Pendrell Sew-Along #2: Prewashing your Fabric

Welcome to the Pendrell Sew-Along, Day 2! If you’re just joining us, here’s a link to the first sew-along post:

January 10th: Pendrell Sew-Along: Supply List, Schedule & Sew-Along Badge

Before we cut, let’s talk about pre-washing your fabric. Pre-washing is basically washing your fabric before you start sewing. That’s all there is to it!

There are a couple of theories and reasons why we do this step. I’ll give you the whys and hows of prewashing, and then tell you what I’d do with each possible type of fabric. Jump in if you have a different opinion or method!

Why both prewashing?

  • To avoid shrinkage! There’s nothing worse than seeing your beautifully finished project come out of the wash, shrunk. Luckily, we have control of the shrinkage, if we wash the fabric before cutting.
  • To remove sizing and finishing. After fabric is dyed, there are chemicals used in the finishing process. It’s nice to wash as much of the remaining chemicals out of the fabric before you start working with it. Especially if you have sensitive skin! BUT on the other hand, these finishing chemicals are there to stabilize the fabric and might make it easier to work with.
  • To make it clean. I like to buy fabric from thrift stores, or vintage fabric online. If you’re not squeamish about used fabric, it’s a great and eco-friendly way to go. Vintage fabric often comes with that ‘vintage smell,’ and just about everything in Value Village has that thrift-store smell. Give it a wash so it’s fresh to work with.

How to prewash your fabric:

  • One theory is to wash your fabric the way you would wash the finished garment. If you’d machine wash and dry your finished blouse, then do the same to the fabric.
  • Another is to wash it harder than you’d wash the finished garment. Even if you’re going to hand-wash your finished blouse, there’s a slight chance someone might toss it in the dryer accidentally, and shrink it. If you wash and dry it, then the shrinkage will happen before you sew up the shirt.

Ok, that’s nice. What about my fabric?

  • Cotton: Definitely pre-wash! Cotton will soften up a little after washing, plus it’s the most likely fabric to shrink on you later. I’d pre-wash in hot water, and tumble dry. Cotton voile and lawn, cotton knits – wash and dry these ones.
  • Rayon: My blue ruffled Pendrell is a soft rayon, which I pre-washed and dried before cutting. Rayon’s very similar to cotton (both are plant-based) so I treat them the same way. Rayon can shrink as much as cotton, and some rayons will shrink more! However, I see a lot of rayon garments that are ‘dry clean only.’
  • Silk: This one’s tricky. Silk can be washed, but it will often change the texture and sheen of the fabric. For my silk satin, I’m not going to wash it or have it drycleaned. I’m going to sew with it unwashed, and dry-clean the finished blouse. If you’d like to be able to wash the finished blouse, try hand-washing a tiny piece and see how it turns out. Silk may get softer, more wrinkled and less shiny after it’s washed, so you might not like how it looks! Or you might love it, and then you will be able to wash the finished garment. The other option is to not wash it at all before sewing, and know you’ll have to dry clean your blouse. The good thing about this style is there are no sleeves, so it won’t need washing quite as often. The ruffle and the pleated sleeve sit on top of the shoulder but don’t go under the arm. Silk chiffon, georgette, charmeuse all follow these guidelines.
  • Polyester: It won’t shrink, so there’s no real need to pre-wash! Unless it’s thrifted, or vintage, then you might want to give it a rinse to freshen it up. Polyester dries really quickly so you won’t have to put it in the dryer very long, if at all. My rose-print Pendrell is polyester and it just about comes out of the washer dry. I’m not planning to pre-wash my teal polyester print for the sew-along. (I did wash the rose-print polyester as it came from the thrift store!)

Any other thoughts or theories on pre-washing? Leave a comment below!

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36 Responses to Pendrell Sew-Along #2: Prewashing your Fabric

  1. Sarah January 11, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    Both of my fabrics are polyester slinky-types, so I’m good to go!

    Thanks for this guide, Tasia! I’ll reference this in the future, for sure!

  2. elise January 11, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    Hi Tasia,

    I’m so happy you wrote this today. I do have a question in regard to prewashing . I recently purchased some fabric and it was labeled , preshrunk fabric. Most of the time I do prewash my fabrics but I’m not familiar with a preshrunk fabric. Would you be able to explain or advise me about this ? I’m presently working on a Colette pattern , a man’s shirt and doing the sew-along with male pattern boldness.
    after that I’m doing a little dress sew-along with Rhinestones and Telephones. After I finish these up I hope to do the Pendrell blouse for the Spring, perhaps in a Liberty of London fabric ? BTW, Love your blog plenty of good info !

