using 100% cotton fabrics, some shrinkage will occur. Often it will happen at various rates between different fabric manufacturers, even though all your material may be 100% cotton. If you throw different types of fabric into the quilty equation (homespuns, sateens, cottons, etc.), you’ve really upped the differences in shrinkage. Homespuns shrink more than cottons. Cottons shrink more than sateens. When every inch of fabric is prewashed, the shrinkage factor is removed. If a smooth quilt is what you’re working towards, prewashing just about guarantees this appearance.
- You may be allergic. If you’re like me and have a pretty low tolerance for things like perfumes, powders, and dust, the finishing on quilt fabric may also send you into a sneezing frenzy. The finishing chemicals (the compounds used to make the fabric look “pretty” on the bolt) can flake off into tiny specks and after a good inhale into your sinus passages, you may find yourself in full-out sneeze mode. Prewashing the fabric gets rid of the finishing chemicals and will make your sewing life more comfortable. After all, 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.
Why You Shouldn’t Prewash
Just as there are reasons for prewashing, there are also reasons for not prewashing:
- 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. Likewise, most art quilts. If it’s an heirloom quilt which will be looked at more than it’s used, this type of quilt also fits into this classification. I guess my question is at this point, do you really know that for sure? Who’s to say your great-great descendants won’t throw the quilt into their Maytag?
- It takes time. As I said in the beginning of this blog, it’s another step and it’s time which could be spent cutting out the quilt or piecing the blocks.
Remaining in this Zone of Truth, it’s really up to you if you want to prewash or not. You know what you want your quilt to look like and what kind of time you have at your disposal. Let me just throw in these few cautionary statements:
Be consistent – Either prewash all your fabric or none of it. This way you know how all your stash has been handled, no matter when you acquired the fabric. Personally, I’ve moved beyond washing every piece of fabric that comes into my house. I’m not at the same place I was when I started quilting in the early eighties. I participate in fabric swaps and donate fabric for raffle quilts and charity projects. I anticipate most quilters are not like me and don’t prewash. As I hand the fabric off to the donatee, I tell them the fabric hasn’t been prewashed. This way they know how to handle my it. I also don’t prewash fabric destined for my art quilts. I like the stiffness unwashed fabric gives to the quilt and honestly, most art quilts will be carefully vacuumed and not washed. Ditto with my applique backgrounds. I don’t wash those. I’ve found the slight shrinkage difference between the unwashed background fabric and the prewashed applique patches work to gently pull my hand applique stitches beneath the fabric, making them nearly disappear. What you don’t want to do is mingle prewashed fabric with non-prewashed fabrics. The difference in the shrinkage factor (the unwashed material will shrink a bit and the prewashed fabric won’t) may make the quilt’s appearance a bit wonky.
Use the bleed test – Directions for this are given a bit later.
Children’s quilts – If the quilt is for a child, be sure to prewash all the fabric if for no other reason than to make sure it’s clean.
Precuts – Personally, I don’t prewash any precuts. Most patterns designed for jelly rolls, charm packs, etc., don’t allow for a shrinkage factor and may need the entire fabric area available for use. Quilts made from precuts are the ones I throw into the washer along with a couple of color catchers once they’re bound.
There are no quilt police – There aren’t any at all, no matter what anyone tells you. No one needs to “fabric shame” you no matter what technique you decide to use.
How To Prewash Your Fabric
At this point, if you have decided to prewash all your fabric every time you make a quilt or think there may be certain times you’ll prewash, you may be asking, “Is prewashing any different than doing regular laundry?”
The answer is “Yes.” This may surprise you, but it is different from washing your towels and pajamas. However, it’s no harder, either, but there’s a couple of things to keep in mind. First, use cool water and the gentle cycle. If you dry the fabric in the dryer, use a low heat or a delicate setting. Sort your fabrics into lights and darks – just like you’re supposed to do with your clothes. The biggest difference to consider is the soap. If you remember this blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2022/05/18/stuck-on-glue/ I stated the most important idea to keep in mind with both fabric and quilt preservation is the pH. You want the pH in to be as close to neutral as possible. Most laundry detergents are alkaline – and this is for a good reason. The vast majority of clothing stains are acidic. When an acidic stain meets an alkaline detergent, the result is a salt, which easily washes away. To preserve the fabric, we want to keep it as close to a neutral pH as possible. Orvus (sometimes this is labeled simply as “Quilt Soap”) is my personal favorite. However, there are hundreds of kinds of soaps on the market which are pH balanced. Any of these are fine to use, just don’t use one with optical brighteners. One helpful hint: If you’re washing a fabric which may fray a bit, such as loosely woven quilting cottons or homespuns, you may want to pink or zig zag the edges so there won’t be threads everywhere in the washer.
