To pre-wash fabric – or not?

Have you ever asked the question, “Should I pre-wash the fabrics going into my quilt?

How about, “Is it OK to wash a quilt with machine embroidered appliqué on it?

I’ve made quilts that have been in the washing machine, embroidered appliqué and all, and they come out just fine. For those quilts that are meant to be used and loved, washing is part of their life cycle.

I don’t usually pre-wash any of my fabric. However, I have a queen size quilt that I plan on making in the near future (can you believe that after 9 years of earning a living as a quilt designer, I still don’t have a quilt on my bed?) and I had an experience last week that got me thinking – do I pre-wash the fabric or not?

So what’s the story?

Last Monday I flew to Orlando. I had been invited to attend the Brother Back To Business Convention – and I must say it was wonderful to be back meeting people and seeing some old friends again, after over 2 years of very limited travelling. I flew home on Wednesday, with what was supposed to be a less than 2 hours layover in Houston.

SuitcaseNot long after landing in Houston, I’d found the gate for my connecting flight to Phoenix, and it started to rain. It only rained for 10-15 minutes, but it rained a LOT!!!

Now I was travelling with a whole bunch of quilts packed into my suitcase – which is a a hard plastic shell with a zipper. You’d like to think it would be pretty waterproof. Apparently not! And guess where my suitcase was during the rainstorm? I’m thinking it was sitting right out on the tarmac having been unloaded from one plane and onroute to being loaded onto the connecting flight.

It turns out that the zipper is the weak link. The things that were close to the zipper on the side that got wet – got wet in the suitcase 🙁

Amongst other things, the Butterfly pillow (you can see it in the photo!) got wet along one side and The Spectacle-R View quilt got wet along the bottom.

Spectacle-R View QuiltIt seems that The Spectacle-R View is a quilt that needs to be seen in person to appreciate – sooo many people said, ” I LOVE that quilt! So much fun!!!”.

What do you do when a quilt is half wet?

For both the Butterfly pillow and the Spectacle-R View quilt, the wet patches were noticeable (to me!). So I decided to throw them in the washing machine for a gentle wash. The Rejoice! quilt went in too – it’s been on the sofa in the living room since it was finished, being sat on, snuggled in and loved!

Now we get to what I really want to show you – some before wash and some after wash photos.

Now it turns out that both the Rejoice! quilt and the Spectacle-R View quilts were quilted using designs from the Rejoice! Quilting Collection. Nice to be able to compare apples with apples! Both quilts also use Michael Miller Fairy Frost fabric for all the appliqué shapes. They also both have the same batting in them – Quilters Dream Orient. Where they differ is that the Rejoice! quilt uses Michael Miller Fairy Frost fabric for the background while The Spectacle-R View quilt uses Moda Grunge fabric for the background.

Rejoice! quilt before and after washing

Rejoice quilt before and after washingThe left side shows the Rejoice! quilt BEFORE it was washed.

The right side shows the Rejoice! quilt AFTER it was washed (the color didn’t change, just the lighting for taking the photo. In real life, the colors after washing are still as vibrant and beautiful as the colors before washing).

What struck me is that – despite no pre-washing – the Fairy Frost doesn’t look a whole lot different after washing than it did before. There’s still beautiful texture, but no wrinkling or distortion. It’s also still nice and soft.

Spectacle-R View quilt before and after washing

Spectacle-R View quilt before and after washingThe left side shows the Spectacle-R View quilt BEFORE it was washed.

The right side shows the Spectacle-R View quilt AFTER it was washed.

The Moda Grunge fabric did take on a new personality in the wash! There’s a LOT more texture to the quilting, and it is quite a bit more wrinkled now than it was before. I don’t think it’s either good nor bad – just different.

Fairy Frost vs. Grunge after washing

Fairy Frost vs Moda GrungeSo what if you put the Fairy Frost next to the Moda Grunge?

Fairy Frost is on the left; Moda Grunge is on the right.

Which one would you choose?

