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How to: Pre-wash your fabric

Sure it isn't the most exciting thing to do, and it may be tempting to skip when all you want to do is dive straight into your new project. But pre-washing your fabric could save you a lot of time, not to mention heartache.

If I am being honest, I haven’t always pre-washed my fabric before commencing a new project. Oftentimes, i just want to get stuck in! But I can certainly see merit in the process.

It would be pretty devastating to spend hours sewing a garment only to wash it and find that it has shrunk or warped beyond wearability. I'm sure we have all been there, handmade or store brought. I am therefore, getting into the habit of pre-washing as soon as I bring fabric home so it is ready to go, and if I can, I order a little extra fabric than required!


A wrap-up of this how-to


What is pre-washing?

In a nutshell, pre-washing is the process of laundering fabric before commencing a project. Therefore, it is usually one of the first steps, being completed before cutting out the pattern pieces so the fabric is washed as a whole piece.


But is it always necessary to pre-wash?

Not necessarily. This can depend on a couple of things:

  • The type of fabric: Most fabrics will shrink, some more than others. However, you may be able to skip the pre-washing process for some 100% polyester fabrics like Lycra, or leather and vinyl.

  • The end use: Projects such as wall hangings or accessories (e.g. headbands, pouches) are less likely to need to be laundered. Or if they do, a simple spot clean will often suffice. Therefore fabric used for projects such as these don't necessarily need pre-washing.

However, it is important to note that pre-washing your fabric doesn't just pre- shrink it. While a piece of Lycra may not shrink much, if at all, the colour still may run. Therefore, pre-washing a red piece of lycra may just save some of your white's from turning pink!


What are the benefits of pre-washing?

  • Pre-shrinks: Many fabrics will shrink, especially in that first wash. Why? Because fabrics are created by weaving or knitting yarn and this is usually done under some level of tension during manufacturing. When we place them in the wash the water releases this tension, relaxing and shortening the yarn - resulting in shrinkage. Therefore, pre-washing, or pre-shrinking, your fabric will produce a much more accurate finished product that is more likely to fit.

  • Removes any excess dyes and stops colour from bleeding (i.e. loss of dye): Fabric bleeding typically occurs when dyes have not fully attached to the fabric. Some of the dye bleeds, or runs, when you wash the fabric. This is most common in those brighter and darker colours, such as red, purple, navy and black. Therefore, pre-washing your fabric becomes particularly relevant if you are colour blocking, with different colours and fabrics being side by side (think quilting!).

  • Removes any excess chemicals from the manufacturing process: Chemicals may have been used during manufacturing and there may be some residue left on the fabric. Therefore, giving your fabric a quick pre-wash is not only good for you but may also help to soften some fabrics.

  • Cleans your fabric: Your fabric has probably been through a lot, travelling a long way, and sitting in a shop or warehouse for some time. Therefore, it has probably accumulated some dirt and dust. A simple pre-wash should remove that.

  • Means of slowing down: The process of pre-washing is easy enough to do, so why not use it as another means to slow down and revel in the sewing process!


What are some of the disadvantages of pre-washing?

  • The preparation, washing, drying, and ironing of the fabric can take a bit of time, and may not always be practical from a space perspective. Hanging a three metre piece of fabric in a studio apartment is just not practical.

  • With each wash we are using water and consuming energy. Not only that, we are risking the release of plastic microfibres into our waterways if using synthetic fibres.

  • The agitation and friction that occurs in the washing (and drying) process may distort the fabric.


How to pre-wash your fabric

1: Check your fibre type.

You will be washing your fabric in the same manner as you would if it was a finished garment. Therefore, start by identifying the type of fibre, and reading any accompanying care and wash instructions. This information is often found on the sellers website, or if in store, check the tag on the fabric bolt (take a photo for easy access).

2: Finish the raw edges.

Take a look at the raw edges. If they are prone to fraying, edge finish them in some way (e.g. overlock, zigzag). This will help avoid a tangled mess of threads, or losing length in your fabric. Alternatively, if you have a mesh laundry bag, pop your fabric inside for added protection.

3: Seperate your lights and darks.

Like any new item of clothing that you are washing for the first time, wash your fabric with like colours as colours may bleed.

Tip: If you are interested, do a bleed test with a small piece of the fabric (approx. 5cm square).Leave the fabric to soak in water with the laundry detergent you are likely to use. In about half an hour you will be able to see if the dyes have bled with the water discolouring. If you are unsure, rinse, dry and repeat the experiment. Alternatively, try placing the washed fabric piece on some white paper towel to check for bleeding.

4: Wash just as you would if it was a finished garment following the care and wash instructions.

Treat your fabric as you would the finished garment. Depending on your fabric, you may chose to machine wash. Alternatively, if you are using a more delicate fabric, like wool or silk, you may opt for hand-washing. Be sure to use laundry detergent just as you would normally.

Tip: Try avoiding fabric softeners, as they may make the sewing and cutting process a little trickier.

5: Remove your fabric from the wash as soon as possible.

Clothing can become bunched up and twisted in the washing machine. So it is a good idea to give your clothes a bit of a shake as soon as they come out of the wash to reduce creases (highly recommend for linen fabric). This may also just limit your need for ironing!

6: Dry just as you would if it was a finished garment following the care and wash instructions.

Just like during the washing stage, dry your fabric just as you would for the finished garment.

Again, depending on the fabric this may mean regular air drying, tumble drying or laying flat out of direct sunlight.

Tip: The dryer not only makes your clothes wear faster, but is energy intensive, while adding to the plastic microfibre issue. Therefore, air drying is not only better for your clothes but also the planet.

But I also live in a studio apartment in Munich, so I get that air drying when it is -10 degrees out is not always feasible. But there are some great indoor drying racks out there, and some tips and tricks to increase your dryers efficiency and shorten the drying time. If you do chose the tumble dryer try to opt for a lower heat setting and gentle/delicate cycle.


Additional resources

Take a look at Do You Really Have to Pre-wash Fabric? from Seamwork, for an interesting look at what can happen when you don't pre-wash your fabric before you sew.

Please get in touch or leave me a comment. I would love to know if you found this article helpful. Let me know if you are a routine or only sometimes pre-washer?

Thanks for reading.

Emma xx

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions contained on this site are my own. I am not affiliated with any brands, products, or organisations mentioned, and do not receive any sponsorship, payment, or other compensation for any of the content on this site.

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