  3. Misty January 11, 2011 at 7:23 am #

    Thanks for all the info Tasia! You’re really making this helpful for beginners like me.

    I started my own blog yesterday, check it out if you get a chance!

  4. jadestar January 11, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    Thanks, I’m not taking part in the sewalong this time, but that was very useful. I’ll be coming back to this agin. I always forget this stuff. And I have shrunk things before :(

  5. Claire (aka Seemane) January 11, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    I wash all my fabrics as soon as I buy them these days (just so I have them clean & pressed for whenever I need them) I even wash my Muslin (aka Calico) – because sometimes I use it to line a shopping bag etc. (i.e. not just to make a test fitting toile where pre-washing the muslin wouldn’t matter) and if I washed the bag and the lining all shrunk & got warped I’d not be a very happy bunny anymore :(!

  6. Jenna January 11, 2011 at 8:38 am #

    I washed my silk/cotton blend fabric since high maintenance clothing is forbidden around here, due to the toddler & infant that have infiltrated. :)

  7. Liz January 11, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    I read on the Colette blog a while ago about using spray stiffener/stabilizer on these shifty fabrics so that they’re easier to work with.

    What is your take on using this product on silk fabric for the pendrell?

    It would need to get rinsed out afterwards, so it kinda applies to this post. :)

  8. Sandy January 11, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    I prewash my fabric as I have chemical sensitivities and if I don’t I get sick.
    I also like to have everything ready to go when the inspiration hits!
    I am learning so much from your blog. Thanks Tasia

  9. Catherine January 11, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    This is great info – thank you! Another thing I’ve found is depending on the fabric I will baste the cut lines – especially it’s it’s a ravelly fabric. Saved myself a lot of inches of fabric and less tangles in the washer dryer!

  10. ms. modiste January 11, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    I decided to pre-wash my 100% silk charmeuse for a variety of reasons, and just wanted to say I had great success. If anyone else is working with this kind of fabric, try a swatch! Aside from the shrinkage, I barely notice a difference in the look/feel of the fabric.

  11. Corinne January 11, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    With quilting, garment and home dec fabric, I always pre-wash. Of course, you already know why. If it can’t be washed it can’t live here! I have learned to serge or zig-zag finish cottons, linens and rayon cut edges to prevent birds nests in the washer/dryer. I also tend to wash the fabric a little longer than I likely will wash the finished piece just to be careful. I usually use a fabric sizing with pressing and sometime a light starch to stabilize cottons, this gives a little more body to the fabric and stabilizes grain-lines. One caution, if you live in a humid climate or do not have air conditioning do not starch/size your cleaned fabric, wait until you are ready to cut and repress. I know of incidents of mildew/mold problems with treated fabrics. Yuk! Fabric ruined.

  12. HipDroppedStitches January 11, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Thank you, Tasia, and commenters!

    I pre-wash cottons, but I always get all those tangles on the cut ends. Commenters mentioned basting or zig-zag stitching to prevent this. I will definitely give it a try, but am curious, are there any other methods? Is it worth the effort?

    Also, thank you for permission to NOT pre-wash delicate fabrics that will be dry-clean only. I have made that decision in the past, and now feel better about it.

  13. Maureen January 11, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Personally,I don’t like sending silk to the dry cleaners – if something can go wrong, it does. It is expensive and aA long time ago I was told that the chemicals used in dry cleaning are harsh on the silk fibers. I figure those are good reasons to avoid the process. I find that gently handwashing my silk garments keeps them looking beautiful. So, I always handwash any silk that I am going to sew,before I cut.

    For my first Pendrell, I am using a polyester chiffon. Since it came out of my stash, I’ve pre washed it to freshen it.

  14. Venus de Hilo January 11, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    I am a dedicated pre-washer. I’d rather “ruin” a piece of fabric (i.e., change of plans what to make from it) pre-washing a delicate than have to hand-wash or dryclean anything, so into the machine it all goes. However, I live in a warm climate and rarely sew anything but cotton or linen, which can take it. The machine did mess up one nice piece of silk/cotton blend, but it will make a lovely bag lining one day.

    Love your cute sew-along banner, BTW!

