Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why wash?

I taught a workshop once and a participant complained to me that she hated the fabric specified in the supply list because it raveled so much in the wash.  After she ranted on for a bit, I suggested that maybe next time she shouldn't wash it.  She didn't think this was funny.

She's right -- it ravels in the wash!!

I guess I didn't mean it to be funny either.  I haven't washed fabric before making quilts out of it in at least a decade, unless I was dyeing or discharging it and needed to remove the poisonous chemicals.  Or on rare occasions, if the fabric was noticeably filthy.  But fabric straight from the store -- never.

I suspect I am in the minority among quilters in this view.  But why do so many of us have the idea that the first thing you have to do is put your fabric in the wash? 

There's a whole ritual here -- you snip off the corners of your fabric so they don't ravel so much, and then the snipped fabric tells you subsequently that yes indeed you have washed the fabric.  (Can't you tell laundered fabric from new without a snip?  Aren't the wrinkles a pretty accurate tipoff?  Or do you iron the stuff too????)  Or maybe if you're an overachiever you serge the edges before it goes in the washer.

I understand that in the olden days many fabrics were not colorfast or shrinkproof, and it was a good idea to test them before sewing them up into garments or quilts that would be washed many times.  I also understand that fabrics may be overtreated with formaldehyde, and some people are sensitive enough to need to wash it away.  (I recall going into fabric stores 40 years ago where my eyes would water from the finishing chemicals, but haven't run into that phenomenon in many years.  If I run across stinky fabrics, I'll wash them, of course.)

A friend of mine who used to manage a fabric store warns me that if I ever ventured into the back rooms of my favorite shops I would instantly become a washing convert.  But I often buy my fabric at the same store as I buy my art supplies, and nobody urges me to wash my paper or my balsa wood before I use them.  Nor do I ordinarily wash new clothing before I wear it, or new sheets before they go on the bed. 

It's possible that fabric will shrink a bit if it's ever washed, but since all layers of my quilt are cotton, and the layers are held together with dense, overall quilting stitches, I'm willing to take my chances that everything will shrink uniformly.  On the rare occasions when I've had to put a quilt in the wash, it has always come out looking just fine.  (Well, there was one unfortunate shrinkage incident in the early 1980s, with the first quilt I ever made, but I've learned a lot since then.)

I'll acknowledge that a few fabrics may still be color-unstable, but even so, the likelihood of them running and spoiling my quilts is low.  The great majority of my quilts go on the wall, and I don't wash them any more than I wash paintings.  I'm willing to take my chances on a later disaster, just as I have to be willing to take my chances that the quilt will be stolen or swept away in a tsunami.

The risk of the color running in the wash just isn't enough in my mind to justify the hours and hours required to launder my fabrics, let alone the water, detergent and electricity.  And my workshop student was right -- when you wash fabric it gets all limp and ravelled.  I value the added stability of the sizing on new fabric, which makes it easier for me to cut and piece. 

There's a story that I've read many times in cooking magazines, about the woman whose precious family recipe for baked ham started with "saw off the last two inches of the ham bone."  For years she, like her mother and grandmother before her, faithfully followed the directions and sure enough, the ham was always delicious.  On her grandmother's deathbed she asked what was wrong with the last two inches.  Grandma said it had nothing to do with the meat -- it was because her favorite roasting pan was too small to hold the full ham.

Is that why people wash their fabrics before quilting?  Maybe it's time to kick the tires on this time-honored tradition.


  1. I am so with you on this! And a "Shout Color Catcher" will pick up pretty much anything that is going to run. It is so nice to work on the store-fresh fabric.

  2. I wash fabrics for 2 reasons. Primarily, I do it because I a very sensitive to formaldehyde.

    But just recently I had a commercial red that ran like crazy. I had to wash it 4 times with very hot water and synthrapol before I could use it in the quilt. My friend bought a teal batik to use in a quilt. It ran so much that she eventually used the method that I use for my hand dyed fabrics: pour boiling water over it with some synthrapol and let it soak for a few hours. She had already washed it 3 times and the boiling water soak was the only thing that got the last of the dye out of it. Either of those 2 fabrics would have ruined the quilt.
    I agree, MOST commercial fabrics aren't a problem but some are. Both of the 2 fabrics I mentioned above were top of the line and purchased recently. One was a Moda Marble and one was a batik.

    Now, all of that said, my nature is to be lazy. If not for my formaldehyde problem, I would probably not prewash my fabrics! I'm willing to take the risk unless it's a special quilt.

  3. I don't pre-wash, either. Unless I'm making clothing.

  4. Count me among the ones who wash & press all fabrics before adding to the stash. When pulling fabric, I want it ready to cut.

    From being wound on the bolt, fabric twist and stretch. Washing and drying straightens the grain. The difference is evidenced by cut ends that don't match up again and yardage lost.

    Shrinkage and twisting may not make much of a difference for small cut pieces but becomes especially significant with longer ones. Nothing worse after washing than that perfect pair of pants turning into high-waters or twisted legs.

  5. I always wash my fabric immediately because I don't know here it's been or how it's been handled. The fabric travels in a shipping container, gets stored in a warehouse, makes it into a fabric shop where it gets fondled by many strangers. I have even seen potential customers rub it against their faces. I prefer to clean the effects of that off my fabric before I handle it.

  6. Oh dear. I'm a 'wash and press'er. I made a red cotton knit nightgown once that bled pink off onto my sheets even after 5 washings. Clothing fabric always gets a prewash. I used to be a bit OCD about the quilting fabric too, but am less so now. Once I have a batik that ruins something, I'm sure I'll go back to my OCD ways.

  7. I am on the don't wash bandwagon. The final product is going on the wall people! The wall doesn't care :) I'm not afraid of germs. I grew up with the 'you'll eat a lb. of dirt before you die, two if you're a boy' camp.

    I think the whole thing is analogous to how we keep our studios. You are always going to have super-organized clean-up after each project artists, messy, stuff everywhere artists and then everyone else falls somewhere in between. I'm glad the 'don't wash-ers' are coming out of the closet!!

  8. I'm allergic to sizing, so it's unpleasant for me to handle cloth that hasn't been washed, whether it's ever going to be washed again or not. I don't wash the yarn in crochet projects, though--I just give up on it if it's too horrible.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  9. I'm allergic to the stuff they use to make it look nice, so I always wash, or I pay later. Then again, I also wash new clothes and sheets before I use them for the same reason...avoid the rash!

  10. I totally understand if people with sensitivity to the chemicals wash first. I don't have that issue, and I don't expect that any potentially sensitive recipients of my art will be rubbing it on their bodies, so I don't wash. As we speak I'm wearing a nice new unwashed T shirt. I know that after it hits the laundry, it will never be as nice as it is today. too bad.

  11. Mass amounts of chemicals is what makes your new shirt so nice. You don't have to touch the fabric to be affected, the chemical odors are enough to make me ill. My fabric stash is huge and the amount of chemicals in that fabric is more than I can handle. Besides, I love using the knotted up, raveled bits that come off the end of washed fabric. Everyone is different, your way won't work for everyone.

  12. Judy -- I stipulate that if the chemicals bother you, then of course wash. But I agree with you that the knotted up, raveled bits are great! I keep a big plastic bag in my laundry room and save all the threads that come off in the wash. some day they will have a place in art