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The Prewash: How to pre-treat almost any fabric

Prewashing fabric before you sew is something I think a lot of us learned the hard way. There is absolutely nothing more devastating in sewing then spending hours and hours on something you love only to have it shrink beyond wearability after one use. Ugh.

That is where prewashing comes in. The idea is very simple. Most fabrics change in some way after you wash them. Many are prone to shrinkage, while others might just change in drape and feel. Some change a lot, some hardly at all. The trick is to make sure these changes happen before you’ve done your sewing, to eliminate (or at least minimize) any unhappy surprises.

My rule of thumb for prewashing is simple: Whatever method I plan to use to clean the final garment is how I will prewash the fabric. The same goes for any linings or interfacings. Here are my tips for treating a few common types of fabric:

Cottons:

  • Cotton voile: Hand wash with a gentle detergent and hang to dry. Cotton voile is delicate and can easily tear in the washing machine.
  • Medium to heavy cottons: Most heavier cottons can be washed in the machine and dried in the dryer. You may choose to wash them multiple times for added softness and to really avoid shrink.
  • Cotton flannel: Flannel can really shrink, so I recommend washing in hot water at least twice, and drying in the machine. Try to get rid of that shrink as best you can!
  • Denim: I find that denim often bleeds, due to the indigo dyes, and it also softens considerably with washing. I choose to wash it once or twice before sewing.

Wool:

  • Wool or cashmere (woven): Take it to the dry cleaners. The fact is, wool will often continue to shrink after many repeated washings. Water is best avoided if you can, or unless the wool is blended.
  • Wool or cashmere (knit): Give it a very gentle bath by hand in a detergent made for wool. Don’t agitate it too much, because you don’t want it to felt. Lay flat to dry.

Silk:

  • Silk Charmeuse: While it won’t shrink, I always hand wash to avoid surprises. I’ve occasionally bought fabric that must have been a slight blend and had them shrink, so I play it safe. I usually wash charmeuse by hand rather than dry clean the final garment. Since washing can affect the nap and sheen, I like to give it a bath before cutting. Use a gentle shampoo or hand laundry detergent and drip dry.
  • Chiffon or georgette: Again, I hand wash just in case.
  • Silk Habotai: Hand wash, drip dry.
  • Silk crepe: Hand wash and drip dry. Crepe has a slight crinkle to it that makes it susceptible to a bit of shrinkage, in my experience.

Plant fibers:

  • Linen: Linen will become softer in the wash, so be aware of that. Wash it and dry it in the machine. Linen is extremely wrinkle-prone, so press it thoroughly before using!
  • Rayon: I find different weaves prone to varying amounts of shrinkage, with rayon crepe being the most prone to shrinking. I hand wash, or wash on the delicate cycle, and machine dry.

{image above: by dom o’donnell on Flickr}

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On , ✄ Fabric U ✄ said: | tinyurl.com

I address some of these issues in my app…I’m glad to see that silk can be hand washed. It’s what I do…although I’d be careful with older textiles. I had a gorgeous 1940s print that I thought I could be hand washed. It bled to death in the bathtub. :(

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Excellent point! I guess another good tip is to test a swatch on prints that you are unsure about, in case of bleeding.

On , pam said: | sidewalkshoes.com

what a great informative post!

On , Sabrina Clementine said: | sabrinaclementine.wordpress.com

Did you and Gertie time this post together? She posted on pre-washing this morning too! hehe

I’m always hesitant to prewash….I realize that eventually I’m going to wash the garment, so I’m avoiding eventual disappointment. However, since some fabrics change so drastically I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth skipping the prewash and getting at least one wear out of it before washing. lol. Am I the only crazy that considers that?

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Ha! No, I guess we are just on the same wavelength!

On , Taran said: | tanitisis.wordpress.com

I had a rayon blouse once that said “dry clean only.” Naturally I ignored this (I think I’ve only ever dry-cleaned coats, ever). But even with hand-washing in cold, it shrank and shrank and shrank. Eventually it looked like a child’s blouse.

