To Wash or Not to Wash….That is the Question

Wash or Not SwatchesThe quilting world is definitely made up of the washers and non-washers with very few feeling “wishy-washy” on the topic.  We recently posed the do wash/don’t wash question to our Facebook followers and here are the results when we finally stopped counting: 291 don’t wash while 210 do wash with more comments still coming in.  Most have definitely chosen one or the other but there were quite a few who only wash certain fabrics.

Let me start by saying there is no right or wrong method.  It is a personal choice. So what are the issues?

Those who wash tend to do so for three main reasons.  First, they want to find out if any of their fabrics will run and they wish to remove any residual dyes or other chemicals such as formaldehyde.  In the 1970’s, new environmental codes put restrictions on the amount of formaldehyde allowed to be added during the dying process but some is still present. This is important to those who could be sensitive to these products.  Another reason some wash is that fabric shrinks and they wish to do this before using the fabric.

For the non-washers out there, our favorite reason not to wash is that they can’t wait to use the fabric. Most of today’s quilt manufacturers recognize that the number of quilters who do not prewash is a large number and therefore, make sure that their products do not run or bleed. There is minimal shrinkage when washing and many quilters like the sizing found in fabric which lends a certain “crispness.”  Also, many of today’s quilters are making pieces which will be washed little or not at all after completion.

I do not wash my fabrics.  Of course, I use only my own fabrics and I know how they will behave.  I especially like the feel of fabric right off the bolt.  I’m more concerned about the damaging effects of exposure to light, but then, that would be a topic for another blog.

For many of you, though, washing is important.  Many years ago, I visited a mill where my fabric was produced.  Here are the tips I received from the quality control manager along with my own findings for what I think is the best method to wash your new fabrics and finished quilts:

  1. Unfold all newly purchased fabrics and put them through a cold water rinse.  If not unfolded, the color can actually rub off along that crisp fold during the washing process.
  2. Wash the fabrics with a phosphate-free detergent in a short, cold-water cycle. Phosphates can contribute to the bleeding of fabrics.
  3. Watch the wash and rinse waters to see how much color comes out.  Dye catchers (such as those under the brand name “Shout”) are a good indicator.
  4. If you notice a lot of color in the water, wash the fabrics again in cold water along with small samples of the light fabrics you plan to use in the quilt.  Chances are the second wash will produce no bleeding. If there is bleeding but it has not contaminated the other fabrics, it is safe to use those fabrics together.  If the light-colored fabrics have changed color, then I would recommend not using the fabrics together.
  5. For washing quilts, use short cycles in cold water.  First put them through a cold water rinse (delicate cycle), then wash them in cold water (delicate cycle) with a phosphate-free detergent.  Put them through a cold water rinse and spin out all excess water.  Lay down several layers of towels and spread the quilts flat to dry.  I want to emphasize that I do not recommend this method for antique quilts where fabric can be extremely fragile.  Contact a textile conservationist for instructions for cleaning antique quilts.
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Color catchers can be used in the wash to help collect any leftover dye from the fabric.

Note: It is difficult to find a good quality fabric today which will run or bleed. Our tester tried many different reds before she found a hand-dyed one purchased at a quilt show several years ago.