The Pre-Washing Series…

It seems that the question about pre-washing comes up a lot when discussing quilting. Just a few months ago, I was talking with my offline friend Cathy who was interested in quilting and we got together so she could get some questions answered to get her started. Of course one of those questions was whether I pre-wash fabrics or not.

When I first started quilting, about 20 years ago, I took advice from my local quilt shop and pre-washed everything. Even if the fabric was cut for a kit. My friends and I would get together for a sew day and we would boil those little pieces of fabric in a pot on the stove. Well that got old pretty fast. So I decided to gamble and try a quilt without pre-washing. The gamble paid off, no color ran and I liked the pucker that happened from the small amount of shrinkage.

But my conversation with Cathy got me thinking, what are the differences in the process of making a quilt when you pre-wash fabric vs. not pre-washing fabric. Quilters are well aware of the shrinkage that occurs when you don’t pre-wash fabric, but does it affect how the fabric cuts or comes together when piecing, or even the quilting process?

So the plan was to make two identical mini quilts, use the same fabric, thread and batting. I pre-washed the fabric for one mini quilt and not the other. I compared each step of the process and the final outcome.


The pattern I chose for the mini quilts is this one here. It should be pretty simple as the most complicated thing is the half-square triangles.


I pulled my fabrics for both of the minis. Again they will be identical so all the fabrics came from my stash, and are by Lori Holt for Riley Blake, they are a mix from Bee Basics and Sew Cherry 2. The only difference is the fabric I used for the binding, for the pre-washed mini the fabric is red and for the other mini the binding fabric is aqua, but they are the same print (this is mainly due to limitations of my stash and I didn’t want to buy fabric).


Next up I washed one of the bundles of fabric. To do this, I placed the print fabrics in a lingerie bag so I wouldn’t have to deal with threads catching around the machine agitator, I did the same for the solid white fabric but washed it separately. I washed everything in cold water with name brand, unscented detergent for those of us who have sensitive skin. After washing I also dried the fabrics in the dryer still in the lingerie bag.


I will say, that using the lingerie bag kept the fabrics from getting tangled up with each other so that was a win! Once everything was out of the dryer, I sprayed the pre-washed fabric thoroughly with Best Press and let them all air dry before I ironed them. For the fabrics that were not pre-washed I did the same thing.


For each of the fabrics I lined up the selvage edges to compare shrinkage.

I won’t show you all the fabrics, but the results were pretty consistent. On the warp side (parallel to the selvedge), the fabric shrunk 7/8″ to 1″ and on the weft side (perpendicular to the selvedge), the fabric shrunk 1/4″ to 1/2″. This resulted in no more than a 5% shrinkage rate. Which I thought was pretty fair as I’ve read that cotton can shrink up to 10%. It will be interesting to see if there is more shrinkage at the end of the experiment when I wash the finished project which I intend to do.

At this stage of the process the biggest difference I’ve noticed is that the pre-washed fabrics are much easier to iron and the folds and creases that occur from fabrics being on the bolt are gone. I’ll be honest, I really liked that as ironing did not feel like a chore for the pre-washed fabrics. With the fabrics that were not pre-washed I felt like I was fighting the iron and the fabric.


First I found that once I squared up my fabric on the cutting mat and made a cut, it was easier to re-position the fabric on the cutting mat. particularly with the solid white fabric where I had yardage that was two layers. When I removed the fabric from the cutting mat after a cut, and then returned the fabric to the mat, the double layers did not shift and they kept the straight edge from the last cut. I find this to be a huge benefit of pre-washing as you don’t have to square up your fabric again. For the prints, I cut them 4 layers at a time and had no issues.

After experiencing cutting the pre-washed fabric I cut the fabric that was not pre-washed and I was a little disappointed when I realized the difference. As I was cutting, I was getting nicks in the fabric on the longer cuts and would have to go back and run the rotary blade over the cut again. I realized that this happens to me often with fabric that is not pre-washed and I never thought anything of it until this experiment. Also, when I removed fabric from the cutting mat after a cut, and then returned the fabric to the mat, I had to square up the cut edge again as the fabric shifted when it was a double layer. When I cut the prints  4 layers at a time I also experienced nicks in the fabric and had to go over the cut again.

From an efficiency perspective that is a win for pre-washed fabric as it’s a time saver and a fabric saver. Also, I think the shifting fabric can lead to a slightly inaccurate cut.


Because my pattern calls for half square triangles I drew lines on the squares as needed, to get ready for sewing. On the left is the pre-washed fabric. It’s a little hard to tell but the pre-washed fabric actually has a darker pencil line after drawing the line with one pass. I suspect the pre-washed fabric is easier to mark because the sizing is gone and it’s easier to draw on the fabric.


First up I made half square triangles with the pre-washed fabrics and I trimmed them up to measure 2 1/2″ square. All of the squares trimmed up nicely.


I continued sewing the quilt top with the pre-washed fabric and noticed that I really enjoyed sewing with the pre-washed fabric. The fabric pressed nicely


Next up i pieced the half square triangles with the fabric that was not pre-washed. As I don’t normally pre-wash there were no surprises in the experience.


When it came time to sew the rows together I did notice there was a difference with the pre-washed fabric. I found that with the fabric that was not pre-washed the layers of fabric slipped around more against one other.


After I finished stitching both versions of the quilt top I checked my machine for lint and cleaned it out. There was a wee bit more lint with the fabric that was NOT pre-washed. I’m curious about how this impacts the long term use of your machine. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

To prep the quilt tops for quilting, I made a quilt sandwich using basting spray to adhere the 3 layers together (pre-washed fabric on the left with the red fabric that will be used for binding). In my experience, it seemed easier to put the quilt sandwich together with the pre-washed fabric as the pre-washed fabric seemed to cling to the batting more than the fabric that was not pre-washed. I also made sure I had a brand new needle in my machine. For both minis I used mid-loft Quilter’s Dream Cotton for the batting.

I quilted the pre-washed mini first. While I was quilting the quilt sandwich I didn’t really notice anything particular. I opened up my  machine and it was clean, I didn’t find any lint build up.

When I quilted the mini where the fabric was not-pre-washed, I notice that it seemed to be a little easier as the foot moved across the fabric much easier. I assume this was because of the sizing that was still in the fabric  as it makes the fabric more slippery. When I opened up my machine, I did find a small amount of lint but nothing to really be alarmed about. I also noticed when I took the photo of the mini where the fabric was not pre-washed. I still preferred the look of the fabric that was not pre-washed after it was quilted.


When both minis were finished I washed and dried each one separately with a Color Catcher. There was no residual dye on either of the Color Catchers which speaks favorably to the quality of the fabrics that I used for this experiment. Here  is what I found most interesting; before washing, each mini measured 20 1/2″ square. After washing, the mini with the pre-washed fabric measured 19 3/4″ x 20″. This is another 3% – 3.5% rate of shrinkage. The mini with the fabric that was not pre-washed measured 19.5″ square. This is a shrinkage rate of 5%.

I’m so happy that I conducted this experiment, I hope it has been informative. I wonder if any of the results I experienced have been a surprise to you or if they have influenced you on your decision to pre-wash or not. As for me, it really comes down to what the finished product looks like. Regardless of the benefits of pre-washing, I really like the finished product when the fabric is not pre-washed. I have also been lucky in that I’ve never had an issue with color bleeding. Maybe if that happens to me I will change my mind in the future but for now I am going to continue to not pre-wash.