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.
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.