Prewashing Quilting Fabric – Yea or Nay

Prewashing quilting fabric seems to have always been the big debate in the quilting corner of the internet. Every quilter had a different opinion with all completely valid reasons. But no matter what I chose to do, it still left me questioning if I have done the right thing. So, I have decided to run my own experiment. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I tried glue basting for the first time. And since I don’t want that Elmer’s forever crunching in my blanket, I’m going to wash my colorful quilt made with unwashed fabric for the first time and let you know what happens.


Reasons why you ‘should’ prewash your quilting fabric

When I first started quilting, I was firmly in the prewashing quilting fabric team. I’d get home from the fabric store and plop everything into the washing machine and promptly fold it as it came out of the drier. I’d do this so I wouldn’t accidentally mix unwashed and prewashed fabric. There are two major concerns as to why I and other quilters prewashed their quilting fabric:


Colors bleed – Almost all fabric is dyed. And if you’ve ever washed a new red shirt with your whites before, you know that color can seep off in the wash. I tend to make a quilts with a lot of color–or at least quilts that have black and white fabric. I was always worried about ruining a quilt that I had spend a few hundred dollars creating. A prewash was the easiest thing to do to protect the integrity of my quilts.


Cotton shrinks – It is known. Cotton is one of those finicky buggers that you just never know what will happen to it when you wash it. Will it stay the same? Or will it shrink to baby size? When you’re using a bunch of different fabrics, it would seem like prewashing is your best bang for your buck for reducing quilt crinkle.


Reasons why you ‘shouldn’t’ prewash your quilting fabric

When I moved into an apartment that made me pay $4 to wash every load, I couldn’t justify washing the small batches of fabric I bought anymore. I also had a terrible experience of cutting a yard+ of fabric for my new Space Shuttle quilt. I had used steam to get out the wrinkles in my yardage and all my pieces ended up distorted. I ran back out to Joann and decided to try something new: no washing, no pressing. I was just going to cut, sew, and then press.


I decided do this, because any water distorts fabric. Even if you wash, dry, and then iron, the fabric’s shape is going to be fundamentally different than when you bought it. I’m on a mission to get the pointy-ist of points to line up brilliantly all the time, so I was excited to see if this would help.


Aside from the fabric distortion, I had read online that fabric doesn’t bleed as much as it used to. And the blessed color catchers can now soak up anything that does escape. I was still a little worried about shrinkage, but my main concern had been about color bleeding. In an effort to to get my piecing to perfection, I decided the potential of a little crinkle was worth the risk.


The ultimate prewashing quilting fabric test

So, now I’m here to put the age-old argument to rest. Is prewashing quilting fabric necessary? Or is it actually just hindering your quilting?


The washing plan

I’m going to be washing my Princess and Pony quilt for the first time. The quilt top is mostly green and brown Kona fabric with a pattered background (a Festival of Roses by Benartex fabrics), though there is white and a very light cream color in it. The backing is Kona black (extra wide) with fuchsia accents (thanks Tula Pink!). None of it will be pre-washed.


Laying out the quilt top for basting with elmer's glue


I used an 80/20 batting, and it was all basted together with Elmers glue. There is a medium quilting density. I will be washing on cold, gentle with 1 color catcher and unscented detergent. I will be tumble drying on medium with a ball of tin foil–did you know this works in place of a dryer sheet? Because it’s fantastic.


basting with elmer's glue: the washing


Then, because of a moderate basting hiccup, I was forced to wash the quilt a second time. I washed on cold, normal with no color catchers, and I used vinegar in place of detergent (to help remove the glue basting). Then I tumbled dried on medium with the tin foil ball.


The results

Basting with Elmer's Glue: the finished product


After two runs in the washing machine, she looks almost as if she’s never had bath! The color catcher barely had any color to catch. The whites are still the absence of color, and she didn’t get any of a much needed tan.

prewashing quilting fabric
prewashing quilting fabric: color catcher

Not only did the colors turn out great, but the there was very little shrinkage–or as quilters lovingly call it: crinkle. What is there, I would mostly attribute to my basting mishaps. And, regardless of how many times you wash your fabric, unless you buy 100% polyester batting, there will be shrinkage in the batting. If you read the batting packaging, it will give you an estimate of how severe that will be. But, no one is going to wash their batting. And you really shouldn’t, at least not in a washing machine.


Will I prewash my fabric now?

Simply, my answer is nay. But the more convoluted answer is: maybe. The decision whether to prewash quilting fabric or not needs to stem from your needs and the type of fabric you buy. If I continue to buy high quality solids and patterns, I won’t be prewashing. If I buy hand-dyed batiks, I probably would, because there is a greater chance of colors bleeding. And if I buy more cheap fabric (which I’ve decidedly sworn off, but you know how that goes), I probably would prewash them too because of their unpredictability.


I think the big take away here is: you do you. Neither way is wrong, but prewashing isn’t as big of a quilt saver as some people think it is. And not prewashing could make your piecing more precise.

Sew on!

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