Do you pre-wash your fabric – or not? If so, what are your tips for success? Leave me a comment below!

41 Comments

  1. I only prewash reds and blacks then tend to run

    • I receive donations of fabric for a mission quilt project at our church. Since I have no idea how old the fabric is or where it was stored, ALL that fabric gets washed in HOT and dried on HOT. If it survives I iron and fold and use. (I frequently fill a garbage with fabrics that faded, shredded (Dry rot) or wrinkled so tightly I didn’t want to use them. Since I combine new fabrics and old, I just go ahead and pre wash all my new fabrics so everything is on an even playing field. All that being said, I have asthma and allergies, I find that pre-washing as much of what I am sewing with as possible cuts down on lint/dust, removes traces of the chemicals dies, checks stability of colors. After washing I do iron fabric and fold it lengthwise selvage edges together and then the fold and selvages together.. after that I fold it accordion style for storage and so I can easily open it out for rotary cutting small lengths at a time..

  2. I do not prewash I like the crisp feel of the fabrics while quilting and after use the color catchers also!! When traveling and buying fabric or just plain packing everything goes into 2 gallon plastic bags living in Florida and rain at anytime you do not want to get anywhere with soggy clothes or fabric I line the bottom of suitcase with plastic also because things can shift and baggage handlers don’t always put things back where they should!!

  3. As an ancient seamstress, I was taught to pre-wash my fabric. I pre-wash to straighten the grain. When the grain is straight, I find especially the large quilts hang much straighter. I don’t have to quilt them into a straight of grain.

  4. What a nice idea to give a few color catchers with a quilt!

  5. I always prewash my fabric before using and make sure not to buy fabric that has to be dry cleaned.

  6. I always Prewash as do not care to be surprised with shrinkage and/or bleeding of colors. Also do not care for the texture created if shrinkage occurs..

    • I prewash all fabrics. If you only prewash some of the fabrics in a quilt, it will shrink unevenly. Also, it’s not just needs and blacks that bleed. I’ve prewashed assorted colors with colorcatchers which came out brown, meaning they all bled.

  7. Like many other commenters, I generally don’t pre-wash fabric for quilting because I like the sizing to help w/ precise cuts. But since I have fabrics from many sources & of different ages, I DO test all dark colors, especially those w/ red tones. To test: take a tightly twisted cotton ball or Q-Tip, wet it (not dripping wet) & vigorously rub along one edge. If there’s ANY color lifted, it gets washed or soaked in Retayne. It only takes a minute & lets me know if one needs to be pre-washed or substituted. Also, before cutting any fabric, I like to heavily steam it & allow to fully dry before using.

  8. Hi Sarah,I never wash my fabrics before using them, but I am very careful with red and black.I have been quilting for approximately 28 years and not had any problems. Recently in the last 15 years I have been machine embroidering and using Marathon threads on my quilts and table runners. The runners do get washed quite often and I have no problems, my only problem is that there are not enough hours in a a day. Cheers Anna.

  9. I have had problems with pre washed Batiks reds and purples mostly. The solution for the stubborn stains turned out to be natural yoghurt !
    I smeared it over the stains, let the little whatever they arezymes in the yoghurt do their magic then washed the quilt once more with a colour catcher.
    My quilt came out of the wash as good as new not one run of colour anywhere.
    I can’t remember where I read about the Yoghurt Solution, but I pass it on to all who have colour run problems. So far it has worked for everyone.

  10. When I started quilting back in the 1990s I prewashed all my fabric. Then I didn’t for a while. Now it depends on the project as to whether I prewash or not. I always prewash and dry flannel in the hottest water and dryer prior to use. I have had bleeding issues with black and navy flannels and also with red cotton quilting thread. I love the color catcher sheets and use them. As to washing quilts, I love the look of the washed quilts and I don’t have as much quilting on my quilts as the ones pictured. Not my strong point. Love all the tips, Thank you so much.

