The Great Pre-Wash Debate

Not sure whether or not to pre-wash your fabrics before starting a project? This guide will help you decide!

The debate among sewists and quilters about pre-washing/not pre-washing fabrics reminds me of the political debates going on now (and for a small eternity until November)! Both sides have valid points, both sides make you question the other, everyone assumes you’re on their side, and, if you’re found out to not be on their side, you’ll certainly be looked down upon! But, just like with politics, you’ve got to cast your vote at some point and live with the consequences. So, let’s get the facts straight and I might even tell you what I think.

The Pre-Wash Opinion

Pre-washers are typically pretty die-hard committed to their cause. They pre-wash EVERYTHING no matter the fiber content. Their argument really does make sense. Typically, most fabrics will shrink once washed, so why not wash it first and avoid things shrinking after it’s first run through the washer. Many garment-makers hold the opinion that everything must be pre-washed.

How cut cut pieces for a quilt

The second point in the pre-washer’s argument deals with fabrics that contain chemicals. Fabrics typically do contain chemicals at some point in their lifecycle. Fabrics, like those made at Modern Yardage, come pre-washed and never contained any dangerous chemicals, removing the debate entirely! If you’re concerned about the chemical content in your fabrics, I would always suggest researching the practices of the company that you are purchasing fabric from and, when in doubt, pre-wash. I will admit that the more concerned I become about chemicals in my food and on my skin, the more concerned I am about the chemicals used in producing the fabrics that I use.

The Opposing Side

If you’re on team no-pre-wash, it’s pretty likely that you’re a quilter. Most garment-makers realize the issues that they will face when they fail to pre-shrink (which I realized after I made my Sneha Tunic!). But some quilters hold a very different opinion and others might just be too excited to get started on their project to mess with waiting on a pre-wash! (Can I get an A’men?!)

Long Sleeved Swimsuit Cover Sewing Pattern

The first point that any good no-pre-washer will make is crispness. It’s true that fabrics have chemicals in them, but those chemicals tend to keep your fabrics a bit more stiff, making sure that when you cut out strips and blocks, that things stay straighter than they otherwise would. Once that stiffness is washed out, things tend to warp. If you really want to pre-wash quilting fabric, I would certainly suggest starching the daylights out of it with Best Press before cutting and sewing!

Should I starch quilt blocks?

Second, the newness factor: often times, when you wash fabric for the first time, it doesn’t look new anymore. I can’t quite place if it looses vibrancy or fades a little or if it’s the loss of crispness, but something changes, and non-pre-washers are not fans!

The third point that no-pre-washers have is texture. If you don’t pre-wash quilt fabric, you’ll get a “piqued” appearance between the quilting that makes it feel very genuine and cozy. (I will admit, that some people don’t like this texture, but it’s what makes a quilt a quilt!)

And finally, fourth, the real kicker: often times, fabrics (especially cottons) will shrink so much when they are pre-washed that you’ll be short on yardage. No one likes that. So if you choose team pre-wash, make sure to get a few extra inches for every yard!

In My Humble Opinion

In the end, I typically choose the path that looks a little grey and can go either way…I don’t typically see much of the world in black and white. So, my rules are this:

  • If I’m going to wear it: pre-wash. I don’t want to go to the trouble of making something that’s going to shrink on me!
  • If it’s a 100% cotton quilt: don’t pre-wash. Often times cutting instructions on quilt patterns are very precise and you might loose the yardage that you needed! Plus, I like the shrinking that occurs after you wash a quilt, it piques a little and makes it really feel like a quilt!DSC_0274
  • If it’s a mixed fiber quilt: pre-wash! I don’t suggest using anything but 100% and all 100% cotton quilting fabrics in a quilt. Often times, it’s hard to get things to keep straight just making it and it’s not going to shrink evenly when you wash it. But, if you choose to ignore me, and mix fabrics, you absolutely need to pre-wash!
  • If it’s something that won’t be washed: don’t pre-wash. That way, it can keep it’s newness for a little bit longer!
  • If you need something to be the perfect size, will be devastated when it shrinks, or don’t like the piqued texture that your quilts get when you don’t pre-wash, then I would suggest to just bite the bullet and pre-wash. I know, I know—it’s really hard to wait that long! You just want to get started, but it will totally be worth it in the end!

So, there you have it: a little overview of what each team thinks about pre-washing! Where do you stand on the pre-wash debate? I’d love to hear your comments below!

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