I tend to make liberal use of my lingerie bags as a substitute for hand-washing stuff. So far, so good…

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

One thing I’ve found with rayon is that it can often be stretched out a bit with some steam. I stretch it a bit while ironing while applying liberal steam. It doesn’t entirely return the fabric to its original state of course, but it can help.

On , Kristina Clemens said: | kristinaclemens.blogspot.com

Wow! Wow! Wow! Thanks for this awesome post…I am an avid sewer and dress designer, which I blog about on my blog. I have so forgotten to pre-wash fabrics and had them shrink on me…horrible!!!

On , The Cupcake Goddess said: | thecupcakegoddess.com

Lovely post! I do all my cleaning at home, even on wools (except wool coats and jackets). I have had different dry cleaners ruin several pieces of beautiful wool and for the ones that they haven’t ruined I’ve found the smell of the cleaner beyond repulsive. I find that handwashing and drip drying are the best for most fabrics.

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

I must agree, I hate drycleaning and avoid it whenever I can.

On , Marie-Christine said:

It -was- a painful lesson. A smaller friend got THREE handmade things in a row. I liked her, I enjoyed getting to see my stuff occasionally, but it was too much. I’ve never failed to pre-wash before the fabric makes it to the shelves since, it goes right from the front door to the laundry bag.
I would even say that you shouldn’t just wash the fabric as you paln to treat the garment, but do it more brutally. I dry fabric in the dryer at least once for instance, even though I hardly ever use a dryer any more. Why? Because unless you’re a very solitary person who never goes anywhere, it’s entirely possible that some kind person will grab your laundry some time, and you don’t want slack prewashing to cause a crisis..

On , alison said: | artisanry.blogspot.com

I entirely agree with you, about washing fabric just a bit more than would be usual, I too rarely use the drier, but always prewash and dry that way.

With linen, I wash and machine dry it at least three times before sewing it up; I learned the hard way that it would continue to shrink otherwise. Of course, once it is made into a garment it gets washed on gentle/cold, and line-dried, but I’d rather not lose all my hard work of sewing to shrinkage.

Perhaps if someone wants to keep their denim extra-dark, it could be re-dyed periodically, and maybe starched to make it stiff? That would seem better to me than never washing it (ugh!)

On , Caroline said: | little-package.com

Although a lot of people might argue on your ideas about denim pre-washing, your tips are otherwise spot on. ;)

Maybe this goes in another post but I’d like to add this little tip: baste together all the raw edges before machine pre-washing. It keeps fraying, twisting, and fiber-pulling to a minimum.

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Really? I’m surprised. How else would one pretreat denim, given its shrink and bleed factor?

I love the basting tip! I sometimes also serge the edges on certain fabrics, if they’re very prone to fraying.

On , Caroline said:

I’m just referring to the nuts who don’t wash their denim, ever. You must have met these people. It gets hard, it gets smelly, and they are proud. It’s a die hard fashion thing. They exist. It’s weird to me.

I just suspected that several pre-washes would remove that stiffness and saturated color that a lot of people strive to own. I was looking at buying some denim yesterday and I loved the finish so much I’m not sure what I’d do now. Prewash? Get stinky and shrinky?

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Ha! Ok, I get it now. I try not to wash my denim with every wear, but I think that’s a little nuts.

I too like stiff, dark denim, but what’re you gonna do? :)

On , Suzanne said:

A cup of regular table salt in the pre-wash helps to set the colors

On , Tasia said: | sewaholic.net

Great tips, I also follow Marie-Christine’s theory of treating your fabric a little harder than normal, in case someone else ‘helps’ with the laundry and tosses your handmade garment into the dryer!
For pre-treating wool, if you don’t want to get it drycleaned in advance are there alternatives? I’ve heard of wrapping wool fabric in wet towels and letting it dry and shrink that way. Wonder if anyone has tried that method?

On , Tasia said: | sewaholic.net

Oops, never mind my question above! Gertie has mentioned this method on her blog today and links to a tutorial…

On , Caroline said:

Oooh! I would love to have a link to Gertie’s blog entry!

