Preparing Coat Fabric: Prewashing, Preshrinking, Pre-Steaming?

How do you prepare coat fabric? I’m talking about wool or wool-blend coating fabrics, like the coating I’m using for the Seventies Wrap Coat. Do you pre-wash them? If you’re planning to dry-clean the finished garment, do you pre-dryclean them?

I usually pre-steam my fabrics. I steam the heck out of them and hope for the best, knowing I’m always going to dry-clean the finished coat. Want to hear something wild? I had this fabric up on the ironing board, iron hovering about an inch over the fabric, and the selvage was moving! Literally, I could watch the fabric shrink as the edges moved inwards. Imagine if I hadn’t bothered pre-treating the fabric and it shrank as I sewed and pressed my seams? So glad I tested it out!

If this happens to you, pre-steam the whole piece of fabric. You’ll be doing a ton of ironing on a coat project, you can’t hide it from the heat and steam of the iron!

Here’s what I do:

Set the iron on the wool setting. This is probably the lowest setting before the steam turns off. If you dialed it any cooler, it would be steam-free and into the silk and synthetics settings.

Steam, don’t press. I like to hover the iron over the fabric instead of touching it to the fabric. I’m hovering about an inch over the fabric. Especially with this fabric, there’s a bit of gold thread that’s probably nylon or some type of synthetic. We know this because wool isn’t shiny and metallic. If you have specks of gold or metallic in your fabric, handle and press with care!

(This is a terrible photo! I’m taking it with my right hand and awkwardly holding the iron with my left…but I hope you get the idea!)

Cover every inch of the fabric. You want to make sure every bit of your fabric is steamed and shrunk, so it doesn’t happen after cutting! Before cutting, you’re fine. You’ll cut pieces out of the smaller, shrunken fabric. After cutting your pieces will shrink down and not fit!

Keep water handy. I used up all the water in my iron going across the width of my fabric once. One iron-size width, if that makes sense. Luckily I’m right by the lunchroom so I can keep refilling and refilling the iron! A water bottle is handy for refilling the iron. (I am using a plastic cup. Less easy, more spillage.)

Watch your hands. Steam gets really hot! Put down the iron if it starts to burn your hands, wait, and start again in a minute or two. This is also good for my iron in particular because it needs to re-heat itself after a little while. Put it down, let it heat back up while your hands cool off.

Be patient! Because I am impatient, too, and want to get to the sewing already! This will feel like it takes forever if you’re making a long coat. (It feels like forever for me right now!) Remember, we’re making sure our finished coat doesn’t shrink or distort as we sew. It’s worth it to take the extra time now!

That’s what I do on projects using wool or wool-blend coating to ensure they don’t shrink while I sew, or worse, after the project is finished! And so far, it’s been a fairly successful and fairly fast process.

What do you do? Do you pre-treat your wool coating fabrics at all, and if so, what steps do you take?

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42 Responses to Preparing Coat Fabric: Prewashing, Preshrinking, Pre-Steaming?

  1. Tanit-Isis October 5, 2011 at 7:11 am #

    I usually use Pam Erny’s (I think) steam-shrink-in-dryer method—soak a not-too-precious towel in hot water, throw in the dryer with your fabric for half an hour or so. Take the towel out and tumble your fabric a little longer if it’s still damp. This definitely does some shrinking up (one piece lost about 10cm in width), though I must admit I haven’t laundered any of the coats I’ve made yet, so it’s possible there could be further shrinkage.

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:28 am #

      @Tanit-Isis: Thanks for the feedback! Good to know the dryer method works. My fabric probably lost about 10cm in width too, if I could see it happening! After that much shrinkage I can’t imagine it shrinking any further after laundering but you never know..

  2. Jane October 5, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    whoa, this is timely – i just bought some wool and silk for a cape, and am debating having them dry cleaned or just risking it. i’m now thinking just to bite the bullet and go to the cleaner’s.

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:26 am #

      @Jane: Definitely pre-treat your fabric! You could try the dryer method mentioned here, or steam-shrink it yourself like I did. Even though it’s a cape and I imagine you won’t have to clean it as often as a coat, you don’t want either the silk or the wool to shrink on you. Sounds like an elegant project!

      • Jane October 6, 2011 at 6:27 am #

        @Tasia: I know nothing about pre-treating silk…would you do the same on a silk setting, or…? I’m so afraid of ruining nice fabric; I’m used to quilting cottons!

