Question: Should you pre-wash your your fabric before you begin cutting and sewing?
Answer: It's a personal choice. Ask 20 quilters that question and half will say "Absolutely" and the other half will say "Nope"! Some will have a fabric bleeding/shrinking horror story and others will have had no problems whatsoever. It's a crapshoot.
I know that answer is a non-answer! Here's my take on it. Back in "the day" (i.e., 20 years ago), fabric manufacturing was much different. The greige goods (or base cloth) was not as fine as it is today and the dyeing process itself left much to be desired. The shrinkage rate on fabric was as much as 10-15%! Today's quilt-shop quality fabric is much different. Shrinkage is down to 3-5%, and the finish process on the dyes is much more colorfast.
Personally, I don't pre-wash my fabrics. I'm lazy. I barely have time to wash my regular clothes, much less my fabrics! I like the extra finish and sizing on unwashed fabrics for piecing, and I also like the shrinkage and wrinkling of the finished quilt when it's washed. I hate the little strings that ball up on the cut edges of the fabric and I don't want to iron it all before I use it or store it. In 20 years, I have had one little piece of fabric bleed, and it was in a scrap quilt where the fabric squares came from an exchange. That particular quilt was so busy that I bet I'd have a hard time finding the problem fabric today! However, I am talking about quilt-shop quality fabrics, not those found in discount and chain stores. Prices on those fabrics are much less because the basic cloth is cheaper and the dye processes are not as complete. If you are going to use those types of fabrics (especially for an heirloom item), I would recommend that you wash them first.
However, the girls at Piece O' Cake Designs wash every fabric that comes into their studios. Since they mainly hand-applique, they want to remove all the finish and sizing from their fabrics so that they will needleturn easier.
Many quilters only pre-wash red fabrics and hand dyed/batik fabrics. These fabrics still have the potential to bleed dye.
I do recommend washing if the following conditions are true:
- You are going to make clothing out of the fabric. Nothing's worse than making the perfect garment that shrinks just enough to be uncomfortable!
- You don't like the old-fashioned wrinkly-ness of a quilt after it's washed.
- The fabric was hand-dyed (and this applies to some "solid" batiks).
- (Maybe) If the fabric is an intense, dark color like red, navy or black.
If you are not sure if the dye is going to bleed or not, you can pretest it first. You can moisten a q-tip and rub the fabric and see if there is dye transfer. You can also moisten a square of white or muslin fabric, place it over the dyed fabric, and iron both until it's dry. If there is dye transfer on the q-tip or white square, you'll want to pre-wash.
Okay. You've decided to pre-wash. What kind of detergent should you use? We carry several kinds of gentle cleaners here in the store. Most of my quilts that I am washing are made to be used and I just use the liquid detergent that I use on all my laundry. We also carry a couple of products made specifically for fugitive dye situations.
The second is Synthrapol. This product is a surfactant, which in essence means that it removes and surrounds excess dye molecules and prevents them from re-settling on fabrics during the wash process. It's used for washing hand-dyed fabrics, or finished quilts or garments with suspected bleeding fabrics.
To learn more about these two products and how to use them, read this.
So, the decision to wash or not wash is completely up to you. I hope some of this information was helpful!
** Edited to add on 5/31: NEVER put precuts (jelly rolls, layer cakes, or charm squares) through the washing machine if you are going to use a published pattern with them (or at least read the pattern carefully before washing to ensure that you will have enough fabric left)! Most patterns utilize the complete precut, and washing will warp/shrink/fray your precut to render it unusable for that purpose. If you are REALLY concerned about pre-shrinking a precut, Carrie Nelson of Miss Rosie's Quilts suggests ironing it/them with a hot steam iron to "preshrink" the cut. Be beware of the result becoming slightly smaller than may be required for a particular pattern.