On , Yellie said:

Over the last couple of years I’ve really come to appreciate hand washing just about everything I make and wear. First of all it last longer, wearables keep their shape better and there is something quite meditative about the entire washing and drying process.

On , Amy said: | sewingbythebook.blogspot.com

I sewed a pair of drawstring pants in linen and was amazed at how much they shrank (although the fabric had been pre-washed). The pants had been so long that I stepped on them. After one wash, they were a little short. I couldn’t believe it. In the future, I’m washing linen twice.

On , Courtney said: | twistedstitches.net

I have read conflicting information that suggests drying fabric flat instead of hanging it to drip dry. Aside from knits, when would it make more sense to dry fabric flat? I have the beautiful silk (jacquard?) that I’m just not sure how to prewash…

On , marci said:

On of my favorite things is to come home with a stack of new fabric, whether it’s from a garage sale or a fabric store, and washing everything. That way I know it’s going to be ready to when I am.

I’m interested in what you said about pre-washing interfacing. I tend to use the iron on interfacing…can you or should you pre-wash iron on interfacing?

On , melissa said: | hatchalah-kalah.com

I need some help! I’m taking an intermediate class, and we’re making jackets. So I bought gorgeous wool fabric and iron on interfacing. I haven’t pre-washed either, but I also haven’t cut my pattern yet. If I’m planning to have the coat dry cleaned, should I take the fabric to the cleaners first? Or can it be hand washed and line dried for now? What about the interfacing? And does polyester lining need to be prewashed? Sorry for all the questions — but you seem so knowledgeable! Thanks in advance

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On , Tracy McElfresh said: | etsy.com

Thank you for being one of the best sewing info, pattern, and seamstress companys around. I am so glad a friend intoduced me to you.

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On , Colleen said:

Does Linen Look fabric need to be prewashed ?

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On , Siabh said: | mrboostore.com.au

Hi there, thanks for the tips.
I have a question: I want to slightly age some emerald green silk satin fabric I bought – reduce the shine I suppose. Is there a safe way to do this without ruining the fabric? Please note I am not a sewer so please speak s.l.o.w.l.y!! Thanks :)

On , Patricia said:

I also wash all fabric the minute I get it home. I never have to worry whether or not it has been pre washed, even if I don’t use the material for some time because I know it always has been!
Does anyone have any tips in getting the creases out of Calico? I bought several metres recently and pre washed as usual….however, although I dried it naturally, it is very creased and my iron doesn’t seem to be able to cope!

On , Vohn said:

Hello, I always plan to prewash but then chicken out ’cause when I look at the edge of the fabric it makes me think the whole thing will unravel in the machine. Is this not the case? Do fabrics not fray/unravel if you wash them before the edges are stitched? Thanks for any info you can give me? Vohn x

On , Gina Maestas said:

Great tips!! Does anyone know if I should pre-wash swimwear fabric & HOW!?!!?

On , Gail said:

I sew and have never prewashed fabric, but I will start now. My question is do you treat the edges of the fabric to control it from unraveling or shredding before washing? I have several pieces of linen that I need to wash before sewing into my projects. I have yet to read of anyone treating the raw edges of the linen to prevent it from unraveling during the washing . Also does anyone recommend using laundry soap instead of detergent or just plain water? I am nervous about ruining this linen as I have several different pieces and weights , all pure linen, not blends. Thanks for your help.

On , Felicity said:

Thank you sooo much for this article! I knew I had to wash before cutting and sewing and for many years have not committed to it. Last night I pre-washed some flannelette for some kids sewing and I’ve got a question…

How do you stop your fabric from fraying when you wash it? Are there any tips/tricks for this… I washed a few diff cuts – most just cut from the bolt and a couple I edged with pinking sheers but my fabric frayed a LOT… I know I can just trim this off, but I’d love to learn if there are ways around this so I don’t lose centimeters off the edges of my fabric.

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