  3. Lauren October 5, 2011 at 7:40 am #

    i’m a cheapskate to the worst degree, so i preshrink my wool at home using the dryer method (http://off-the-cuff-style.blogspot.com/2010/08/tutorial-pre-shrink-woolfast-and-easy.html), rather than take it to the dry cleaner’s.

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:24 am #

      @Lauren: Thanks for the link! I don’t want to pay the drycleaner either – I can’t imagine it would be cheap!

  4. Molly October 5, 2011 at 7:50 am #

    I also do the dryer method with the wet towels. It’s worked well so far!

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:23 am #

      @Molly: Thanks for the feedback! Seems like a scary method but good to hear it works!

  5. BER October 5, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    This is the method I learned as I studied tailoring a million years ago in college:

    Straighten the ends of the fabric so that the fabric is folded lengthwise, selvedge to selvedge. Generally the fabric is wrong side out.

    Now baste the raw folded edges together.

    Next lay out a damp sheet, preferably white, and if not color fast. Place the folded and basted fabric on the sheet Fold the edges of the damp sheet over the wool and let all sit until the sheet is dry and the fabric is dry to the touch. This has always worked for me.

    For sure you take a great risk when sewing with wool especially, and not pre treating.

    I hope this is helpful. Best,BER

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:22 am #

      @BER: Thanks for sharing your method! That sounds like it would do the same thing, just more slowly and probably, more evenly! That’s what my tailoring book recommends I do with my interfacing – roll it up with a wet towel and let it dry.

  6. Beth (SunnyGal Studio) October 5, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    I use the dryer method mentioned above, works really well.

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:18 am #

      @Beth (SunnyGal Studio): Good to know! Seems scary to toss expensive coating into the dryer but so many of you recommend it.. Thanks for letting us know it works!

  7. Irene October 5, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    I do exactly as you’ve shown. It is amazing how much certain fabrics shrink in the process. Scary to think what would happen with RTW – I take it no-one takes the time to preshrink fabric in factories?!

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:18 am #

      @Irene: Nope, they don’t! Think how much that would add to the cost of the garment, on something that’s already expensive to construct! Putting dry-clean only on the label covers them if anything goes wrong. Occasionally, if something is supposed to be washed and it shrinks, they’ll build shrinkage into the pattern pieces. So the garment in-store looks longer than it is, because they’re accounting for it to shrink in the wash. Confusing right? :)

      • Sherry October 5, 2011 at 10:58 am #

        @Tasia: Also in ready-to-wear the fabric has been tested for shrinkage before the sample is even made – if the fabric looked like it was going to cause problems I wouldn’t use it. (Beware the designer sales of unused sample fabrics!)
        If it is used, shrinkage is factored into the pattern, and the final garment undergoes a thorough pressing so the shrinkage occurs after the garment is made, as opposed to Tasia’s method of doing it before it is cut.
        If your RTW garment is laundered correctly and still shrinks after purchase, it is a garment fault – return it for refund/replacement, and don’t buy from that brand again!

  8. arlene October 5, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    when I am using a smooth wool I dampen/wet a press cloth (muslin), place in over the wool and press/iron until it is dry – or almost….I let the fabric rest a few seconds before moving it around – prevents me from stretching it out of shape –
    when I using textured fabrics I steam with Tasia’s method.
    Years ago, I searched without success to find a cleaners that would dryclean yardage…
    hugs

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:15 am #

      @arlene: I do the same thing – let it dry before moving it! Good tip. I can’t imagine trying to explain pre-shrinking yardage to my drycleaner, I think they’d be confused.. but if I do try it I’ll report back! :)

  9. Jessica H. October 5, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    I use the dryer/damp towel method as well. I haven’t had any problems with shrinkage from dry cleaning afterwards.

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:14 am #

      @Jessica H.: That method scares me! But it seems like plenty of you have tried it with success. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Linda Oldham Burns October 5, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    I see the iron in the pictures. What type of iron do you have?

    • Tasia October 5, 2011 at 10:14 am #

      @Linda Oldham Burns: Hi Linda! It’s a T-FAL and the model number is 1579. I’ve had it for years, probably at least ten years! It’s a nice, solid iron – no complaints! Hope this helps!

  11. G October 5, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    I think it’s “Miss Celie” who throws the fabric in the dryer with two wet towels to preshrink…

  12. Jessica October 5, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    Wet towel and dryer all the way. It’s scary, but it works fine, I promise!

