To wash or not to wash…

Ask a group of quilters whether you’re “supposed” to pre-wash and you’ll get a dozen different answers.  And that’s just from a dozen quilters.

(Picture of scraps from Corey Yoder’s collections swiped borrowed from Corey Yoder’s Instagram.)

This is always a subject that comes up from new quilters and experienced quilters, and I’ll write at the outset that there isn’t any one right answer.

When it comes to the fabrics we use for quilting, they will shrink when washed.  That’s what cotton does.  And linen.  (Ditto for cotton-linen blends.)  If those fabrics are being used for garments, then they absolutely should to be pre-washed.  Unless you like garments that are shorter and tighter than intended.  But when it comes to fabrics used for making quilts and quilt-y things, the answers aren’t always so easy, or so cut-and-dried.

For most of us, pre-washing is a personal choice – a choice that is dependent on how you’re going to use the fabric, what techniques you’ll be using to construct your quilt, how you want the fabric to look when the quilt is finished, and whether you’re sensitive to the chemicals used to finish the fabrics.

I used to pre-wash – and then press and starch my fabrics.  Why?  Because I liked the crispness of the fabric for cutting, especially for cutting multiple layers.  I also get better results during construction, the sewing and pressing steps in particular.  Then I started using pre-cuts – charm squares in particular – and pre-washing wasn’t really an option.

(Picture of Bonnie & Camille mini bundles swiped borrowed from Camille Roskelley’s – Thimbleblossoms – Instagram.)

So what’s the argument for pre-washing?

  • Cotton fabric shrinks – between 3% and 5%.  Flannel fabrics can shrink even more than that.
  • Washing will remove excess dye from highly saturated colors – red, purple, dark blues and greens, etc..
  • Fabrics are finished with sizing and other chemicals that can bother people who are sensitive to chemicals.

Fabric shrinks primarily in the width, and it can shrink as much as a couple of inches.  Different types of fabric also shrink differently – “regular” quilting cotton, wovens – chambray, crossweaves and shot-cottons, linen and linen-blends, etc.

Many practitioners of needle-turn appliqué advocate pre-washing fabrics because it makes it easier to position and turn under.  The “plumping” and tightening up of the fibers when they’re washed also means it generally frays less – a plus on those inside points.

If the fabric is too soft after washing, it can be starched to your preferred crispness.

And really, the chemicals.  From the dyes to the finishings – which often includes formaldehyde and insecticides – fabrics have a lot of added chemicals.  If you’re handling the fabric a lot – appliqué and hand-quilting? – this can be a problem.

(Picture of Fig Tree’s Christmas Figs swiped borrowed from Fig Tree & Co.’s Instagram.)

What about not pre-washing – using the fabric right off the bolt or out of the pre-cut?

  • Most manufacturers of quilting cotton – and definitely Moda! – continually check fabric for color-fastness.  While there will probably always be some excess dye in the fabric, steps are taken in the printing and dyeing process to ensure that dyes are completely set.
  • Fabric is easier to cut and sew because of the crispness it has from the finishing process.
  • The finished quilt will shrink when washed, giving it a soft, crinkly, quilty look.
  • Even though quilting-quality cottons are color-fast, the color is a bit more vibrant before it’s washed.  This is definitely a consideration for something that will never be washed.
  • If the fabrics are in a kit… unless I know that the pieces are generously cut and I can get more or make substitutions/additions, I probably wouldn’t pre-wash because fabrics shrink.  And washed pieces will now be “straight” according to the grain, but not necessarily square for cutting.
  • Many quilters will also cite time as a reason – who doesn’t want to cut into pretty new fabric as soon as we get it home?

(Picture of Me & My Sister’s Dot Dot Boo! swiped borrowed from Me & My Sister’s Instagram.)

But what about washing the finished quilt – will pre-washing or not pre-washing make a difference?

Yes, there are absolutely factors to consider before starting a quilt about whether to pre-wash or not.  If I was making a quilt using a batik or saturated solid – like red – with white, I would pre-wash those fabrics, especially if the quilt were made with yardage, fat quarters or fat eighths.

But what about using batik or highly-saturated color pre-cuts like Jelly Rolls or Charm Packs?  There are two options – pre-washing the pre-cuts using a mesh laundry bag or washing the finished quilt carefully and consciously.

What does “washing the quilt consciously” mean?

  • Wash the quilt in cold water with a soap that does not contain unnecessary additives – brighteners, softeners, etc.  E.g., Orvus.
  • Use “dye magnets” like Shout Color Catchers – a small sheet that is treated to attract excess dye in the washing water.
  • If necessary, use professional dye-prevention products like Synthrapol and Retayne.
  • Do not leave a wet or damp quilt sitting in the washing machine – remove it as soon as the wash-cycle is done.  (True story – simply having a wet navy blue fabric resting on top of a wet white one can result in dye-transfer.  Ask me how I know.)

