Debate: Pre-Wash or Not

When it comes down to it, the choice to pre-wash your fabrics or not is purely a personal preference. There is no right or wrong answer – some of us don’t like to do it, and some of us swear by it. However, when I did a bit of internet research to see what kind of discussion existed out there on the topic, it seemed the overwhelming opinion was to absolutely prewash. When surveying the ladies here at the shop, however, I found a distinctly opposite response. You may already have a “side” in this debate, but here’s our argument to save yourself the effort.

I’m lazy. Pre-washing fabric is a lot of work. It’s suggested that you wash and dry each fabric several times before finally ironing it out and adding it to your stash. Call me impatient, but once I get my fabric home, I’m ready to dive into my projects and I will avoid the washing and waiting at all costs. Not to mention easing up on the washing machine is definitely more eco-friendly.

No more bleeding. If color bleeding is what you’re avoiding, here’s some advice: If you’re making a quilt with a lot of light-colored fabric (white, cream, etc), chances are throwing a tomato red fabric in the mix is gonna turn your whole project a fun shade of pink. In these cases, pre-washing your fabric isn’t the worst idea, but still isn’t absolutely necessary. If you haven’t discovered color catchers yet, get on board! Shout makes a color catcher that you should be able to find in the laundry aisle of your local grocery store. According to the manufacturer, the Shout® Color Catcher is specially designed to work like a sponge. It absorbs and traps loose dyes in the wash, safely locking them away so they can’t redeposit on other clothes, so you can mix colors in the same load; translation, “same quilt!”

Throwing several Color Catchers into the washer with your finished project will keep your whites safe. We’ve tried it and it works. If your quilt doesn’t have a lot of light-colored fabrics, pass on the pre-wash. Your quilt will survive the laundry!

What shrinkage? Some swear that pre-washing will prevent your quilt from shrinking unevenly. However, all fabrics (including batting) shrink at different rates and last I heard, no one was pre-washing their batting! No matter if you pre-wash or don’t, your quilt is going to change size in some ways. Why waste the effort? Once your quilt is quilted, the top-stitches will keep your piecing in place and there’s just no way your quilt will shrink up to a wonky rectangle. Your fabric is just going to shrink up to look how a quilt should — a little bit puckered!

Easier to work with. Della had a lot of good “personal preference” reasons for why she doesn’t pre-wash. Generally, she felt the fabric is a lot easier to work with when it isn’t washed. One reason is because the fabric ravels less when it hasn’t taken a spin in the dryer! The sizing added to the fabric (which washes out) also makes cutting and sewing go more smoothly. Less fuss!

Chemicals. The only pre-wash pro I can’t argue with is washing out the chemicals they add to fabric to make them wrinkle less/repel bugs. For some people, these chemicals are bothersome, so pre-washing is a logical choice. I have never noticed a problem, and I work with fabric all day, but all people are different.

Why don’t you pre-wash? Or why do you? Let us know in a comment.

— Posted by Stacy


20 responses to “Debate: Pre-Wash or Not

  1. Linda Schonberger

    No pre-washing here – it’s never been a problem.

  2. Absolutely NO pre-wash!! Love the “crinkles” and Color Catchers are wonderful and really work!!! I,too,cannot wait to get home to the machine after a purchase and dive right in!!! When I started to quilt (about 30+ yrs. ago) I did pre-wash but fabrics and batts were so different and less reliable. Love today’s products! Doreen

  3. todays fabrics are better , but i still have to prewash, if i am doing small piecing i will wash and then starch with sizing, not sticky like starch but
    gives that crisp feel

  4. I don’t prewash anymore. I have some prewashed fabrics still in my stash and I even mix prewashed and nonwashed ones together and have never had any problems! I am glad to hear about the tip of the color catcher product, recently I made a quilt with a prewashed red fabric and it did bleed, when I ironed the appliqued block before adding it to the top. Once I washed the quilt when it was done nothing bled though.

  5. I pre-wash reds, cotton sheets if using them for backings (looser weave), and anything I’m making for my sister-in-law-who-doesn’t-know-the-machine-has-other-settings-than-hot. I used color-catchers for a multi-color batik & white quilt. First time I washed it in cold and the 2 catchers came out pink. Washed on hot with 2 more to get crinkle, and they came out blue.

  6. Dear Stacy, I can understand there being two different opinions as to whether or not to prewash quilt fabric, but what I really need to know is if it will be o.k. if I use some fabrics that have been prewashed along with some that haven’t in the same quilt? Do you know?

  7. I Prewash absolutely everything…having learned many years ago in my Embroiderers Guild days, that, thanks to the FDA, many of our dyes are unstable…particularly, reds, purples, blues, greens and blacks. So, rather than using a color “catcher” to catch unstable dye that is released, I add white vinegar or salt to my fabrics to “set” those wonderful colors where they belong…IN THE FABRIC!!! We can utilize our irons to press out those wrinkles and add back in some of that body we lost with a little spray on starch or sizing and at the same time, get the grain straightened that gets wonky in the process of winding, unfurling, rewinding and fondling on the bolt! I just completed a retirement quilt with a lot of red in it and would hate to think that all the hours I spent sewing this project, might have been spoiled had I not taken just a couple of hours prior to starting to stabilize those fabrics.

  8. …and your quilt will still have those wonderful soft crinkles in it after being quilted and washed…afterall, it’s cotton!

