Sewing with Whites

Do you like sewing solid white garments? Many people tell me they don’t like to sew with white fabric, usually for one of two reasons:

  1. It’s boring (“How can I walk past all of the gorgeous prints and lovely plaids and brilliant colors that are out there in fabric-land?”)
  2. It’s scary (“Every speck of dirt will show!”)

The boring part I can’t help you with, except to say that someday you may want to make a crisp classic white shirt, or a family-heirloom baptism gown, and suddenly white won’t seem so blah. The scary part?  “White clothes get dirty  faster”.  Logically, white fabric doesn’t get any more dirty than any other fabric, it’s just that stains show. But white clothes can be scrubbed and bleached much more easily than colors .

I used to have “fear of sewing with whites” too, but if you take a peek at my Etsy shop you’ll see I’ve overcome that. Probably half of my sewing is with white fabrics. Here is the secret to sewing with white: it’s all about the prep work.  Once everything is set up correctly, the stitching is a breeze (far easier than sewing black thread on black fabric, now that is an eye-strain!). It’s kind of like cooking stir-fry: most of the effort is in the prep-work.

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There are 3 steps to prepping for sewing whites:

  1. Clean your sewing area. Start by vacuuming  your  floor and your machines. Every time your scissors cut into fabric, tiny fiber bits go flying into the air.  Same with rotary cutters and serger blades: fibers everywhere. My sewing room gets vacuumed every day, just  like a garment factory (unlike the rest of my house, oops!).  I can guarantee that if I’m sewing with white, I’ll drop a piece of fabric at some point and if the floor isn’t freshly vacuumed, that’s just more time wasted using lint rollers (but I have plenty on hand just in case…I order these by the dozen from Wawak):

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Use vacuum attachments to get into the nooks and crannies of your sewing machine and serger. After clearing out the lint I can see, then I use  canned air.  YES I KNOW, this is very controversial, it supposedly may shoot fibers back into the inner workings of your machine, but truthfully I’ve never had a problem: the fibers whoosh right out of the machine.  However if the idea of canned air upsets you, Q-tips are a great alternative. Just keep cleaning until there’s no trace of colored lint/fibers that could get stitched into your beautiful white fabric.

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If you use a rotary cutting board, you can use a lint brush in a circular motion  to tease out any fibers that got caught in the ruts made by cutting blades. Then wipe with an all-purpose spray cleaner. Wipe down your sewing machines and sewing table :

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Clean your iron, if you have any doubts at all that it might possibly harbor metallic elements. I use a Rowenta; the instructions say DO NOT use distilled water, but instead use tap water. However our local water has an extremely high mineral content, full of rust and lime. Even following the directions to use half-and-half tap and bottled spring water, it’s inevitable that when I do a final pressing of an all-white garment, my Rowenta shoots out rust spots. So, I regularly use an iron cleaner, but I also set the iron to the highest heat, give it a long time to heat up (to avoid dribbling), and test it on a piece of paper towel before it gets near any fabric:

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And the final step in cleaning is to wash your hands. Then use only the lightest, fastest-absorbing hand lotion. Save your cocoa-butter and coconut-oil formulas for bedtime when they have time to sink in.


Step two:

2. Check your fabric carefully for stains, even if it’s straight-from-the-warehouse:

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Look for “mill-dirt” (tiny colored fibers accidentally woven into your white fabric), also fiber slubs or knots.  Nothing is worse than finishing a project and THEN discovering a fabric flaw. So check first.

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If you find “mill dirt” try teasing it out with a fine needle (a magnifying OttLite is a big help). It’s a bit like easing out a wood splinter. If it won’t come out, then pin a safety-pin on the spot so that you’ll know to cut around it when laying out pattern pieces

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Check the yardage for any stains that occurred after weaving. This could be oil-stains from machinery, or if the fabric has been in retail stock it’s possible the fold-edge might be dusty or shopworn from handling.  (I wish fabric was sold with the “wrong” side facing OUT as it was when I was a kid…..sure it was extra effort for the sales staff to unfold a bit when lining up the bolts on the shelf, but it did keep the fold edge cleaner AND avoided wear-and-tear on the fold….and sun-fading). For stains I try a bit of liquid OxyClean and a spray-bottle of water:

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If that doesn’t work, I safety-pin over the spot so that I can cut around it.

(Side note: If you get a bad bolt of fabric, with stains or mill-dirt throughout, return it! I went through a phase when I returned bolt after bolt of JoAnn’s Premium Bleached Muslin. It was once a high-quality fabric, and then they switched mills and stocked a far inferior product, full of mill dirt. Don’t feel bad about this: the retailer returns it to the distributor, who gets credit from the mill. If you keep bad fabric, how will the mill improve their quality?)


