How to wash fabric is something we get asked a lot about - and quite rightly, knowing how look after your precious fabric purchases and handmade clothes is a really important consideration when dressmaking.
In my latest Youtube video I’m talking about prewashing, what I know as a retailer about the fabrics we sell and also my own personal experiences from all the different fabrics and garments I’ve washed over the years.
Check out the video below, or read on for quick reference summery notes for future projects!
Pre-washing (and drying and ironing)
- When you think about it, what a fabric goes though in a washing machine is quite an ordeal. Soaking wet, rubbed up with soap and spun round and round and round and round! It’s no wonder washing can change a fabric and that’s why its so important to think about prewashing before you cut out your fabric.
- On the whole I do prewash fabric. Sometimes it’s more important that others and I’ll go into more detail on that below.
- Always remember to fully open out your fabric before prewashing if it’s come from a bolt of fabric and been folded in half.
- My personal laundry routine is washing at 40 degrees, with 4 rinses on a 1200 spin cycle that takes about an hour and a half. I tumble dry quite a lot of things, but not everything (again I’ll go into more detail below). If I think I can get away with it, I will prewash my fabrics like this so that they are much easier to fit into my normal weekly laundry routine once I have made the garment. If it needs hand washed or a cooler cycle, I know I’m much less likely to wear it as the effort to handwash it too much for a regular basis (for me anyway!).
- Try to see actually washing the fabric as only the first of three steps in pre-washing a fabric. How you dry it and iron it will also have an effect on the fabric. For example, hanging a jersey fabric out on a washing line will likely stretch it out of shape which can mean what you cut out is stretched and ultimately, the garment you make will be stretched out too, or not sit right after subsequent washes.
- Ironing is the last stage and quite fabrics will come out wrinkled after washing and drying. Ironing properly will make your fabric nice and flat, which will make what you cut out much more accurate – so having a good steam iron and padded ironing board is really important (see this post for more tips on ironing).
Types of fabric and how to care for them
The following guidelines are based on my own experiences and judgement. If you are ever not sure, just test wash a section of the fabric first. Washing machines can vary, fabrics can vary, water hardness, detergent and I’m sure lots of other things can give varying results so see this as suggestions, not rules.
Prewash – I do as I like to have fresh smelling fabric to sew with. As the thread count on cotton lawn tends to be high, you probably could get away without prewashing.
Garment washing – 40 degrees, 4 rinses, 1200 spin
Drying – air dry on clothes horse or on a hanger
Ironing – cotton setting so pretty hot with lots of steam and maybe an extra spray of water from my spray bottle if there are any persistent wrinkles (the added water helps to relax the fibres)
What’s normal? In my experience, cotton lawn doesn’t usually shrink
Prewash – The two very fine delicate layers that make double gauze are commonly a looser weave and therefore can fray more than normal. I would prewash and finish off the cut edges (usually with an overlocker) to prevent excessive fraying during the washing cycle.
Garment washing – 40 degrees, 4 rinses, 1200 spin
Drying – air dry on clothes horse
Ironing – cotton setting with plenty steam
What’s normal? May shrink a little due to the looser weave and I’ve found they often get softer and softer with washing
Viscose/rayon (or linen mixes)
Prewash – If I’m being good, 30 degrees on a lower spin (like 800). If I’m being lazy, in with my normal washing.
Garment washing – 40 degrees, 4 rinses, 1200 spin (It’s probably best to wash at a cooler temperature but I have to admit to forgetting sometimes and bunging it in with a normal load and its fine)
Drying – air dry for sure!
Ironing – maybe a bit cooler than a cotton setting, bit of steam but usually the heat on its own is fine
What’s normal? I often find that when you first take them out and the fabrics are still wet, they can almost feel a bit stiff or crispy. I’ve been worried in the past, but as soon as they are dry and ironed the floatyness comes back and all is fine!
Prewash – yes at 30 degrees. Linen will shrink sometimes up to 10%
Garment washing – 30 degrees, 4 rinses, 1200 spin
Drying – I would personally air dry
Ironing – not iron, plenty of steam and an extra spritz from the water bottle
What’s normal? The weave can sometimes become a little bit denser, might feel stiff when its wet but will relax once its dry and ironed.
Prewash – YES YES YES. Please don’t skip this with jersey fabric especially. It will shrink. If its viscose or a mix, 30 degrees is better, but I have to admit, I push it to 40 most of the time so it can be added to my normal weekly washes.
Garment washing – 30/40 degrees, 4 rinses, 1200 spin
Drying – tumble dry or dry flat after prewashing depending on how you want to dry it once its a garment
Ironing – warm/hot iron with steam. Ironing will also help it to relax out.
What’s normal? Between 10-15% shrinkage can be common. I’ve found that sometimes fabric can decrease in length but increase in width. Often patterns recommend more fabric that is needed but if you are concerned or want to add length to a garment then get more.
Prewash – on the whole yes – remember to unfold it fully and you could put it in a laundry bag to help keep the dye within the fabric although I’ve personally never done this
Garment washing – 40 degrees, 4 rinses, 1200 spin – make sure you turn it inside out
Drying – air dry
Ironing – hot iron with lots of steam
What’s normal? Denim will fade and wear – to what extent will vary and from reading around its usually down the how the initial dying process has taken place as this can affect how will the dye takes to the fabric. The uncertain thing is you don’t really know until you wash it.
Denim will usually shrink a bit as well but if you are making a looser garment like the Tilly and the Buttons Cleo dunagree dress for example that is a bit looser anyway, you could consider not prewashing, and then the wear that occurs on the denim will be more even and consistent, picking out feature of the garment like the pocket edges for example
(I’m talking more about coating type wools here)
Prewash – For me, generally not. Some people will roll it up in a damp towel and then leave to dry, I’ve also heard of tumble drying it with a damp dish cloth to kind of steam it. You could consider dry cleaning it, but from my experience of dry cleaning shop bought wool coats, that process seems to affect the integrity and colour vibrancy of fabric so I personally wouldn’t want to do that to a fabric before I’ve used it. Or if you were curious to see what would happen, you could dry clean a smaller section of the fabric.
Garment washing – For the Clare Coat I made, I don’t really intend on washing it exactly. Wool naturally repels odours and stains so I’ll just spot clean it and hang it out to air dry from time to time when I think it needs it.
Ironing – hot with steam
What’s normal? Wool does shrink when you actually wash it and submerge it in water and agitate it with soap – it will basically felt and got very tight/contracted/firm.
Silks and delicates
Prewash – I would hand wash delicate fabrics like silk, lace or fine embroidered fabrics.
Garment washing – hand wash in luke warm water with mild soap like SOAK
Drying – air dry
Ironing – will depend on the fibre content but cool to warm generally
What’s normal? From my experience silks don’t usually tend to shrink. Some embroidered fabrics might, it depends on what they are made from really.
I know I've not covered everything here but if you have any questions at all just leave me a comment and I'm more than happy to try and help!