Sewing Tips

To Pre-wash or Not to Pre-wash?

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

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That said, there are 2 main issues at hand:

  1. Is the fabric dirty?
  2. Will it shrink?

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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”.

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https://retailwire.com/discussion/joann-fabrics-new-concept-is-all-about-the-experience%E2%80%A8/

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.

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https://www.wisebread.com/youre-washing-your-clothes-too-often-what-to-do-instead

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.

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https://www.jackmansfabrics.com/

Better apparel fabric is generally displayed “rights sides in” for protection against handling, and then the last quarter-yard gets draped in-store:

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http://www.textilefabricstore.com/fabrics

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).


https://www.instagram.com/artgalleryfabrics/?hl=en

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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.

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https://cen.acs.org/business/consumer-products/new-textile-dyeing-methods-make/96/i29

But nowadays modern mills are air-conditioned, have optimal air-filters, and they are kept spotless to maintain the value of the product.

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https://textilelearner.blogspot.com/2011/08/fabric-manufacturing-mills-in_2190.html

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.

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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)
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https://www.innovationintextiles.com/new-soft-finish-available-for-fr-fabrics/

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

I think that what most consumers are referring to as “chemicals” are the formaldehydes, which are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are gaseous at room temperature and cause that “new car” smell (or new wall-to-wall carpeting!). If your eyes water in fabric stores, you may have a “clothing allergy” (https://www.cottonique.com/blogs/blog/draft-clothing-allergy-5-reasons-7-symptoms-and-6-ways-to-control ) or formaldehyde allergy (https://dermnetnz.org/topics/formaldehyde-allergy/ ). VOCs eventually evaporate, but you can speed up the process by washing: https://www.hunker.com/12594031/how-to-remove-formaldehyde-from-clothing

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The second major issue is “Will it shrink?

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: after one washing and drying, 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….

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https://shosh101.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/why-do-clothes-shrink/

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), or to use 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:

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https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/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:

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https://sueoverydesigns.com/how-to-use-mary-ellens-best-press-does-this-notion-really-work/

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.

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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.

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https://www.trailgroove.com/forums/topic/1953-wool-allergy-or-sensitivity/

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!):

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https://textile-network.com/en/Current-issue/ITMA-Nachlese/CMCs-set-the-standard

Because of their smooth surface, it’s usually said that synthetics can’t shrink. Although they won’t shrink because of water, they absolutely can shorten because of heat, such as in a dryer: (https://www.hamblyscreenprints.com/how-to-shrink-polyester-the-definitive-guide/ )

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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:

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https://www.onlineclothingstudy.com/2018/11/denim-finishing-using-laser-technology.html

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 elsewhere…..

Then there’s water: clean water is becoming more precious, and excess phosphates from detergents going in the oceans is a real concern (https://www.lenntech.com/aquatic/detergents.htm ). Hotels post notices in bathrooms asking you to pick up towels to use a second day, especially on islands that have fewer resources. Keep in mind that you use 40 gallons per load of laundry (https://home.howstuffworks.com/washing-machine-water-usage1.htm )

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https://www.fastcompany.com/3037679/read-about-how-hotels-get-you-to-reuse-towels-everyones-doing-it

Another thought: with every washing (and especially with every machine-drying) each fiber in your clothing and linens is broken down and bits go into the water system. This can be a serious problem in the case of microfibers (https://www.surfrider.org/coastal-blog/entry/plastic-microfibers-recent-findings-and-potential-solutions?gclid=CjwKCAiA3uDwBRBFEiwA1VsajNeIOFccZbIsiZmByph2fGIo_rDZBnlTdcL1g_KCmUKruh76sndPZRoCeGoQAvD_BwE ) or simply a matter of shortening-of-life in natural fibers.

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https://www.earth.com/news/microfibers-clothing-polluting-oceans/

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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.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/whisperedbetweenwomen/

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:

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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?

Happy Sewing!

Janet

PS: Red fabric is a whole other story….stay tuned!

14 Comments

  • Sarah

    Such an informative article! I do prewash everything….. but I’d be interested to know your thoughts on denim as I’ve often been cross in the past with crush lines across it post wash…. I tend to just wash in the water temp I’m going to use, no detergent….

