A few weeks ago I wrote to you about how to wash clothing, including tips on how often to wash and how to treat your clothing so it will last a long time. This time I thought we’d talk specifically about pre-washing fabric and how to treat each type of fiber. You’ve asked a lot of questions about this topic, so I’m putting it all together in one place.
Why is Pre-Washing Important?
There are a few reasons why it’s important to pre-wash your fabrics. The simplest and more important answer is that many fabrics shrink when washed, particularly in the first washing. (A few fabrics–flannel and interlock come to mind–may continue to shrink a little bit after the first wash). So the first wash is critical, especially since most fabrics will shrink more in length than in width. There’s nothing worse than making something that fits only to discover it’s several inches shorter after it gets washed!
It’s also a good idea to pre-wash fabrics to remove any extra dyes and chemicals that have been used in the making and finishing of the fabrics. After all, you probably don’t want to be handling chemicals if it’s not absolutely necessary, right? And if there’s extra dye in your fabric, it’s better to remove it before it bleeds onto other fabrics. Otherwise, that white collar on your red dress might turn pink! (You can read all about chemicals in textile finishing here and here.)
Which Fabrics Should be Pre-Washed?
Here’s one of the dirty secrets of the apparel industry: sometimes it’s just easier for a manufacturer to tell you to dry clean something when, in truth, the textile itself might have been washable. The reason? Any fabric labeling should be backed up by textile testing, which can be expensive and time consuming. This means that often a manufacturer will take a short cut and label the fabric “Dry Clean Only.” Of course, when this is the case the manufacturer will also not have accounted for shrinkage that would occur if you actually wash the garment, so in many cases you really shouldn’t wash it. So once again, the advantage of sewing is that you can pre-wash your fabrics and render the garment washable so you can avoid dry cleaning chemicals and cost.
When don’t you need to pre-wash a fabric? If you’re absolutely certain that you’ll only dry clean the finished item, you can skip pre-washing. For example, if you’re working with leather, suede, or fur (fake or real) you can probably skip pre-washing. Also, if you’re making something that involves lots of interfacings, trims, or tailoring details (I’m thinking specifically of evening wear and suits), it might be better to reserve the finished garment for dry cleaning. However, in many cases you can still pre-wash the fabrics themselves, so you’ll have to use your own judgement here. I’ll try to give you some general guidelines to help you out.
When Should You Pre-Wash?
As a rule, I pre-wash everything when it comes home with me, before it goes into my stash or sewing room. This way I don’t forget to wash it! When it comes home, it goes directly into the laundry.
How Should You Pre-Wash?
Here are a few general guidelines to help you get started. In general, you want to wash according to the fiber rather than the type of fabric (see below). So, for example, we’ll talk about cotton rather than voile or corduroy. The fiber is the important part here, OK?
Also, when I pre-wash a fabric I prefer to treat it a little worse than I’ll treat the finished garment. In other words, even if I’m not planning to throw a T-shirt in the dryer, I might machine dry the fabric just to force as much shrinkage from it as possible. That way I don’t need to worry about the possibility that it might accidentally go through the dryer later (I’m not the only one who does laundry in our house) and hopefully by treating it harshly the first time it won’t do any more shrinking later.
If you think your fabric might bleed or release a lot of dye (you can check this in advance by pressing a wet piece of white fabric against it for a minute to see if any color transfers to the white), consider throwing a Color Catcher into the wash with your fabric.
Here are a couple of other products you might be interested in if you’re not already familiar with them. I like to keep them in the cabinet with the laundry soap so they’re available when I need them: Synthrapol and Retayne. (You can read all about them via the links.) With some fibers I also add white vinegar to a pre-soak to stop the dyes from leaching out of the fabric, but you’ll probably have better luck with the professional products. (White vinegar is great for removing any excess soap from your wash cycle, and it will also soften your towels so you don’t need to use fabric softener.)
Pre-Washing, Fiber by Fiber
Here’s a short list of how I pre-wash each fiber. Again, this is my personal preference; I don’t use a dryer very much for laundry, so keep that in mind in case you live in a climate where a dryer is necessary. Also, if you’d like to read more about the qualities of each fiber, here are some older blog posts that might help you learn about natural fibers and manufactured fibers.
- Cotton: Most cotton is easy to care for and can be machine washed and dried without too much concern. After pre-washing and drying, I prefer to line dry anything made from cotton after giving it a good shake. (Think of snapping a towel.) This removes most of the wrinkles and helps the fibers to look better and last longer.
- Linen: Linen can be machine washed, no problem. If you put linen in the dryer the fibers will break down more quickly and the fabric will be more wrinkled. However, for pre-washing, I might throw linen in the dryer once just to shrink it up as much as possible. If you use the dryer, keep a spray bottle of water handy to help dampen the fabric when you iron it.
- Wool: I nearly always hand- or machine-wash wool on the gentle setting, using cool water so the fibers don’t felt. Wool should always be line dried, then pressed with lots of steam to shrink up the fabric a bit before cutting. I pre-wash wool this way even if I plan to hand wash or dry clean the finished garment, and I have never had any trouble with it at all. Just be sure to choose the gentle cycle (or hand wash so you’re not agitating the fibers too much) and use cool water.
- Silk: My personal preference is to pre-wash silk by hand with a color-safe shampoo (shampoo for colored hair) or gentle soap (like Soak), then line dry. This is how I care for silk once it’s been sewn, too. Dry cleaning is best if you want to maintain the stiffer hand and sheen of dupioni or shantung, but for fabrics like charmeuse and organza I find hand washing is just fine.
- Viscose (Rayon): This fabric shrinks quite a bit when washed, but rather than putting it in the dryer to shrink it further I almost always line dry it because it wrinkles a lot and should only be pressed with a warmish (not hot) iron so it doesn’t melt. If you do use the dryer, use a low setting and try to remove the fabric before it’s completely dried.
- Acetate, acrylic, nylon, and polyester: I machine wash and line dry these fibers as well. If you use the dryer, keep it on a low setting and remove the fabric before it is completely dry. This will help to reduce static, too. Be especially gentle with acetate because it’s fragile when wet.
- Lyocell (or Tencel): I prefer to machine wash and line dry this fabric as well, although you probably could put it in the dryer.
I hope these tips help you with pre-washing your fabric and caring for your sewing once it’s finished! Please feel free to add your tips in the comments.