Be wary of washing quilts in high-efficiency washers – they use less water in the wash-cycle, meaning that the concentration of excess dye in the water will be higher.  This is one of those times where big, old-fashioned washers that can be filled with a lot of water are a benefit.  This is also one of those times when hauling a stack of quilts down to a laundromat with really big commercial washers isn’t a crazy idea.

(Picture of Minick & Simpson’s Farmhouse Reds swiped borrowed from Minick & Simpson’s Instagram.)

Now… all that said, the one “type” of fabric that really does benefit from pre-washing is extra-wide backings.  In fact, it’s recommended.

Moda’s Buffalo Check Extra-Wide Backings

The rolling process for extra-wide backings is such that it is easy for them to get pulled askew.  Washing the extra-wide backing straightens that, making it easier for machine quilting, both on a long-arm machine and your home machine.

If you pre-wash the extra-wide backing but not the fabrics on the front of the quilt, will that make a difference?  Ask a dozen quilters, get a dozen different answers… my own experience is that it hasn’t made a difference. But others will disagree.

So take everything written here – and elsewhere – as adding to the collective knowledge base.  There are so many factors that can be taken into consideration – if you wash all the fabrics, shouldn’t you also pre-soak the cotton batting?  Hard water vs. soft water?  In 40-plus years of sewing and 30-plus years of making quilts, I won’t pretend to know all the answers.  Any of the answers!

Personal experience.  Personal preference.  What to wash and when can be reduced to the simple question of figuring out what works best for you – and knowing what you can live with.

If I were making a quilt with a lot of time-intensive hand-work, or one destined to become a family heirloom, I would take every precaution possible and probably pre-wash everything.  Just to be on the safest side possible.  But my quilts are used and washed – frequently.  (Trust me, you don’t want to know how my brother washes the quilts I’ve given him.  And no, I don’t mind because I love that he has multiple quilts on his bed.)

I also maintain that I’ve never made a quilt that Rosie couldn’t sleep on.

Happy Friday!

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26 thoughts on “To wash or not to wash…

  1. Carrie – once again thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge! Pre-washing IS a subject on which everyone has a preference. Personally I always pre-wash flannel (I use it often for backing on baby quilts) because of the shrinkage. I also pre-wash batik fabric because of the wax used to produce it and because of the dying process. If I purchase flannel or batik it comes into my house and goes directly in to the washer before ever making it to my stash. Saves me confusion and time later when I want to just get down to the cutting and quilting. I also had someone suggest using a salad spinner to pre-wash precuts…

  2. You’re the best! I didn’t know about pre-washing wide backing until it was cut and quilted and bound. It worked out OK, but next time I’ll definitely pre-wash. Thanks, Carrie!

    1. At my Guild in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada I took a class and the teacher said to wash a wide back, put it in the dryer and remove and iron while it is still damp. She also said because of shrinkage to buy extra fabric. I can’t remember if she said 3 yards or 3 metres for a queen size quilt. If it was metres just buy 3 yards and 12 inches. This woman has quilts at Houston; she quilts professionally and we are so lucky to have access to her knowledge.

  3. I love that you gave pro’s and con’s on this topic of great, and sometimes passionate, debate! Special thanks for the wide backings information.

  4. Thank you for all this information! It’s always been difficult for me to decide if I should pre-wash & dry any or all fabrics excepts pre-cuts. In the future I think I will pre-wash & dry batiks (because of the wax & dying process) and extra-wide backing fabrics (because of the rolling process. More work for me to iron but sounds worth it). As for the rest…I always suggest the receiver wash the quilt with a color catcher and a gentle cycle but what happens once it leaves my possession is out of my control.

  5. Oh my. I just sent a quilt for custom quilting with a wide backing and I did not pre-wash. The front was mostly pre-cuts with yardage used for borders. I didn’t prewash any of the fabric. The quilting cost me a fortune, I hope it works out. The quilt will be used as a bed topper. So worried now.

    1. Hi Susan – First, don’t worry, this is going to work out. I have faith!

      The purpose of this was to share my experiences, the most important of which is that I’ve had very, very few problems with bleeding or dye transfer. And I wash my quilts a lot. I read everything I can find and I always ask questions when I hear of problems. The problems get the most attention but they are almost always the exception rather than the norm, especially now with better manufacturing processes.

      For the extra-wide backing, it’s not required. But it is increasingly recommended as making the “quilt sandwich” is usually a bit easier.

      When you wash your quilt for the first time, make sure to wash it in cold water with a gentle soap, and use one or two Color Catchers. Also use a washer that will allow you to wash the quilt on a full load – a lot of water. As soon as the wash cycle is complete, remove the quilt and put it in the dryer – on a setting not higher than Medium heat. And just so you know, I use this process every time I wash any of my quilts.