  15. Fay V January 11, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Hi there,
    To avoid unravelling in the washing machine, I cut my raw edges with pinking sheers – it’s just quicker than oversewing. As a real fabric addict, I wash the fabric the minuite it arrives then I know my stash is all preshrunk and ready to go.
    So looking forward to the fit posts – I’m doing Gertie’s sew along at the moment and fit was sooooooooooooooooo hard – I really hope the Pendrell is easier!!

  16. CGCouture January 11, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    I come from a long line of “pre-wash” people, but I’m mostly not a pre-wash person. I like leaving the sizing on fabrics (especially slippery ones) because they are SO much easier to work with that way. However, if it was wrinkled on the bolt, I generally wash it because it seems that no amount of ironing gets those wrinkles out without giving the fabric a good soak first. We don’t buy anything that can’t be washed in the machine around here, whether it be fabric or RTW clothing, and I’m pleasantly surprised that so many others seem to share the same sentiments based on the comments here.

    If you do pre-wash, I highly recommend serging the edges, it makes life SO much easier, and only takes a couple of minutes to do–it’s not like you have to have matching thread or anything. ;-)

  17. K-Line January 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    I’m using silk which I intend to dry clean, so I’m not going to wash it first.

    Question: Do you think that a walking foot would be helpful when sewing with a slim silk? Or is that really only useful for stretch fabrics?

  18. Tasia January 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    Hey everyone! Thanks for sharing your experience pre-washing, and what you’re planning to do with your own blouse fabric!

    Great tips on pre-serging, stitching or pinking the edges of your fabric – I usually forget and end up with a big wad of thread in the lint-trap… oops!

    @K-Line: I’ve never used a walking foot, so I can’t really tell you if it’s helpful or not. I can say that I’ve sewn silk before using just the regular, standard machine foot with fine results. My machine does have an even-feed thing on the back of its regular foot that helps to keep the fabric layers coming in at the same time..
    If you have one, and you test it out on the silk, will you let us know if it helps in sewing? Now I’m curious!

  19. Tasia January 11, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    @HipDroppedStitches: Is pre-serging worth the effort? It depends on how much the wads of threads bug you :) I don’t always, in fact I rarely do, and I just deal with the thread-wads. If I plan to wash a more loosely-woven fabric, then I might pre-serge the ends just so that the fabric doesn’t unravel and I lose an inch or two on the edges.. Try it once, and see if you think it’s worth it or not!

  20. Tasia January 11, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    @ms. modiste: Thanks for sharing your pre-wash success! I’m always curious what happens to other people when they test out methods at home. Glad to hear your fabric washed up nicely, AND now you can wash your finished blouse!

  21. Tasia January 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    @Liz: Hi Liz! I’ve never used spray stabilizer before, I read through the comments and Sarai responded to someone that she usually hand washes her silk garments and drip-dries or line-dries them. So, you’ll be able to handwash your finished blouse after using the spray stabilizer… which to me, sounds like you should hand-wash and drip-dry your silk before cutting, so that you can treat the finished blouse the same way. Again, i’d suggest testing a small swatch (like 8″ square) to be sure you actually like what will happen to the fabric once it’s washed! I hope this helps :)

  22. Tasia January 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    @elise: Hi! Pre-shrunk fabric is something that used to be commonly found in fabric stores, according to some of the older sewing books I have. In theory, it shouldn’t shrink. You still may want to wash it to remove finishing, especially if your skin is sensitive. Is it cotton? Rayon? And how do you know it’s pre-shrunk, does it say it on the selvage? Just curious! I haven’t seen pre-shrunk fabric in stores, not labelled as such anyways!

  23. daiyami January 12, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    I put my rayon spandex jersey in the washer on hot and dried on high and it shrunk 10 inches. But I usually wash such stuff on cold and hang dry, so I guess that makes me one of the “wash it harder” school. Though I’ve heard rayon just keeps right on shrinking almost no matter what you do. (Also, I was using Retayne to set the color in hopes of preventing bleeding, and that instructs a hot wash. I really like vibrant colors, so I’ve been doing that a lot)

    @K-Line: I’ve used my walking foot on slippery non-stretch fabrics like polyester satin and it’s been really helpful, it’s one of my favorite purchases.

