That is the question I hear over and over again on online forums. Roughly 90% of the responses are “I always ALWAYS pre-wash, I can’t imagine not pre-washing!“. This tends to drown out the minority who say “Well not always....”. Sadly, the minority often get attacked for this, as if pre-washing was a moral imperative.
As a Capricorn, I focus on facts over feelings. I’m not here to judge, only to provide information. Please keep in mind that pre-washing is not an “all-or-nothing” situation:
some fabrics have more of a need for pre-washing than others (natural fabrics generally shrink more than synthetics)
some sewing situations call for pre-washing while others don’t (infant’s skin is generally more delicate than adults)
some projects will be dry-cleaned or spot cleaned anyway (draperies, home-dec items like Christmas stockings or tree skirts) so there’s no point in washing the fabric first
That said, there are 2 main issues at hand:
Is the fabric dirty?
Will it shrink?
Is the fabric in need of actual washing to get it clean? Let’s get the cleanliness thing out of the way because it brings out the emotional/feelings in people, when it should be a rational/fact-based issue.
Is your fabric really truly dirty? I’m excluding vintage or upcycling fabric that you might find at a yardsale or thriftshop…I’m talking about the bolts that come in to your big box retailer, shrink-wrapped from Asia to protect from moisture and mildew en route. Often I read comments like these: “Fabric stores are filthy! Anybody could have touched that! Bolts fall on the floor all the time!” This is where judgment often comes into play, with folks in the “always prewash” group sometimes expressing a sense of superiority in information and values than those who “sometimes pre-wash”.
I totally agree that some fabric stores are not as clean as others, that fabric is displayed open to being handled by the public, and that accidents happen. That said, how clean is clean? In the United States, where 90% of homes have a washer/dryer (by the way, enormous ones compared to the rest of the world), some people have become accustomed to overwashing. My neighbor keeps her dryer running every day (sorry but the smell of Gain dryer sheets makes me nauseous). She told me they wash every article of clothing and every towel, after every single use.
So did your fabric get dirty in the store? Possibly, depending on how long it sat there (how fast the turnover is). Quilting cottons are shipped “right sides out” so that customers can easily choose prints that coordinate. There’s a lot of handling going on, making selections and shoving bolts back into the wall. If you use quilting cotton for apparel, it can absolutely be unclean.
Better apparel fabric is generally displayed “rights sides in” for protection against handling, and then the last quarter-yard gets draped in-store:
Yet customers may take fabric to the mirror and hold it to their face to check the color, and can accidentally get makeup on it. Bolts do get knocked to the floor, and in busy stores I’ve seen them walked over and even have carts run over them. Even though home-sewing shops get bolts of only 8 yards, that still means a single bolt can be taken to the cutting counter many times, and handled quite a bit. (I do think fabric stays relatively cleaner when you order online from a warehouse like Fabric.dot.com).
Was your fabric unclean coming out of the factory? I’ve been to hundreds of fabric mills over my career in the garment industry. I’d say sure, 40 years ago, in some third-world countries, some of the fabric mills were not as clean as you’d like….I’m talking puddles of dyes on the floor, and chemicals dumped into the local waterways.
But nowadays modern mills are air-conditioned, have optimal air-filters, and they are kept spotless to maintain the value of the product.
Occasionally a fiber floating in the air will get caught in the weaving looms, creating a defect called “mill dirt”…but it’s not actually dirt, it’s a clean fiber from another project. Mill dirt is annoying but it’s not un-clean, and washing the fabric won’t affect it one bit. If you use mostly darks or prints, you may not ever have noticed mill dirt woven or knitted into your sewing fabric. But I use mostly pure white fabric for my business, which I buy shrink-wrapped from a distributor, and it is absolutely pristine. If I come across tiny fibers of “mill dirt”, I put the fabric under a super-magnifying glass (that my husband uses for tying fishing flies) and remove the fibers with a fine needle. But washing this fabric to “clean” it would be useless.
