How to Wash Fabric Before Sewing

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You just got back from a major fabric shopping spree, and are dying to get a few of your beautiful purchases cut out and sewn up as soon as possible: we get that.

And while we hate to poop your party, we need to talk about pre-treating fabric before sewing with it. In the end, you will be very glad you took the time. Skip this step and you're just asking for shrinkage problems in your completed garment.

What you need to know about pre-washing fabrics

Fibers that need pre-washing

Almost all fabrics need to be laundered in the same way that you plan to launder the completed garment. But there are some exceptions. You can skip pre-washing for 100% polyester fabrics such as polar fleece and minky, or vinyl such as faux leather. You can also eliminate this step if you will never wash the item (think: wall-hanging).

Different pre-treatment methods

The two main methods of pre-washing are your home washing machine and the dry cleaners. You can also try hand washing, if that's how you plan on caring for your finished garment.

For example, if you plan to toss your cotton skirt in the washing machine using cold water, and then dry on medium, make sure to do the same with the fabric before you start sewing. If your wool skirt and silk blouse will always go to the dry cleaner, then the yardage needs the same treatment before you cut out and stitch. If you prefer to hand wash your silks, and some wools for that matter, then that's what you should do with the fabric, too.

One quick tip: either serge or zigzag the cut edges of your fabric together before you toss it in the washing machine. This extra step will prevent raveling and stop the fabric from twisting into a snarled-up mess. Trust me on this one.

The right wash for your fiber

Cotton

  • Voile and lawn do better with a gentle or hand-wash cycle in your washing machine (or actual hand-washing is also an option). A few minutes in the dryer followed by hanging dry is fine.
  • Broadcloth or quilting weight cotton does fine in the washing machine and dryer. Be sure to use the temperature settings that you plan to use for the garment, or higher to minimize future shrinkage.
  • Flannel loves to shrink, so I try to remember to use hot water and a hot dryer when pre-treating. That way my normal cooler laundry temps won't cause more shrinkage down the road.
  • Knits also love to shrink, so I handle these just like flannel. After construction I try to keep them out of the dryer, except for a few minutes to remove wrinkles and excess moisture.

Rayon

I have had mixed results with rayon, but in general, knit or woven, it likes to shrink. For yardage only I wash on gentle in warm water, and dry in a medium dryer. As with cotton knits, I keep all rayons out of the dryer after construction.

Linen

Wash away! Linen will soften up after laundering, so you can freely toss the yardage and the finished garments into both a hot bath and a hot dryer.

Silk

There are plenty of differences of opinion on how to handle silk, but my preference is baby shampoo in the bathroom sink and then hang dry. Dry cleaning is another option, so you do you on this one.

Wool

Another fiber that elicits strong opinions is wool. I go for dry cleaning 100 percent of the time, though I do know people who wash wool in baby shampoo or other gentle soap and hang dry. Maybe I'll try it...someday.

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