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Pre-Wash or Not? Quilting’s Perennial Question

So many choices. What's best for my quilt?

So many choices. What’s best for my quilt?

As a teacher of beginning quilters for over 30 years, one of the questions I am asked most often is whether or not I wash my fabrics before using them. My answer is SOMETIMES. I clarify this by explaining that most of my quilts are made for books or patterns and generally travel with me while teaching. I am not using these quilts and washing them regularly in a way that many quilters may do. My hope is that by not pre-washing the fabrics for these quilts, the quilts will maintain their “new” look and resist soiling and fading. So far, I have been happy with this approach.

In the next breath, I tell students that I do, however, pre-wash all fabrics that I plan to use in a quilt that will be washed regularly, especially a quilt that is intended for a child. Not only do I want to remove any chemicals, but I also want to avoid any surprises by having a release of color (often called “bleeding”) from one fabric onto another when the quilt is laundered.

A sad example of what can happen when fabrics are not pre-washed.

A sad example of what can happen when fabrics are not pre-washed.

Pre-washed fabrics are softer to work with and generally fray less than those that have not been washed. Also, I often use flannel on the back of baby quilts. Since flannel shrinks more than other cottons, I wash these 2-3 times before using them.

I always wash flannel fabrics 2-3 times before using them in a quilt.

I always wash flannel fabrics 2-3 times before using them in a quilt.

When I started quilting so many years ago, I was told that full-strength white vinegar could be used to set the dye in any suspicious fabric (e.g., hand-dyes, batik, and deep rich jewel-tones). I would always do a color test first, placing one square of white fabric into a clear glass of warm water along with a swatch of the test fabric. If the white swatch picked up any released color, I knew I needed to treat the fabric that I was testing with vinegar before using it in my quilt. If the fabric continued to release excess dye after a few tests, I  simply avoided using it. Fortunately this was rarely the case.

I asked my blogging sisters for their opinions on this subject. Here are their responses:

Darra: “When I first began quilting (and for many years after), I washed all new fabric as soon as I got it home, to pre-shrink it and to remove any excess dye or chemical residue from the finishing process. This made sense as all the quilts I made at that time were either bed sized or destined for other use—for example as a lap or baby quilts—that would eventually require a trip to the laundry room.

“Nowadays, pretty much everything I make is intended for the wall (or other display) rather than for the bed, so I no longer feel compelled to pre-wash new fabrics. The exception remains the occasional baby quilt: I still pre-wash fabrics that go into those cuddle quilts.”

Jennifer: “I don’t tend to pre-wash, but I’ve been burned once or twice because of that. So, if the quilt is for bed use, then I may pre-wash. Otherwise, I don’t.  However,  if I’m using a backing fabric from an artisanal or imported source, then I do test for color fastness or pre-wash.”

There are valid reasons to ask this important question “should I pre-wash my fabrics?”

The first concern is that of shrinkage. Will the fabric shrink and if so how much? Will all fabrics used in the quilt shrink the same?

The second concern is whether or not you are sensitive to the chemicals found in unwashed fabrics. If so, then pre-washing should be part of your routine.

Finally, there is the issue of excess dyes being transferred onto other fabrics through either abrasion or by washing (aka bleeding). The fabrics I pay closest attention to for this are the deep, rich, saturated colors and especially batiks and hand dyes.

Be aware of deep, rich saturated-colored abrics as they often release excess dye.

Be aware of deep, rich saturated-colored abrics as they often release excess dye.

Here are some of the popular products on the market that claim to take care of our concerns.

Retayne – Retayne is ideal for treating fabric before using it in quilts. It’s also handy for commercially made garments whose dye has not been fixed properly.

Synthrapol –Synthrapol works best with HOT water–yes, HOT water–when washing out excess dye, particularly fiber-reactive dye. You are getting out the excess loose dye molecules that have not been chemically bonded to the fabric. This is a good thing! Then you can rest assured that the dye won’t bleed on you, or the family underwear, the next time you wash it. (Taken from the product manufacturer Dharma Trading Company’s website

Quilt Soap (ORVUS) is one of the most-often recommended quilt soaps for washing quilts. Here is a site which gives some specific information as to the ingredients and use of this product:

Shout Color Catchers – I still like to separate my lights from darks when washing. If you haven’t pre-washed your fabrics, and have used both lights and darks in the quilt, you might try placing one of these catchers in the wash in hope of preventing bleeding. Here is an interesting article from Consumer Reports regarding Color Catchers:

Here are a few thoughts to consider before you decide to wash or not wash your fabrics before cutting into them. I suggest doing some homework in order to make the best choice and avoid any disappointments.

  1. How will the quilt ultimately be used? Will it hang on a wall or be used as a bed quilt?

  2. What type and color of fabrics are you using? Are they good-quality cottons, hand-dyes, batiks, or flannels?

  3. Are you sensitive to the chemicals contained in fabrics purchased off the bolt? If so, it is best to pre-wash.

  4. If you choose not to pre-wash, are you OK if the quilt shrinks up a bit, giving it an antique look after it is washed the first time?

I have found some really wonderful tutorials and videos online that address this subject. If you are interested, I suggest you take a few minutes to listen and read through them. I’m sure you will find them as helpful as I did.

Fiber artist Vicki Welsh shares her experience with Retayne.

Click here for thoughts from well respected quiltmaker, Becky Goldsmith.

Paula Burch’s All About Hand Dyeing website has a wealth of information on both both Retayne and Synthrapol.

Before I go, I am happy to announce that Beth Carver is the winner of Secrets of Digital Quilting: From Camera to Quilts by Lura Schwarz Smith and Kerby C. Smith from the giveaway in my March 26 post.

Happy creating everyone!

What perfect timing. While teaching at my local quilt shop last night, one of my students reached into her bag and brought out this piece of fabric, or so I thought.


She said her friend, and one of our loyal readers and talented machine quilter Elaine Beattie had given it to her to share with the shop. It is a Breezy sheet that was added to her wash to collect the excess dye from a quilt that bled red dye.


My understanding is that she tossed the affected quilt along with other items and the Breezy sheet together into the same wash load. The Breezy sheet came out red while the excess dye was removed from the quilt. Fortunately the quilt shop had some in stock so I purchased my own supply of 30 sheets. I’m hoping Elaine will give us an accurate account in the comments if I have my story wrong. In any event, plan to use it myself on the sad quilt shown above. I’ll keep you posted.


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