Others argue that it’s not just the fabric itself, it’s the finishing: “You don’t know where that stuff is made. Fabric is covered with chemicals.“ It’s true that after fibers are bleached and/or dyed, then woven or knit, a variety of chemical finishers can be applied for a variety of reasons:
Appearance: to protect the color from rub-off, wash-fading, dry-clean fading, sun-fading, or lose vibrancy from chlorine or peroxide bleaches (usually Benzyne is used for these purposes)
Performance: synthetic fabrics can get additional processes for water-repellency and/or soil-release, and specialty finishers for fire-retardancy (Bisphenol), improved wicking/drying, moth-proofing)
Handfeel: softening agents for tactile improvement, increased mechanical strength, increased abrasion-resistance (the process of mercerizing goes back decades and was done using caustic soda). More recently stabilizers are used for anti-cling, anti-static, wrinkle-release/permanent-press/easy-care…also anti-pilling (usually using Formaldehydes which are a common cause of contact dermatitis)
Many of these chemicals cannot be simply washed off. It’s not like flocking or glitter, which is glued on and can flake off. It’s not like cheap printing that can rub off (think of the difference between printed plaids and yarn-dye plaids).
Also, there is a difference between chemical coatings, and chemical reaction treatments:
Chemical coatings are applied to the surface under mechanical pressure and cured (baked into the fabric with heat) to penetrate the fabric. For example, the fire-retardant finishes on children’s sleepwear are required by law to last through 50 washings. A single washing might remove 2%.
Chemical treatments change the composition of the fibers through chemical bonds, meaning that they can never be “washed off”. Plasma ion-imprinting is my husband’s field (he has a master’s in physics) and it’s way over my head, but if you are interested in the new methods used to improve fabric quality, this is a good read: Plasma Treatment Advantages for Fabric:https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0801/0801.3
What’s worse than investing your time and money into a sewing project and then finding it’s unusable after washing, due to shrinkage? Especially when it could have been so easily avoided by pre-washing BEFORE cutting?
I learned this lesson as a child, watching my mother’s efforts. She made much of our clothing and home furnishings. One time back in the seventies, she bought fabric for slip-covering a sofa, and the salesperson ensured her that the new “miracle” synthetics could not shrink, which was great considering that washing a dozen yards of heavy 60″ wide fabric is no picnic. You can predict what happened: she did not pre-shrink, she cut and made the slipcovers….a few months later she put one in the wash and it absolutely did shrink. The zipper would not close on the slipcover, no matter how hard my parents stretched and yanked.
Why do fabrics shrink anyway? It depends on the fiber…..
Relaxation Shrinkage: Cotton fibers become shorter when exposed to hot water (even cold water! I’m going to put a video on my Instagram), but they are not actually “shrinking”, they are returning to their natural un-stretched state. Cotton is pulled taught during the spinning process (to create the yarns that will be woven or knit into fabric) and when exposed to water, those yarns can crimp and “swell” from their manufactured dry state. So technically it’s “relaxing” but I’m going to call it “shrinkage” for now….
You can pull cotton material while wet, to stretch it back to the just-purchased length, but that’s not very efficient with fabric yardage. The best option for sewists is to use better-quality fabric (long-staple cotton shrinks less than short-staple cotton). Avoid “broadcloth”, which by definition is fabric woven “broader” than the desired size (using cheaper/shorter yarns) to compensate for shrinkage. Instead look for shirting fabric or lawn.