  9. No pre-washing for me, unless I buy the cheaper versions of dark colored fabrics. It’s the 21st century and fabrics and dyes are much better than they used to be. Just stay with good quality fabrics. You get what you pay for.

  10. As a former quilt store owner (19 years) I have an opinion on this subject, based on what I observed and heard from customers and students. The first thing to keep in mind is that the water coming to your home can be different each day. (This info. from the head of the water district in a city of more than 500,000 people.) Different amounts of minerals, chemicals, including chlorine, (depending on what was necessary to make the water safe to drink)
    have been added or were there naturally. This can affect how much or how little “excess” dye bleeds from the fabric. That’s why two different people washing the same fabric in two different locations will possibly have differing results. It has been my personal experience that some detergents seem to affect the amount of bleeding that occurs. I always pre-wash my fabrics. Can I have a different result when washing the finished quilt? Yes, possibly. But I know I’ve done my best to release any “excess” dye that may still be in the fabric.
    As for using salt or vinegar to set the dyes, I was told by a fabric manufacturer that the dyes used today do not respond to those items. I admit that I occasionally will soak a stubborn fabric in white vinegar if I really want to use the fabric in a quilt and it is continuing to bleed a little. Seems to help sometimes. With the finishing techniques used in making fabrics today, it is nearly impossible to straighten the grain of a fabric. In the case of a fabric that has been printed terribly off-grain, you have to make the decision whether to line up your cuts with the fabric threads or the design…or to delete it from your quilt. Nearly always the length-wise threads will be on the straight of grain and therefore more stable than the cross-wise threads.
    Keep in mind that if there is any possibility that you might want to fuse anything to the fabric..starch, sizing, and fabric softener will hinder your results.

  11. Because I always sewed clothes, I was taught to pre-wash everything. But the last fabric I bought was a panel of squares. When I prewashed it it unraveled to the borders! Now I have to go back and add fabric around each square because otherwise they are unusable on their own. I won’t at least wash things like that anymore!

  12. Linda, you can solve that problem by serging or zigzagging the raw edges before washing.

  13. Beverly K. Williams, McCall

    A tongue-in-cheek query about pre-washing and pre-shrinking: how does one go about washing and shrinking fabric before it has been washed and shrunk?!?

    Almost all my fabric is washed and ironed before it goes into the sewing room. Yes, shrinkage is an issue; however, I’ve had a couple pieces stretch! Bleeding is a concern. Chemicals are a huge problem as they cause respiratory problems and contact dermatitis. And now we get the following from Quilter’s Home, June/July 2011, pages 27-28:

    “I do a lot of importing for my “real” job. We get merchandise in by the container from overseas and often see evidence of well…critters. They (usually rats) crawl around and touch everything regardless of packaging. So WASH THAT FABRIC regardless of whether you think it will shrink, bleed, fade, stretch – those rats have touched it. I guarantee it. Even if it is domestic (which is rare) it gets shipped, and trust me, we have rats too! . . . . the reality is that you handle the material (unseen feces particles), then you pick up a seam ripper (or whatever) with your hands, use it, store it in your mouth for a moment until you don’t need it. I do this with my stylus when I am doing curves or binding.”

    Now, how do I go about washing that thread??!!??


  14. I know this is a little off the subject, but I did have a woman tell me very proudly, that she always pre-shrunk her thread. I inquired as to how she accomplished this feat. She said she just threw the spool in the washer along with the fabric! I’m not quite sure how this procedure could work, but she was happy with it.

  15. When I first started quilting 6 years ago I prewashed everything… NO WAY! My quilts, even the red and white ones, turn out beautiful. I like the sizing that the manufactors use making my fabric crisper when piecing.

  16. I’ve been making quilts since the 70’s and you can believe me when I say that I’ve tried almost everything mentioned above (but not the thread washing part). In the beginning, I washed every piece of fabric. In the past 10 years or so, I have switched over primarily to using batik fabrics, which I do not prewash. I have not had any problems.

  17. As per Della’s suggestion, I have stopped prewashing my fabric and have been much happier with cutting and piecing as the fabrics seem to be more stable. I used to wash my fabics before I put them away. Then years ago we had a speaker at our guild meeting tell us the manufactures used chemicals in the fabrics to repell insects. Since I have a huge stash in a closet, I decided to stop washing the fabrics. I have never had an insect problem but didn’t want to invite one either.

  18. I agree with Della. It is easier to handle and I don’t have “spider webs” on the edge of my fabric.

  19. I prewash reds, dark blues, dark greens, dark purples. The dark rich colors, and I wash all the dark Batiks. Here is a recent experience with a quilt I finished long arming for a topper and Quilts of Valor. The quilt top consisted of reds, blues and whites. Very pretty quilt top. As per requested by the Quilt of Valor organization all outgoing to destination quilts when finished should be washed and dried before shipping. This one was destined for a soldier in a the military hospital in Germany. Once in the washer, cool water and Color Catchers with a small amount of Woolite I could see the reds migrating to the white portion of the completed quilt. What a nightmare! I washed and re-washed this quilt and finally was able to fade out the bleeding red. And clear up the white portions so they don’t read pink. Lesson learned is that it is important no matter the quality of the fabric or the manufacturer it is worth pre washing fabrics, Especially the darker tones. I now refuse to be responsible for the washing process of any quilt tops sent to me for long arm quilting. I return them to the topper, and they can wash them……….


    You can definitely see your enthusiasm within the paintings you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart.

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