  • ShirleyC

    I can’t love this blog post enough! I’ve been in some FB groups where people get attacked for not washing fabrics, and sometimes I’ve chimed in on their defense.
    I’ve been sewing since I was a kid and took Home Ec. in high school and college. Never once did any of my teachers tell us to wash new fabrics! They certainly taught us about ironing! LOL
    When I started sewing for my grandbabies, I asked my daughter if she preferred me washing the fabrics. She told me “no” with the reason being that the fabrics won’t look new, and I agreed for the most part. If I bought a fabric that might be more loosely woven, I would test a piece of it for shrinkage in the dryer – even though she didn’t dry the outfits I made. I would also test for fading if it was red!

  • Theresa in Tucson

    My answer, is, “It depends”. I sew mostly with cotton and other natural washable fibers so for clothing I usually prewash and dry usually several times, especially denim. For curtains, no, I don’t prewash. I just finished a set of fourteen lined panels for one of the rentals. I used a JoAnn’s 45″ home dec fabric and their top line bleached muslin for lining. The sizing in the fabric helped enormously in the sewing. It was cut, fold, press (a glue stick is a wonderful aid) and sew for the most part. It still took me four days. It would have taken double or triple that if I had to prewash, press, cut, assemble and sew that much fabric

    We live in a desert so water is precious. We harvest rain water which is pumped into the house and brought up to household pressure with a small pump and goes into the toilets for flushing and the washer (cold side) for washing. Water from the washer goes outside into a holding tank and then onto the vines and the grapefruit tree. We are having a wet winter so I’ve cut back on the amount of wash I do. There is nothing wrong with wearing things several days in a row. I can remember wearing the same white blouse and school uniform skirt for a week.

  • [email protected]

    “It depends”…good answer! Definitely apparel fabric over curtains. 14 lined panels would be a LOT of water and time and pressing.

    We live on the coast and have a decent waste-water program, but as a beach-lover it pains me to know how many inorganic chemicals can go into the sea. The irony of people washing chemicals back INTO their laundry with those scent-boosters is amazing to me. However I do see a trend in avoiding over-washing clothes…and hair as well!

  • [email protected]

    Red is a whole other story…ALWAYS test reds!!

    Glad you know what I mean about the FB groups where people can be shamed and humiliated for not pre-washing everything. I’m not sure I believe them anyway, because there are many times when washing-before-wearing is not practical: wedding/bridesmaid/flowergirl dresses, prom dresses (maybe they have them dry cleaned before wearing but as someone who does tons of alterations, I’ve never heard of it), graduation robes (sometimes they hand them out the morning of the ceremony, you really went home and washed it??)…..plus the thousands of teeshirts handed out at road races and corporate events, I don’t think they get washed first, and you’re expected to put them on and get on with it!

    Oh my goodness I could write a whole post about ironing……

  • [email protected]

    Ah denim! Yes I pre-wash denim, because in testing I’ve found that it always bleeds excess dye from over-saturation in manufacturing.

    Before the days of “pre-washed” ready-to-wear jeans, when new jeans were stiff as a board, we used to soften them by wearing them into the ocean and then rubbing sand on them. It worked, but it left your legs stained blue for days. (I’d totally forgotten about that! My kid has never seen a pair of NOT pre-washed jeans…)

  • Bunny

    I am a prewasher, most of the time. I even wash most woolens. My philosophy is if it doesn’t survive, I don’t want it. Certainly there are fabrics I sew that I don’t wash due to their expense and/or delicacy such as boucles or cashmeres but I will steam them heavily. No problems there. I did throw in some rayon velvets and even all silk velvets into the washer and dryer and LOVED the way they came out, a totally different hand and extremely luxe looking, much prettier than they ever looked prior to treatment. Many years back, before everything got off shored, I worked in a garment factory. We used almost completely wools and worsteds to make men’s suits. Every single twelve foot roll was sent to the “spongers” to be inspected and steamed. If worthy and now preshrunk, it came back to our factory and was made into suits.

  • [email protected]

    “If it doesn’t survive, I don’t want it”. YES!!! That’s about how I mentally approach testing. If it comes out looking shabby, it’s not worth spending time on. Unless…as you said, it may change character into something else, for example maybe it would be better in a vintage-chic style?

