A wise woman once said to me, “Suzy, the very first thing you should do when you get home from a fabric shop is throw all of your fabric into the washing machine. One must prewash fabric before quilting. It's essential.”
Another wise woman also said to me, “Prewashing?? I ain't got time for that.”
Thus began my inner debate – to prewash or not to prewash fabric before quilting?
Those Who Prewash Fabric Before Quilting Have Their Reasons
It Prevents Bleeding.
Prewashing does more than just fluff up your fabric. One of the most important things washing your fabric can prevent is the dreaded bleed. For those who have never experienced a bleeding quilt, thank the sewing gods for your good fortune. However, all of those who HAVE watched in horror as navy dye seeps into a once cream fabric, raise your hand. You, my friends, don’t need me to tell you that pre-washing fabric can prevent vibrant dyes from spreading onto other fabric. Reds, purples, and dark blues are the usual suspects. In my case, it was a fabulous navy with beautiful metallic gold dots.
I hate that fabric now. It is my enemy.
To help prevent this bloody tragedy (Can I say that? If it was once bleeding, that makes it bloody, right?), add a couple tablespoons of Retayne* to the wash. Here's a quick refresher on the two main chemicals we talk about dumping into our washing machines here at SQ:
- Retayne: sets dye into fabric. Retayne PREVENTS fabric dye bleeding by locking dye into fabric. DO NOT use it if you are experiencing a fabric bleed situation. I keep a bottle of Retayne in my laundry room and pour some into every prewash that includes highly saturated color fabric.
- Synthrapol: releases dye from fabric. Knowing that, I don't think I need to warn you not to dump this into your washing machine when washing a quilt....cause you know that, right? Use Synthrapol when either dyeing your own fabric or working to get naughty fabric from bleeding. Read more about fixing fabric bleeds here.
It Removes Chemicals.
Sensitive skin anyone? If you have a propensity for itchy, irritated skin, you may want to consider jumping into the prewash camp. By washing your freshly purchased fabric before sewing with it, you are removing any sizing (more on this later) or chemicals acquired during its life in a factory.
This word is going to make an appearance in both the “Pros” and the “Cons” list. Basically, fabric shrinks once it’s been washed and dried. Yes, yes, I know you already know that. What you may not have thought about is how this radically changes the look of your quilt if the majority of the shrinkage happens after it’s been quilted. By choosing to prewash fabric before quilting, you are decreasing the crinkle effect (similar to the butterfly effect in that this one decision can be world changing….think about it.)
So ask yourself, “Do I want my quilt to shrink up and look instantly vintage and crinkled after it’s laundered?” Or “Do I want it to look relatively the same as when I first sewed it together?”
Below is a quilt made with fabric that was not pre-washed. Keep scrolling for pics of it after it's been laundered.
The quilt featured in this post is the Triangle Jitters quilt pattern. Download it here!
It Takes Too Much Time.
Also sometimes you forget! Also sometimes you are running home from the fabric shop because it is imperative that you begin cutting into that fabric you just purchased immediately. Like world-endingly imperative that not a second is lost!
What I’m saying is, sometimes life gets busy and you just want to quilt. For those of us who are not great at planning ahead (raising my hand), prewashing feels like the step we forget to take until it’s too late. Because once that rotary cutter is in hand, no prewashing will occur.
Remember Those Chemicals?
We actually like some of them. As mentioned previously, sizing finds its way onto fabric fresh from the factory. Sizing is similar to starch in that it adds crispness to the fabric and reduces wrinkles. This added stiffness makes it easier to cut and sew.
Oh, hello again. Fancy seeing you here.
Where my crinkle-peeps at?? If you love the look of a fluffy, puffy, puckery, cozy, cuddly quilt, then prewashing fabric before quilting is not for you. Fabric is going to shrink after that first wash, so if it’s now part of a quilt, it will slightly pull at that stitching – giving your quilt maximum crinkleage. And that’s a word. Just don’t look it up.
A Few Final Prewashing Tips
Whether or not you prewash fabric before quilting, at some point you will need to wash your finished quilt. Check out this post on washing, drying, and caring for your quilts so they last and stay nice as long as possible.
Don’t Prewash Pre-cuts.
By “pre-cut” I mean anything the size of a Fat Quarter*fat or smaller. Those little cuties are small enough that their raw edges may unravel a lot. So much unraveling can occur that it no longer fits the requirements for a Fat Quarter quilt pattern.
*Fat Quarters are quarter-yard cuts of fabric cut wide (hence the name fat). Rather than a classic long and narrow quarter, which would be 9" x 42", an FQ is approximately 18" x 21". If you are looking for a cute FQ-friendly quilt pattern, check out this post about all of the pre-cut patterns we offer — The Best Pre-Cut Friendly Suzy Quilts Patterns.
Color Catchers Can Save Your Life.
Whether or not you pre-wash or don’t pre-wash, it’s not a bad idea to throw a Color Catching sheet into the wash with your quilt – especially if your quilt includes saturated colors. A nervous giggle always escapes my mouth when I see how much dye those catchers collect. You can find these in the laundry detergent aisle.
Now go forth and prewash! Or don’t. It’s totally up to you. As you can see, Scrappy is impartial.
Want one more before and after shrinkage example? Let's look at my Gather quilt. I did not pre-wash this fabric. Here's a photo if it finished, but before washing the whole quilt...
And here's a photo showing off all of that cozy crinkliness. Desi and Scrappy are enjoying it's warmth from the dryer.
Here it is again, folks. Close up before washing...
And close up after washing. The quilt, that is. The toddler looks a little dirty 😉