And the answer? Yes!
Most of the time.
First, let’s talk about why you would want to prewash. There are two main reasons. Both are particularly important if you are buying your quilting fabrics from somewhere other than a quilt shop or a vendor catering to the needs and interests of quilters. (Who among you would do that?!) You may see fabrics that look just like what they sell in quilt shops in lesser locations, but what you may not know is that those fabrics are often printed on less-than-top-quality “greige” goods (pronounced “gray” goods), the base fabric that takes the pattern and dyes.
The primary reason to prewash is because you want to test the color-fastness of your fabrics.
You certainly don’t want to spend the time and effort it takes to make a quilt only to have it not stand up to its first time through the laundry!
Just as important, you want to prewash because after being wet for the first time, different fabrics can shrink differently—some more, some less. You want to eliminate that shrinkage prior to cutting and sewing your pieces together so they all behave the same way when, again, the quilt is laundered.
I’ll talk about the times that you still may decide not to prewash a little later.
Keep in mind that you’re not laundering the fabrics. Thoroughly wetting them without any soap or detergent will do the job. Note that in the process of checking for color-fastness, the shrinkage issue will take care of itself.
Also keep in mind that I’m talking about how I handle fabrics for my quilts. For me, that means 100 percent cotton fabrics.
SO, if you decide to prewash your cotton fabrics, how would you do it?
As with just about everything in quilting, there’s more than one way to accomplish what you’re trying to do, and that certainly applies to prewashing. So I will tell you how I do it.
First, I separate my lights and darks, as the lights are much less like to run and I don’t really need to test them separately. One at a time (or several together when I’m dealing with lights), I swish the fabrics around in a sink full of hot water. If the colors don’t run, I squeeze out the excess water and toss each piece of fabric into the washing machine. I continue until all the fabrics currently under treatment are done and I’m convinced that none of them will bleed. I remove the excess water by running the machine’s spin cycle.
Following the spin cycle, I toss everything in the dryer, but only for a couple of minutes. Exactly how long depends on how much fabric and what cut of fabric I’m dealing with. I run fat quarters for less time than I would several pieces of yardage. I want to remove them while they’re still damp. (It may seem silly but I set a timer. Just one small distraction and the next thing I know, those fabrics are dry and wrinkled and I have to wet them all over again.) I put the damp fabrics in plastic bags, still keeping the lights and darks separate, just in case. Then I press the fabrics dry and fold them until I’m ready to use them.
Now, what if when you’re swishing the fabric around in water and the fabric bleeds? Keep changing the water and swishing until the water runs clear. You can try adding white vinegar to the water to see if that helps to set the colors, although I have read that some of the newer chemical dyes are such that the vinegar doesn’t affect them.
However, there are commercial dye-setters available, most notably Retayne™, which is a color fixative for commercially dyed fabrics, and Synthrapol™, a surfactant that removes excess dye from hand-dyed fabrics. The manufacturer’s website (prochemicalanddye.com) has lots of information on both products. As with any commercial product, follow their instructions for the best results.
I recently made a baker’s dozen of red-and-white quilts—12 for a book (Red, White & Quilted, AQS 2014) and one with the leftovers. I can assure that you every single one of the red fabrics I used was prewashed until I was sure none of them would bleed into the white!
Over time I have learned (the hard way!) that there are some fabrics that, despite all the prewashing efforts, will simply refuse to stop bleeding dye. They should NOT be used in a quilt.
Years ago, I bought yards and yards of a particular red print that no matter how many times I washed it, treated it with vinegar, pressed it dry, hoping that maybe the heat would set the color before I wet it again (and again!), and pressed it again (and again!), it never did behave. But ignoring my best instincts (and unwilling to part with all that yardage), I used it as background in a scrap quilt. Just recently, I washed that quilt and to my chagrin, the entire quilt came out with a distinctive tinge of pink.
“No,” I thought. “Surely my eyes are playing tricks on me.” But alas, the formerly white fabric label on the back, now a surprising shade of fuchsia, was proof positive that that pesky red fabric had run, again. Fortunately, for this particular quilt, it doesn’t really matter (too much) BUT every time I come across a scrap of that fabric (and there still are some lurking in my scrap stash), I throw it out!
All that said, there are still some times you might not want to prewash your fabrics.
Certainly, you could skip the prewashing if you were making a quilt or wallhanging that you’re certain would never be washed. Nor would you want to try to prewash a roll of 2½" wide precut strips.
Kimberly Einmo, master of precuts, can tell you from personal experience how tangled a mess you will have if you try to treat a roll of strips like yardage. You would have to be very, very careful doing one strip at a time, and even then, any significant fraying would affect the width of the strips (or, for that matter, the precise size of any precuts you tried to prewash). Let the quilter beware.
I try to make sure that I never add fabrics into my stash until I've treated them to a bath, but that doesn’t always happen right away. I don’t want to mix prewashed and untreated fabrics in the same project. (See that earlier point about shrinkage.)
If you prewash some fabrics and not others, or you don’t get to the prewashing right after purchasing, how can you tell which ones have been treated and which ones haven’t?
If the fabric has been spun in your washing machine and tossed into the dryer for a minute or two, there is probably a recognizable amount of fraying along the cut edges to give you a clue. That bit of fraying is pretty easy to spot, especially on smaller cuts such as fat quarters. Fraying means it has been prewashed.
However, that check-for-fraying method won’t work 100 percent of the time, especially if it’s yardage that you’ve evened off and cut into for an earlier project. So what I recommend you do with yardage is measure it after you press it, put the amount on one of those little paper-and-string price tags, and safety pin it to the selvage where it is easy to find. You can also use that tag to track how much yardage is left after you’ve used some of it in one of your quilts.
It may sound like a lot of work to go through all this with your fabrics, but we love fabrics and handling them at any stage is fun, right? That, plus the assurance that you can count on the fabrics in your quilts to keep their colors to themselves, is worth the effort.
by Linda Baxter Lasco
Linda's past and present roles in the quilting world include teacher, lecturer, judge, and quilt shop staff member. She also completed stints as program chair for both the Artful Hands Quilt Guild and the Rhododendron Needlers Quilt Guild, in Mansfield and Walpole, Massachusetts, respectively.
Additionally, while working as a senior editor at the American Quilter’s Society for nine years, Lasco edited many books and stand-alone patterns. She also wrote the quilting book, Red, White & Quilted, published in 2014.