You may be wondering “Don’t you pre-wash all of your fabric?“. Quick answer: No. I pre-test one yard of every new fabric, and if it doesn’t behave well…if it shrinks badly, or looses surface lustre because it was heavily treated at the mill, or becomes limp (again, heavily treated after weaving), then I don’t use it and I don’t buy more.  Once I’ve decided on a fabric, I use it as any factory does: straight from the bolt. (The exception is vintage fabric: that stuff gets washed and Oxycleaned and hung up in the sun, repeatedly if needed.)

I totally understand that this is extremely controversial, and every Facebook sewing group goes over this question time and again, with 99% of respondents saying “Oh yes I wash and shrink and press every piece of fabric that I buy, you never know where fabric has been, I’ll bet those weaving mills are just filthy“.  I hear you, I do. I have memories of my mom buying yardage of Dacron polyester back in the ’60’s when it was the new kid on the fabric block: she was assured by the shop that it was a miracle fiber that could not shrink.  She proceeded to make a Jean Patou for Vogue dress, which was lovely….and shrank up 2 sizes with the first wash. But since then I’ve worked at many, many factories and trust me, nobody there has time to shrink fabric. It would double the price of retail apparel.  Also, if fabric was really “filthy” how is that white fabric so…white?

That said, if it makes you happy, please go ahead and pre-wash your fabric, I’ll wait…..

(Edited 10/13 to add (thanks to reader Gail): if you are making a single garment, not small-batches, yes of course pre-washing makes much more sense. Testing a yard would be counter-productive, just shrink the whole piece! Faster and you’re not taking any chances. Sometimes my head is so into production lots that I forget about sewing a single garment. Obviously time for a “selfish sew” for me, right?) Okay, now that your hands, sewing room, and fabric are all clean and ready, what’s next? There’s just one more step to getting ready for sewing with white: checking the “color”.


Last step!

3. Match your colors. Just as in house-paint colors, there are a million shades of white. It’s best to cut all pieces of a single garment from the same bolt of fabric, just as you would knit using all skeins from the same dye lot:

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If it becomes necessary to cut into the next bolt, at least be sure to check the color matching in both indoor light (fluorescent/incandescent) and natural light (daylight/sunlight). Don’t make the mistake I’ve made, of cutting out and sewing in the evening, when everything seems all matchy-matchy in fluorescent/incandescent light, only to find out the next day in sunlight that the shades are off.  Work your schedule so that you can cut out your fabrics and match up trims during the day, then stitch at night if necessary. If that’s not possible, an OttLight is designed to mimic natural light, and does a pretty good job.

Be sure to match your fabric with thread and any trims in natural light, or again if not possible an OttLight is helpful:

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Do the same color-checking with all of your components: zippers, buttons, trims. If you use a lot of white, you can make “cheat sheets” of fabrics and coordinating trims, to line up color matches during daylight:

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You may wonder “How do they match colors in sunlight in industry? Aren’t factories lit with fluorescent light?”  They use a color-matching cabinet with a 3-way switch for fluorescent, incandescent, and an imitation of natural sunlight. Every fabric swatch, thread, zipper, button, seam-binding, etc in every color goes through extensive color-shade testing to ensure that finished apparel looks great in the store as well as outdoors.)

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In mass-production, the  purchase-orders for all fabric, thread, and trims are assigned Pantone color numbers, and each component-supplier creates samples in multiple shades,  which get sent to the design office for testing (under the above-mentioned cabinet) before they are approved. It’s critical that all trim components be tested in a central location, so that they can all be tested not just against the fabric, but against each other. For example, the thread  might be slightly “blue” of the fabric shade (but still within the acceptable range), and the buttons slightly “yellow” (but still acceptable), and then when the garment is stitched, the thread is 2 shades off from the buttons.

Since home-sewing and small-batch manufacturing doesn’t qualify for the high minimums required to get your own dye-lots, what can you do to ensure matching trims in the correct shade of white? One solution is home-dyeing.  Rit dye will work on any absorbent material such as cotton, silk, rayon, or nylon.  Sadly it’s useless on polyester, which means most laces and elastics can NOT be dyed (they are manufactured from pre-dyed polymers).

