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To Wash or Not to Wash….That is the Question

Wash or Not SwatchesThe quilting world is definitely made up of the washers and non-washers with very few feeling “wishy-washy” on the topic.  We recently posed the do wash/don’t wash question to our Facebook followers and here are the results when we finally stopped counting: 291 don’t wash while 210 do wash with more comments still coming in.  Most have definitely chosen one or the other but there were quite a few who only wash certain fabrics.

Let me start by saying there is no right or wrong method.  It is a personal choice. So what are the issues?

Those who wash tend to do so for three main reasons.  First, they want to find out if any of their fabrics will run and they wish to remove any residual dyes or other chemicals such as formaldehyde.  In the 1970’s, new environmental codes put restrictions on the amount of formaldehyde allowed to be added during the dying process but some is still present. This is important to those who could be sensitive to these products.  Another reason some wash is that fabric shrinks and they wish to do this before using the fabric.

For the non-washers out there, our favorite reason not to wash is that they can’t wait to use the fabric. Most of today’s quilt manufacturers recognize that the number of quilters who do not prewash is a large number and therefore, make sure that their products do not run or bleed. There is minimal shrinkage when washing and many quilters like the sizing found in fabric which lends a certain “crispness.”  Also, many of today’s quilters are making pieces which will be washed little or not at all after completion.

I do not wash my fabrics.  Of course, I use only my own fabrics and I know how they will behave.  I especially like the feel of fabric right off the bolt.  I’m more concerned about the damaging effects of exposure to light, but then, that would be a topic for another blog.

For many of you, though, washing is important.  Many years ago, I visited a mill where my fabric was produced.  Here are the tips I received from the quality control manager along with my own findings for what I think is the best method to wash your new fabrics and finished quilts:

  1. Unfold all newly purchased fabrics and put them through a cold water rinse.  If not unfolded, the color can actually rub off along that crisp fold during the washing process.
  2. Wash the fabrics with a phosphate-free detergent in a short, cold-water cycle. Phosphates can contribute to the bleeding of fabrics.
  3. Watch the wash and rinse waters to see how much color comes out.  Dye catchers (such as those under the brand name “Shout”) are a good indicator.
  4. If you notice a lot of color in the water, wash the fabrics again in cold water along with small samples of the light fabrics you plan to use in the quilt.  Chances are the second wash will produce no bleeding. If there is bleeding but it has not contaminated the other fabrics, it is safe to use those fabrics together.  If the light-colored fabrics have changed color, then I would recommend not using the fabrics together.
  5. For washing quilts, use short cycles in cold water.  First put them through a cold water rinse (delicate cycle), then wash them in cold water (delicate cycle) with a phosphate-free detergent.  Put them through a cold water rinse and spin out all excess water.  Lay down several layers of towels and spread the quilts flat to dry.  I want to emphasize that I do not recommend this method for antique quilts where fabric can be extremely fragile.  Contact a textile conservationist for instructions for cleaning antique quilts.
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Color catchers can be used in the wash to help collect any leftover dye from the fabric.

Note: It is difficult to find a good quality fabric today which will run or bleed. Our tester tried many different reds before she found a hand-dyed one purchased at a quilt show several years ago.

9 thoughts on “To Wash or Not to Wash….That is the Question

  1. Thanks for the stats. I don’t wash, but thought more people did, glad to know there’s lots of us out there who don’t per wash.

  2. I just bought some jinny fabric on line, it was all old patterns so I was will to deal with it having been washed. When I received it what a shock. It had been washed it HOT water and was in poor condition. So sad to see this lovely fabric faded well before its time.

  3. I get a lot of questios regarding precuts, I do not was precuts : jelly rolls, layer cakes, etc. the smallest fabric piece I wash is one half yard WOF.

  4. i do not wash my fabrics before making my quilts because I like the crisp, new feeling of the fabric, especially if it’s a Jinny Beyer’s fabric. I have full confidence in any Jinny Beyer’s fabric.

  5. Sometimes I do prewash quilting fabrics, primarily because some high quality fabrics (including Kona cottons and some colors of Moda fabrics) will bleed. I know people say that top quality quilting fabrics don’t bleed but that is simply not my experience. If I am concerned that a particular color (usually deeply colored fabrics) will bleed, I test a sample, then act accordingly.

  6. I’ve discovered that unwashed fabric leaves more fabric “dust” in my sewing machine and I have to clean the machine more often.

  7. Live and learn, I do like to wash my yardage ! Just because whatever is on the fabric gets through my fingers and I can taste it , it makes my mouth numb my face turns red and itchy .. I did try to wash my pre cut squares and fat quarters and they disappeared into a big giant ball of string LOL !! Never was pre cuts
    The 5 inch sqs turned to 2 inch balls of string and so did the fats…Now I wait till it is all sewn then I wash whether or not it bleeds..

  8. I prewash my fabrics because sometimes the fabrics are “skewed” and washing brings the grain straight again (usually).

  9. I had never prewashed UNTIL I made a quilt – 130 different fabrics – white background – and two of the darker colors bled. What a kick. Now I just don’t take the chance. Some have great luck using Synthrapol to remove runs, but in this instance it didn’t work. I’ve never used Retayne but hear it’s a great product for getting those fabrics that do bleed to stop.

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