      So not to worry – this is all going to work out fine. If you knew some of the things I’ve done and tried… 🙂

    2. I’m a longarm quilter and I’ve quilted many quilts with wide backings that I know my customers have not pre-washed. I haven’t had any problems so far. However, Carrie’s information and recommendation for pre-washing for the reasons she gives are appreciated and I will be passing this on to my customers.

      Susan, your quilt should be fine. If not, your longarmer should contact you if there is an issue.

      Hope this helps.

  6. I, too, did not know about the information about wide backings. Thanks for the info! I’m saving your post for future reference. You mentioned sweet Rosie…did you ever get another furbaby?

    1. Not yet. One of these days. (I’m trying to convince Mr. Dunn that we need a “bring your dog to work” policy. 🙂

  7. I never pre-wash my fabrics not even linen but so far I never, really never had a problem with bleeding or shrinking too much That may be because I only use high quality fabrics like Moda (you are my favorites). BTW I love all the swiped, ah, borrowed fabric pictures. Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. Thank you for the wide backing tip. I haven’t had a chance to use WB yet, but will need to by the end of the year for two projects I am making. Oh, and I use that laundry bag trick for fat quarters all the time. I get some fraying but not enough to bother me.

  9. What a wealth of information! Thanks so much for sharing this. I always wonder about fat quarters as I use them often and worry about the fading. Color Catchers are the best! The wrost part of pre-washing is the stringy mess afterwards. But sometimes has to be done! Thanks again!

    1. Cutting small triangles off each of the four corners massively reduces the stringy mess and also reminds you that it’s been washed…years later when you dig it out of your stash!

  10. I don’t prewash. Too lazy… er, excited to cut into my beautiful fabrcs! I use extra wide backings sometimes… have not had a problem with them but I do add at least 2 or 3 color catchers when I wash my finished quilt! Thanks for the “borrowed” eye candy! Tell Mr Dunn that “take your dog to work” is a great idea!!

  11. WOW, I love all the information here! I always learn something new, which is easy since I have only just begun quilting about a year ago. Thanks for the tip on the extra wide backing, I’m sure I was waiting for this blog post before sending my top out to a long-armer. (: Now off to load my washing machine with some wide backing, hope this machine can handle it. Not a fan of the HE machines.

    1. My HE machine has a “bulky” setting, meant for things like comforters that take up more space in the drum than their weight would indicate. On this setting, my machine fills with more water and, as far as I can tell, acts like a traditional washer. I use this setting for my quilts always. (After reading this, I think I will use it any time I’m worried about dye transfer, too.). You might want to check and see if your machine has something similar.

  12. I bought some wideback Lulu Lane to use as a background for a quilt. Besides being a bit more economical to buy the wideback as opposed to 44″ wide, it is closer to a lawn weight which will work great with the Liberty prints I will be using for the piecing. I don’t plan to prewash it and think it will work out great.

  13. Thanks for sharing the pros and cons. I like the antique puckered look, so I do not prewash. But I have started to use wide backing, so I probably will prewash.

  14. Thank you for sharing this Carrie. I had a bad experience with some red broadcloth years ago, and ended up washing everything from that point on. I usually wash on cold with a bit of salt – using extra if it is darker fabrics. I’ve now washed my quilts over and over in regular washings (I still have the older washing machine) and have had no problems so far.
    Love your idea about the mesh bags for pre-cuts, as yes, I’ve tried to wash them too 🙂 – you can imagine the results. I usually iron them on hot now, if I do have some.
    One thing I wish I could find more of, is the 60′ wide backings. Though I try to keep my quilts small for baby quilts – I do enjoy the 60′ wide for the toddler sizes – and if I have some left over for scraps – all the better. They are hard to find though – especially in fun bright fabrics for children. Just an idea, (from a small pebble in a big pond) :)!

  15. Thank you for all of these great tips! I have wondered about this ongoing question too! I’m going to print this article. As always, love your posts!

  16. Carrie, such a great article – thanks so much! I keep vacillating back and forth on this…. I had recently decided I was no longer going to pre-wash my fabrics, but I may need to rethink that decision. I have been diligent about reducing chemical exposure in every other area of my life, but I think it’s time I look at this area as well.

  17. Thanks for the thoughts that have been gathered on this subject. I usually do not prewash but am curious if you have one bit of a fabric you just want to add to a quilt that has already been pre-washed would that ruin the quilt. Actually adding a bit of washed fabric to a project of pre-washed.
    Any takers on this subject?

  18. Thanks for this article. I think it covered every angle very well. My daughters don’t wash anything until the quilt is finished and that works for them. I personally wash everything before I use it, except for pre-cuts because I am very sensitive to the chemicals in the fabric and I also love how the weave tightens up a bit, much less fraying in the sewing process. Maybe it’s because I did so much ironing as a kid in a time when everything got ironed. My job was hankies, aprons and pillow cases, Mom ironed her dresses and my Dad’s shirts. My daughters tease me about stroking my fabric but really I don’t mind the added steps of washing, starching and ironing my fabrics. There are no quilt police so to each their own.

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