Should You Prewash Quilting Fabric?


Ah, one of the great quilting debates: To pre-wash or not to pre-wash your fabric. Some people swear by it, while others think it's not worth the extra time. The good news is you can't really go too wrong either way. The bad news, though, is you're going to have to weigh the pros and cons below and come to your own conclusion. We're not taking sides here!

Team pre-wash

  • It prevents vibrant dyes from spreading onto other fabric. Some bright colors, like reds and purples, can run and bleed when washed, which is a devastating surprise when it happens to a finished quilt. Washing fabrics beforehand reduces this risk.
  • Fabric shrinks when washed and dried. When stitched together, the fibers of the fabrics are pulled nice and straight, but laundering causes them to either shrink or relax back into their natural shape. If you haven’t pre-washed the fabrics before they were cut and sewn, this can cause some distortion in a finished quilt.
  • It removes any chemicals that have been used on the fabric. This is especially helpful for people who have sensitive skin.

Arguments against pre-washing

  • Maybe a little shrinkage in a finished quilt isn’t such a big deal. We’re not talking massive distortion here. In fact, many quilters actually like that cozy, crinkly look you get when you launder a quilt made from fabrics that weren't pre-washed. (Flannel and Minky fabrics are an exception here. They shrink a lot and should always be washed first.)
  • Dyes bleed way less than they did back in the day. Most manufacturers realize that many of us don’t pre-wash, so they work hard to ensure that dyes are set completely. If you're really concerned about this, though, you can do a test: Soak a small piece of fabric in warm, soapy water. If the water is still clear after 30 minutes, you’re good to go. If the water has changed color, pre-wash the fabric with a color fixative like Retayne, which helps the dye become more permanent.
  • Unwashed is sometimes easier to piece. You can thank the starches and sizing agents used to treat fabric for that extra crispness that makes it behave so nicely.
  • Pre-washing takes too much time! Plenty of quilters prefer to spend their precious crafting time cutting and sewing, not waiting for the spin cycle to finish up.
  • Quilting a wall hanging? Forget it. If you’re making something purely decorative that won’t be used and laundered over time, there’s no reason to take that extra step.

Decided to pre-wash? A few tips before you toss it in

  • Sort fabric by colors, separating light and dark.
  • Always wash like colors together on a cold cycle with a gentle detergent, and follow the manufacturer's directions for laundering.
  • Once the wash finishes, shake out fabrics before tossing them into the dryer.
  • Remove fabric promptly to prevent wrinkling. The edges will fray during this process, so trim them off before folding the fabric. If the fraying bothers you, the edges can be serged or zigzag stitched to keep them tidy.
  • Never wash pre-cuts. The small pieces can get lost in your machine.
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