  24. Suemarie January 12, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    Like Claire, I too wash all my fabrics as soon as I buy them because later when I’m inspired I’m ready to just start sewing. (I use my prewashed muslin for making bags for produce instead of using plastic bags though I guess I wouldn’t care if they shrink.) Also, like Sandy, I am sensitive to the sizings/finishes. (I sewed curtains for someone else once using unwashed fabric and the finish gunked up my machine – granted it was a ton of fabric for some very large curtains/drapes).

    Like ms. modiste, I’ve had great success in prewashing silk charmeuse. Texture-y silks (like dupioni) tend to change the most and soften up quite a bit, but in the end I prefer to have clothes I can wash easily.

    I also prewash wools – I use the “handwash” cycle and then hang them to dry.

    Thanks, Tasia, for all the great info! I’m not making the blouse because I prefer longer sleeves, but I’m already learning – it’s a readalong for me!

  25. Louise January 13, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    I live in a hot climate. Everything gets washed every time it is worn. (I do not wear woollens.) Otherwise it could become mouldy or attract insects and be eaten. Of course you can wash silk. I use a woolwash if it is being washed by hand. If the garment is going in the washing machine then no soaking is the rule. It goes in with all the other coloured clothes. I do avoid the dryer though. If you have doubts then wash the silk garment in baby shampoo. These are my clothes, not archival quality museum pieces. Prewash all fabrics. I recommend cold water as it removes the surface chemicals better than warm. Never wash your clothes in hot water or use the hot setting on the dryer for your clothes for more than ten minutes.

  26. Jennifer January 14, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    @HipDroppedStitches: I always use my serger to overlock the cut edges of my woven fabrics before washing, then I don’t loose those inches off the cut edge in a tangled knot of threads in the washer/dryer. I works really really well, I highly recommend doing it, especially since sergers are so fast, it takes no time to overlock the cut edges before washing.

  27. alice March 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    i just saw that fabric you’ve got pictured up there today at dressew! so funny when that happens!

  28. Tasia March 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    @alice: Oh funny! I found it at Save-On Fabrics in Surrey. I was actually at Dressew on Saturday the 19th too, I probably walked right by you! :) Small world…

  29. Cherry Pit September 28, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    I am interested in “How do you pre-shrink Wool??”

    For the Silk that I just purchased from Thai silk, They recommend hand washing silk with Shampoo! Light colors – reg shampoo is good. For Dark colors – use SHAMPOO FOR COLOR TREATED HAIR. Hang to dry. Remember- silk is a natural fiber. It will shrink.

  30. Cherry Pit September 28, 2011 at 8:05 am #

    To the above statement, please understand that that information is for fabric that is to be washed, not dry cleaned.

  31. Helen January 28, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    For “pre washed” wool, I make sure it is “grain perfect” (Bishop method), basted on both cut ends and tacked at intervals along selvage. I then take it to the dry cleaners and have it cleaned as a blanket.

  32. Sue February 23, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    Generally wools and wool blends that include viscose, rayon or silk are dry clean only. And if they are made up into jackets or coats, then the finished garments should only be dry cleaned, as they are difficult to press properly if they are washed at home. These fabrics also need to be preshrunk first before you cut.
    I do that by pressing them at the ironing board with generous amounts of steam, to allow the fibres to ‘take up’. Textured fabrics might be better with a hand held steam wand.
    Heat and steam is going to be applied to the cut out pieces as the garment is being constructed, especially with fusing etc., so it is best to get as much of the shrinkage out before you cut.
    I once had to make a jacket for a client using her vintage bridesmaid brocade. All the cut out pieces shrunk rather horribly when I fused them! Thankfully, the shrinkage was only lengthwise.

  33. Kimi April 15, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    Ooo.. thanks for the great tips!

    A bit late, but let me add one: for thinner materials or smaller amounts, use a garment washing bag. The type you use for your ah, intimates or stockings.

    Having recently ruined a number of store-bought pillows by washing them in the machine to remove stains before they could set (note to self, ban all items containing red food dye from dog’s diet). I’m salvaging what I can and redoing them with heavier home decor fabric.

    Never had any material gunk up my ancient, inherited Singer but I’ve had issues previously with starch/fabric sizing coming off of dry-clean only items and mucking up my iron & board.

    Also, if hunting vintage fabrics, don’t forget to look for sheets! I have a set from the 70’s that saw regular use and have since been repurposed into curtain sheers for the giant windows in my mothers classroom.

  34. Maggie Genius May 4, 2013 at 2:14 am #

    New to sewing. Love all the info if I can just remember it.


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