    Sponging, yes we learned to do this in tailoring class (thanks for bringing back school memories…). I didn’t know you had worked in a factory! I live close to two apparel-factory towns (mostly closed).

    Another (very old) memory: as a child, my father was a ship captain. Sometimes shipments of random products would be rejected and left on the pier due to non-payment. Eventually they’d get tossed, or the longshoremen would take them home. One day my dad brought home a stack of bolts of white fabric that was labelled as Egyptian cotton. It was rejected because the thread count was way too low, which they’d tried to hide with LOADS of sizing. Mom threw some into the wash, and the drainage sink filled up with starch-water. The resulting material was limp and sad…..but she did manage to use it for many, many Halloween costumes!

  • Karen vogelsang

    Great article! And if I sewed for a living, I would test wash too. I live in the Philippines and buy most of my fabric in open air markets in Manila which are definitely not clean! In fact some of them are quite disgusting and the cut fabric and well as rolls are often just dragged across the street. Even fabric stores keep fabric in stock for years (no big sales here) , so there is often a layer of dust on any exposed edges. So I wash everything washable the moment I get home. However we don’t have a dryer as electricity is exhorbitat here and just line dry and I honestly don’t worry too much about wasting water. I evaluate fabrics which need to be dry-cleaned on their level of dirtiness before sending it to the dry cleaner as it is also too expensive here. However, I also wash to get rid of the shrinkage if any, as I have had cases where I didn’t do this and had a garment shrink after sewing. I have even watched some cotton shrink whilst pressing! Plus, generally speaking, if it can’t be washed, I don’t want it anyway (with exceptions for evening wear as well as jackets, coats etc). I don’t pre wash upholstery or curtain fabric as mostly this will go to the dry cleaner and I can’t get it into my washing machine anyway. The main down side to pre watching is that the fabric often does not look new anymore, plus I struggle to get creases out of for instance linen. But I also worked in a sewing factory here and of course we never pre-washed! However we test washed the finished garments for shrinkage and different clients had different levels of acceptance for shrinkage percentages. We had some clients (cheaper brands!) who accepted up to 8% shrinkage in T-shirts…. I remember making white embroidered linen dresses, which by the time they had been sent around town to various subcontractors for embroidery and sewing, were filthy and had to be washed. They all shrunk and had to be down sized ….

  • Joanne

    You say you don’t prewash, but essentially you do, you purchase an extra half yard to test your fabric first. And I know, you will say “semantics”. But testing whether your fabric will run, or shrink is no less than what I do to the couple of yards of fabric I buy. And those that say the fabric won’t look new if they prewash, just need to learn to press using a pressing agent like Annie’s Best Press. Your fabric will look just like new. Fabric is handled in stores by customers and employees alike, you don’t know if they have washed their hands recently. I saw a lady let her little boy wipe his nose on fabric on a quilt fabric bolt….that, in itself, is enough to make me wash all fabric, that is washable. And to the person who mentioned bridal, prom and dressy fabrics, no people don’t wash these, but I have asked the person cutting to remove the first quarter yard before cutting as it has been handles so much it is usually not clean.

  • [email protected]

    Hi Joanne! Maybe I wasn’t clear: I don’t wash bolts of fabric before cutting. Did I forget to mention Best Press? I thought for sure that I did.

    That’s awesome that your fabric store will discard a quarter yard off of the end…in the U.S. most fabric is sold through big-box chains who aren’t even allowed to let you have a snippet for color-matching.

    I’ll put you in for a vote to pre-wash everything! Best regards, Janet

  • [email protected]

    Hi Karen! It’s amazing how many situations your fabric can be in, determining how much cleaning/shrinking it needs: can you even fit it into the washer, absolutely an issue! I would LOVE to buy fabric in open air markets, it’s like a treasure hunt! Sometimes I feel that the fabric available in U.S. mall shops looks all the same.

  • Auschick

    I’m in the it depends category too. It’s so much faster to sew fabric that hasn’t been prewashed – no need to press like crazy, nice and crisp, and don’t have to waste time washing/drying. That said, I typically buy small quantities and will usually prewash cotton based stuff just because I don’t want to do a test swatch. I never prewash swim (my suits are always hung dry anyway), and I don’t prewash organic euro knit from one of my suppliers because I have tested it in the past and know it doesn’t shrink.

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