You can also search for cotton that has been treated to not shrink. This is done by the process of compacting, a mechanical system that stabilizes fabric, generally by adding a resin or silicone “sizing” to the surface. Compacting adds to the cost because it decreases the yield, or length of fabric, but it decreases residual shrinkage:
If you’ve ever noticed the difference in hand-feel between some “big box store” cottons and quilt-shop cottons, that’s probably because the less expensive fabrics are short-staple and/or uncompacted, while better fabrics are long-staple and/or compacted. They have a smoother surface. The compacting resin can wash off, but it can be replaced by ironing with a sizing stabilizer like Best Press:
One thing you can do as a sewist if you do not want to pre-shrink your cotton yardage, is to test your fabric for shrinkage and make a note of the percentage of shortening in the first washing. Then calculate how much additional length you want to cut, allowing for shrinkage. I do this when making flannel pajama pants for my family, so that the fabric is un-pilled and fresh for gift-giving (I could write a whole post about how to prolong the life of flannel….). Flannel fabric that you can buy in home-sewing stores is generally short-fiber (not the best quality) so it shortens quite a lot in washing, and since cottons “relax” more in length than it width, pant legs are notorious for becoming too short.
Another option is dry-cleaning of course: cotton fibers do not swell in dry cleaning fluid as they do in water washing.
Progressive Shrinkage: the structure of animal fibers makes them prone to shrinkage: each hair has a scale-like coating meant to let rain roll off of the sheep, and if the fibers become entangled, the scales interlock more tightly.
The same process that creates little “dreadlocks” on my daughter’s puppy when she scratches behind her ears, can cause a wool fabric to become felted due to the agitation in a washing machine. Hence the reason for “Dry Clean Only” labels on wool: it’s not the water, it’s the agitation. Wool apparel can be washed by hand if you carefully avoid movement by dunking in a sink or tub (that said, I’d never recommend washing a tailored garment due to the combination of outer fabric/underlining/lining/padding/shoulderpads).
Compare curly wool fibers to synthetics that are plastics extruded through shower-head type fixtures, and are smooth on the surface so they’ll never felt (although they can “pill”….topic for another post!):
So let’s look at the flip side: why WOULDN’T you wash all of your fabric before sewing? Obviously garment factories never pre-wash fabric, it would be time-consuming, add substantially to the garment cost, and I can’t even imagine HOW you would wash entire wholesale bolts of fabric (which are 40 to 100 yards in length). What about “pre-washed” jeans? The fabric is not washed-before-sewing, the finished garments are tumbled in machines for hours with abrasives (originally stones back in the seventies) to break down the fibers and make them feel softer….or more recently they are laser-burned in mere seconds:
Let’s think about volume: if you are sewing for yourself or your family, sure you can wash home-sewing cuts of fabric at home. Same if you have a small home-based business (those home-sewing-shop 8-yard bolts go into a home washer pretty easily). But what if your business grows? Eventually you’ll reach a point where it’s not practical to wash wholesale bolts. You wouldn’t have the space OR the time.
Also, think about the energy cost. Every load of laundry, even cold water, requires power….and chances are if you are pre-washing, you’re using a dryer to shrink the fabric, right? Our house has been installed with solar panels which cover the electricity used in my studio, from sewing machines and iron, to the washer (and dryer in winter) that I use for vintage fabrics. Even so, I’m still USING power that could go back to the electrical grid…..
And finally, what do I do personally? Do I pre-wash everything? Absolutely not. After working in factories for decades, I can see how impossible that would be in volume. Lately, more and more of my makes are using vintage up-cycled fabrics or dead-stock, and those get the Oxy-Clean treatment plus (weather-dependent) drying outside on the line in sunshine.
What about new fabric? First of all I avoid “chemically” smelling materials (I most often use un-dyed cotton). Then, all new fabric gets TESTED for crocking, fading, bleeding, shrinkage, and hand-feel.I literally purchase a half-yard and throw it in with the household laundry. If it passes the test, I’ll buy a bolt, assured that it will not require pre-washing), if not then move on to a better quality. Here’s a recent sample of Joann Stores “Keepsake Calico” that faded beyond recognition in a single wash, showing terrible wear along the fold-line:
So….whenever people online are bragging that they pre-wash “everything”…..I’m the rebel. I don’t pre-wash, I test-wash. How about you?
PS: Red fabric is a whole other story….stay tuned!