  11. I do not usually prewash fabric, but use color catchers when I wash quilts for several times anyway. And I alway give a couple of color catchers with a quilt that is a gift and tell folks what they are and where to get them. Thank you Sarah for all your ideas and comments

  12. I have a lovely quilt made with fabrics from the 1980s (yeah it was a wip for a long time)…it got damp and the orange print crocked into the surrounding beige fabric. I was hesitant to wash it but I threw it in with 25 (an entire box of color catchers…..) the color catchers were deep orange at the end of the wash but the quilt was fine – no signs of the orange dye in the beige!!! so if you are making something with older fabric I would prewash those fabrics (and I always prewash RED fabrics….just too many horror stories out there!!!!)

  13. I never prewash my fabrics….never, ever. I like the stiffness to work with but I heavily stream and Best Press them. So now I am curious and the quilt blocks I am now working on I am going to test after my quilt is completed! Oh brave me…😂. It’s too bad your experience happened. I’m a plastic bag girl so I use lots of dry cleaning bags in packing taped shut when traveling. Or large storage bags. I would not be able to wash my Jenny Haskins 3D quilts. Ugh at the thought! Thank you for sharing and I would have sat down and cried.

  14. Vera-Marie Horbach

    I always prewash my quilting fabric. I do so in the hottest water possible and dry at high temperature. This prevents dye bleed and will stop anymore shrinkage of the fabric. I then starch it very well. I just finished The Sedona Star Quilt which had been in a flood we had–no water damage caused to the quilt evn thugh it was soaked with water. I quilted it with wool batting and minky back. Then took to the dry cleaner to have washed in cool water and dried on cool heat. Turned out beautifully.

  15. I pre-wash all new fabric (except pre-cuts) because formaldehyde is used in processing fabric dyes and I don’t want those fumes in our home. I have also had difficulty with color running even on quality fabrics and don’t want to put that much work into a quilt to have it ruined. I still use color catchers with a completed quilt when I use pre-washed fabrics.

    • I too wash all of my fabrics when I bring them home. Several years ago I found that I got headaches when working in my studio. I assumed a sensitivity to some chemical (probably formaldehyde) so had to wash every fabric in my stash (not inconsiderable) but after that no headaches. I will even wash fat quarters.

  16. Hi Sarah! This was a very interesting post…loved all the comments, too! Yes, I prewash and dryer dry all my fabric as soon as I bring it home at the same temperature that I would the finished product. I then iron it all using Mary Ellen’s Best Press. When I fold it to put on my storage shelf I make sure it’s on straight of grain. The cut edges at the fabric store are not always on SOG! Then when I’m ready to use that piece of fabric I’m set to go. The quilt I have on my bed right now used all prewashed fabric; however, when I washed it the first time it still changed a bit and I loved the new look…more like one that has been well loved. Bless you, dear friend, for all the tips you give us to make our quilts not only works of art, but also treasures to be hugged.

  17. Like so many of your previous comments I too do not pre wash my quilt fabric. But I love the look of the quilt after it has been washed and I also love the feel. If I am giving one as a gift I will wash and dry it several times prior to giving it away. I really like the 3 dimensional look and feel.

  18. Fabrics today are much better at not “bleeding” than in the past. I just finished a red, black and gray quilt using Kona solids and did a test for the red. I decided not to prewash, because I like working with unwashed fabrics better – and still starch them a lot before cutting! No bleeding! So I just told the recipient to use a couple of color catchers the first couple of times she washed it. As a general rule I do not prewash.

  19. I do not precast fabric unless for a baby. I am finishing your Sedona Star with Heather Feather borders to make kingsize. I would never wash this quilt.
    Will dry clean if necessary. I will use this quilt on my bed.
    I always fold the sheet back over the top to keep quilt clean.

  20. I don’t prewash unless I think the fabric might bleed. I do wash my quilts, however after they have been quilted because I like the way they look afterwards. I think it’s a personal thing.