Bleeders and Crockers
Now let’s talk about bleeders. Commercial fabrics are colored with dyes which for the most part, are color fast. Today’s dyes are even better than those produced only five years ago. However, as you handle all your fabric, remember every piece of it has the potential to bleed – most notoriously reds, blues, deep greens, browns, blacks, dark purples, and all batiks. Fabric whose color is transferred to surrounding material are called “bleeders” or “crockers.” Bleeders can truly be heart breakers. I speak from personal experience. Once upon a time, I made a small Rose of Sharon quilt. It was not much larger than a small throw quilt, but I had hopes of entering it in a show. I dutifully prewashed all my fabric. I even washed my reds twice. I did beautiful hand applique work. I finished the top, sandwiched the quilt, and quilted it. Bound it. Threw in in the washer one final time. I opened the lid of the washer to a gorgeous Red Rose of Sharon Quilt with a pink background – background which was white before I washed it.
There were lots of tears that day. Lots. Of. Tears.
Even though I had thoroughly prewashed the fabric, it still bled. Bleeding (or crocking) occurs when the bleeder fabric transfers its color to an adjacent fabric as they rub together. It can happen when the fabric is wet or dry. I had a dark quilt back (which also had been prewashed) crock all over my long arm during the quilting process when the fabric was obviously dry. However, there are times when we all have to use some of those fabrics which may bleed in our quilts. How do we handle them in such away to minimize the risk?
Allow me to introduce you to the bleed test. It’s quick, it’s simple, and is about 98 percent effective.
Step One: Take a 3-inch square of the fabric you need to test, and a 3-inch square of white fabric.
Step Two: Take a container of cool water (somewhere between the 80–85-degree range) and add 1/8-teaspoon Orvis or some other pH balanced soap. Stir to distribute the soap. Add the two fabric squares to the container and stir for a few minutes. Then let them sit for 30 minutes. Check the container to see if there is any dye in the water. If there isn’t you’re good to go.
Step Three: If there is dye in the water, repeat the process with the same fabric squares. However, this time when you remove the squares out of the water, lay them out to dry on a paper towel, with the two pieces of fabric slightly overlapping.
Step Four: After the squares are dry, give the white piece of fabric a careful look. If no dye has transferred to it, you’re probably okay to use the darker fabric.
So…what if there is a dye transfer? What do you do? Is there anyway you can use the darker fabric without fear of bleeding? There are a couple of other steps you can take at this point. First of all, there is a product on the market called Retayne. Lots of quilters and fabric dyers know about this chemical and I can testify from personal experience, it works pretty well. Retayne was developed as a color fixative for commercially dyed fabric, but now it can be found in quilt shops and big box stores such as Hobby Lobby and Walmart. The critical issue with this chemical is the directions. They should be closely followed. The fabric needs to be agitated in hot water (140 degrees) for twenty minutes, rinsed in cool water, and dried immediately. I suggest you use the hottest hot water setting on your washer and turn off the cold water tap in the back the washer.
The reviews on this product are a mixed bag. Some quilters love it, others have had less than stellar results. I think those who have been less than impressed with Reytane probably haven’t had their water hot enough. I would issue a few cautionary statements about the product:
- Always, always, always follow the directions with Reytane.
- Rit Dye also has a color fixative, but it’s not the same thing as Reytane. It only works on fabrics dyed with Rit.
- There are some “home recipes” for Reytane. I have not tried any of them, but from the chatter I’ve read on quilting sites, overall these are a waste of time and money. They seem don’t work.