    I did it by hand twice (once with the “use damp muslin as press cloth, press til dry” method and once with your “steam the crap out of it” method) and NEVER AGAIN. Literally it took me hours and sweaty hours.

  13. Jessica October 5, 2011 at 11:04 am #

    Oh, I have also tried the “London Shrink” technique (wrap in damp sheet or towel, let dry) and that is an acceptable low-labor solution. But you have to wait sometimes more than a day and I’m always scared it’s going to mildew in hot weather!

  14. Laura October 5, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    I take it to the dry cleaners and ask them to steam press it. Voila, and it’s usually only a few bucks a yard.

  15. Alice October 5, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    This is SO timely as I’m just about to work up the courage to try a coat & I have a beautiful piece of wool suiting ($50!) that I want to make into a sheath dress.

    Any tips on pre-shrinking fine wool suiting; would this steam/dryer technique work?

  16. Sarah October 5, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I do the pre-steam method all the time. Though once I did it with the ancient metal gravity feed steam iron that weighs a crazy amount and never did I do it with that iron again. That time it was something like 12 yards (pants, skirt, suit jacket set plus extra for mess ups) and never again would I do it with that iron. My arms hurt for days! Plus I’m too much of a chicken to toss my expensive wool in the dryer. Might try it next time, maybe.

  17. Lashell October 5, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    The first time I used wool to make a jacket I sent it to the cleaners. They were fine about cleaning and shrinking it for me and they didn’t charge me a lot. I’m currently working on a wool skirt and I preshrunk the fabric by hanging it in the bathroom and using my Conair handheld steamer. It doesn’t take as long as using the iron, but you do have to be careful as the steam makes the tube on the unit really hot.

  18. Lydia October 5, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    This is so helpful — I purchased a hand woven silk tweed — it is a very loose weave, and I have been too scared to pre- shrink it or treat it, and have had it for one year! I want to sew a sheath dress, but have been afraid. This post has given me a heads up — maybe this will be my next project once I get around to steaming the fabric.

    Thanks for all the tips.

  19. Amy October 5, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    Between your posts and all of the comments, I’ve learned quite a lot today. Thanks!

  20. Sue October 6, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    Like Amy, I have learned so much from this! I haven’t sewn with wool since school and I wouldn’t have even thought about pre shrinking a dry-clean fabric. Quite an eye opener about the tumble dryer method!

  21. Adrienne October 6, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    I also wanted to mention that this was a very informative post. In fact, i’m very glad I read this before throwing myself into a winter wool dress project — I was going to machine wash my wool, can you believe it??

  22. Amy October 6, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    I have one of those little travel steamers and it works great–my husband loves them for his shirts–they’re not expensive at all and worth it if you need to steam a lot. I hang the yardage over the shower rod and steam up and down until I get the whole thing, then let it air out. It goes a lot faster than when I used to steam over the ironing board. I also like the dryer method others mentioned, and just started doing that this year, but I’ve had to test it on scraps before committing the whole yardage because some fabrics change their hand of felt a little.

  23. Maila January 15, 2014 at 3:15 am #

    Years later and still super useful! Thanks so much, I had no idea how to go about treating the wool I bought for a couple of projects. I’m ready and set now :)

  24. Anne June 27, 2014 at 6:52 am #

    Thanks, I’m just about to prepare wool for a jacket. This post and its links have been very helpful.

  25. Diana Cialino October 1, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    Thanks a million for this! I have a small custom pillow business and I often use silk velvets and silk taffeta. I’ve had good luck with the hovering-steam-iron method but I’m going to try the dryer-damp-towel method for yardage. Heavy rayon fabrics have been a nightmare – they aren’t colorfast and a bit too much moisture makes colors run. I’ve decided to forego pre-shrinking rayons and put a Dry Clean Only tag on my rayon pillows. Many thanks!

  26. Gillian Slade November 21, 2014 at 4:42 am #

    I recently bought fabric that was 62 per cent polyester, 32 rayon and 6 spandex. I washed the fabric by hand in warm water and hung it to dry.
    In the first stage of sewing I used the silk setting on the iron, with steam, and watched as it visibly shrunk to the point of being no use.
    My decades of experience told me rayon needed to be washed for shrinkage. I’ve never had ironing shrink the rayon though.
    Does anyone have any thought on what went wrong here?

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