  21. hello, interesting about pre-washing. i have always recommended pre-washing any fabric that is going to be washed. 1. let the weave and fibers settle into their natural state and initial shrinkage takes place. 2. if colors are going to fade or run, you know ahead of time. 3. and most important to me.. many fabrics are treated with formaldehyde and i would rather have that chemical washed away before handling it.

  22. I’m a prewasher. I’ve seen too many fabrics that bled color (even some I thought would be safe). I put a color-catcher in with the wash. If it bleeds, I wash a couple more times. If it never stops bleeding, I pin the color catcher with it to remind me to only use it on a “doesn’t matter” project (like placemats with only similar colors).

  23. I usally do not pre-wash. If there is any doubt the colors might run, like with a quilt for a baby that definitely will be washed a lot , perhaps in hot water, i DEFINITELY pre-wash with Synthrapol to prevent running dyes. (and once you do that you don’t ever need to again….I also like it if you have one that has alreafy bled you use it on that quilt to take out the residue.) Like Ricky Tims, i believe quilts are to be used and loved. All of his quilts at shows have been run through the washer. I love your post-washed quilts! It gives them a new beautiful character ! (Great travel tops…I would have never guessed my turtle shell suitcases would have leaked!)

  24. I do prewash my fabrics. I use a lot of batiks and find that the colors run. If I do get a fabric that runs I pretreat it with Retayne. I just put the borders on a quilt and since I made it bigger than I had planned more fabric was purchased. I checked it and the color that ran out of it was quite considerable. A color catcher could not have possibly absorbed all of the color.

  25. I pack ALL of MY quilts and/or materials in a plastic garbage bag before it goes into a suitcase, Sometimes I line my suitcase with dry cleaning bags to protect my clothes. I try to protect as much as possible … has @saved” me a few times from a wet disaster at destination’s end.

  26. Kimberly Fretwell

    I have never pre-washed! But now looking at your work were the green bled I’m starting to think it may be worth the extra work. And Margaret has a very good point with the lint!

  27. As soon as I have purchased new fabrics I do wash every new piece and iron it afterwards. This makes it easy to have everything nice and organized in my closet and hopefully nothing will shrink or bleed afterwards.

  28. I have never prewashed the fabric on any of the quilts I have made. Even red fabric! I like the look of them when they are washed after they are finished.

  29. Marlys Cocozzoli

    I always prewash. I have environmental sensitivities and I’m healthier when dealing with washed fabrics. It is more work to wash and then starch and iron the fabric but to me it’s worth it. I once made 3 quilts for a client from deceased father’s shirts. I washed them and starting cutting them apart and sewing. Became very ill, asthma attacks, coughing, eyes burning and so forth. Finally found out the man had been a heavy smoker and clothes were infused with nicotine even after washing. I SOAKED them in heavy starch and after ironing stiff, was finally able to safely handle them! I don’t know what chemicals are in fabrics on bolts but I’ve found I’m healthier when always prewashing them.

  30. I always washing my quilt. My daughter is washing the quilts I gave hear. They still like beatifull.

  31. I only pre wash unbleached linen because it shrinks quite a bit with the first wash. Other material – no never!!
    I actually like the way your quilts have developed after being washed! Quite 3 dimensional!!

  32. My reason for pre washing is the difference in the lint that ends up in your sewing machine. Pre washed fabric does NOT produce the greasy lint that “not” pre washed fabric produces! As a retailer, I also see how some fabrics are on the bolt and believe me no matter how straight you think you have cut the “not” pre washed fabric, it may be not so very straight!!

    • Hi Margaret,
      I’ve never considered the lint issue of not pre-washing fabric. That might actually be the best reason I’ve heard to do it 🙂

    • I had not thought about a reduction in the lint from pre-washing. Hmmm…I may need to start pre-washing and see if that reduces my allergy symptoms when I do a lot of sewing.

  33. Looks to me that the Moda fabric free up a bit after washing were the Micheal Miller didn’t.

  34. I do not prewash quality fabrics. Takes the bit of sizing out, so you’d then have to starch and press. Unnecessary xtra work for no benefit. If possible for colors running might prewash then.

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