- Remember Reytane is a chemical. It is not pH neutral. It’s important we keep our fabric and quilts as close to pH neutral as possible. As soon as you’re through either making your quilt or treating the fabric with Reytane, be sure to wash them with a pH balance soap to put the fibers back in neutral territory. Any quilt or fabric treated with Reytane should be washed only in cool water.
There also is a product called Synthrapol, and the chemistry teacher in me completely geeks out with this product. It is so cool. Synthrapol is a surfactant usually used in hand dying fabric. It keeps the unattached dye molecules suspended in the wash water instead of allowing them to settle back onto the fabric. Directions for use depend on if you use Synthrapol as a prewash or after wash, so read the instructions carefully and follow them to the letter. However, you may use a surfactant every day and not realize it.
If you wash dishes with the blue Dawn dish detergent, you use a surfactant – it keeps the greasy food particles from settling back on your dishes. And it’s only the blue Dawn which has the surfactant quality. So, could you use blue Dawn as a surfactant on your fabric?
Yes! I have used it on small pieces of fabric – usually two yards or less. If you’re dealing with major yardage, you will probably want to stick with Synthrapol.
If you’ve used both Reytane and Synthrapol on your fabric, and you’re still not sure about the bleeding issue, you can repeat the prewashing processes until the rinse water runs clear. These steps may need to be repeated several times. However, if any doubt remains, I wouldn’t put that fabric in my quilt no matter how much I loved it. The possibility of it bleeding all over a quilt I had spend weeks of time on just isn’t worth it. There is bound to be other fabric out there I can use which is color safe.
What to Do If You Have a Bleeding Quilt
If you’ve had the heartbreaking, soul-numbing experience of having a fabric bleed on your already constructed quilt, don’t lose heart. There are still a few things you can do to try to salvage it. First – no heat whatsoever. No hot or warm water, no iron, no drier. Heat will set 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 then try the following:
- Hydrogen peroxide on a Q-tip or cotton ball.
- Dissolve some Oxyclean laundry powder in cool water. Saturate a cotton ball with the mixture and try it on the stain.
You can repeat these processes as many times as necessary. If all else fails, after the quilt is completely dry, wash it again and use some Color Catchers.
What to Do with a Dirty Quilt
All quilts get dirty. Wall hangings, art quilts, heirloom quilts, antique quilts, and quilts used every day. This part of my blogs deals with “regular” quilts. Cleaning wall hangings, art quilts, heirloom quilts, and antique quilts are dealt with in this blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2022/06/01/caring-for-antique-quilts/
However, the fact is, most of the quilts we make are in pretty constant use – bed quilts, cuddle quilts, throws, lap quilts, and crib quilts. Things get spilled on them or they simply get soiled from use. There will come a time when they need to be cleaned and it’s essential to know how to do it properly so we can extend the life of the quilt for as long as possible. If you made the quilt, how did you treat the fabric prior to quilt construction? If you prewashed your fabric, treat the quilt in the same manner as you treated the fabric. Use a pH balanced soap. If Reytane was used, be sure to use only cool water. If the quilt is heavily stained in places, try using a stain remover with Oxyclean to lift the stain so it will wash away. If you didn’t prewash your quilt, be sure to throw some Color Catchers in with the quilt. Wash the quilt on a delicate setting.
I know some folks may be wondering if handwashing would be better for the quilt. Not necessarily. If you read the blog referenced above which deals with cleaning antique/heirloom quilts, you’ll discover handwashing quilts brings about its own issues. I do handwash my delicate applique quilts, though.
You can dry your quilts in the dryer, if desired. A low heat setting or a setting for delicates works just fine. Personally, I like to let mine air dry on their own. I believe the washer puts them through enough stress. The biggest take away from cleaning dirty quilts should be this: Do everything you can to return them to a balanced pH. This will extend the life of the fibers.
To prewash or not to prewash will remain a hotly contested question among all quilters. However, like most quilty things, there is no right or wrong answer – it’s what works best for you. I would encourage you to remember the bleed test and use it on dark fabrics and all batiks (which are notorious for bleeding). If you do have a crocker, remember we have Retayne and Synthrapol to help stop the bleeding. And a good washing does everyday quilts a world of good.
Until next week, remember the difference between a good quilt and a great quilt is all in the details!
Love and Stitches,