Here are various items that I have dyed with Rit to get slightly “warmer/creamier” shades of white, to match fabric. The first is nylon elastic edging: the original elastic is too “blue” ( optically-enhanced with brighteners) to match JoAnn Fabrics classic Symphony Batiste in “white”.  The elastic turned out too dark on the first try, but the tone is still better than the original:

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This next one is cotton embroidered trim: again the original is very blue/cool, and needed to be warmed up for the fabric match:

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And these are rayon appliques…which turned out too dark and needed to be re-done:

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Dyeing a tedious process (which I will write about soon) but it can be a life-saver! And of course at some point in time you simply accept that artisan sewing is not the same as mass-production.  In my little online shop, I often explain in my item descriptions that the garment is made with “shades of white” (plus I offer free samples of fabrics and laces just to be sure). As long as they are ALL in the same vein (eg; all creamy-warm shades or all blue-cool shades), the result is lovely.

And that’s it! Once your preparations are done, you can proceed sewing your whites with confidence.

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10 Responses to Sewing with Whites

  1. robin says:

    Good Post. Very valid points. Love the lingerie shown.

  2. Angela says:

    Do you have any tips for fusible interfacing? My last several projects have gone bubbly/wrinkly where the interfacing is after the first wash and I’m really frustrated. I thought at first I just wasn’t getting a good fuse, but then I made a polyester skirt and didn’t have any trouble, so now my theory is that my fabric (that I did prewash and dry) is shrinking more after the first wash. You said you don’t use fabric that shrinks badly, but even shrinking a little could cause problems with interfacing, couldn’t it?

  3. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Thanks so much! I love sewing “Victorian whites”.

  4. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Ugh I hate when that happens. Some of my husband’s shirts have collars and cuffs that have bubbled and since I get to so the ironing, I feel your pain. Bubbling usually means that the interfacing itself is shrinking. This happens often with the no-name bargain pre-packs, but also with the typical Pellon home-sewing-store qualities. If you are sewing with better-quality outer fabrics, it’s worth it to invest in better-quality interfacing (try this site: https://www.fashionsewingsupply.com/) or use sew-in instead of fusible. I always wash-test fusible interfacing just as I do new-to-me fabric: fuse it and then wash in the same manner as the washing label I’m planning to use. Sometimes it takes trying a few different interfacing qualities before finding the right combination.

  5. Angela says:

    Thanks for your advice. I’ve been using Pellon. I’ll have to try the fashionsewingsupply interfacing. The price gave me a bit of sticker shock until I realized it’s 3 times as wide as the Pellon!

  6. Bunny says:

    Amen on Fashion Sewing Supply, wonderful products. Great post, Janet. Now if you can help me sew on black, all will be fine! It’s enough to make one go blind.

  7. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Sewing with black is my least favorite of all! Even with ALL of the lights in my studio turned up, it give me such eyestrain. I’ve had times when I’m sewing in the evening, gave up and put my project aside, switched all the threads to another color for a different project, so that I could go back to the black one in sunlight. I’ve worked with factories that charge extra for black. It’s a shame because I love WEARING black!

  8. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    I totally get it with sticker shock: I’m a born-and-raised bargain-hunter! And yet my parents taught me to buy the best tools I could afford. I think of interfacing and thread and elastic, etc as the “tools” of sewing, just as much as a sewing machine and iron. If using bargain interfacing wastes your time and causes frustration, it’s no bargain.

  9. JustGail says:

    I’m one who doesn’t usually sew a lot of white. Not only because of stains while wearing, but every now and then, I have things come out of the wash with a small brown streak or two and can not figure out wht they come from. I’ve cleaned the washer & dryer, there are no chips in the tubs, no iron or rust in the water, no greasy work clothes in the same load. You do seem to have the cleaning in preparation for sewing white down to a science!

    As to prewashing, it makes sense when you buy fabric by the bolt to test only a yard. If I were in the business of sewing garments, I probably wouldn’t prewash all fabric either. I’m normally buying enough for 1 garment at a time, so I’d rather deal with disappointing fabric than a disappointing garment.

    Doesn’t Dharma Trading have dyes that would work for polyester? I’m not a dyer, so my memory and/or understanding may be faulty on this.

    Add another recommendation for Fashion Sewing Supply. Soaking Pellon in hot water for a while and using the steam press helps, but it still seems to fail after a while.

  10. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Could the stains be coming from fabric softener? Just a guess (http://www.stain-removal-101.com/washing-machine-stains.html). Yes I can totally see pre-washing for a single garment, I will edit the post to add that.

    Dharma Trading does have iDye brand…I should try that. Have you used it? Their procion dyes (which I think are their best-sellers) don’t work on poly.

    Thanks Gail!

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