Pre-wash brainwash

I’m back home from my month in the USA and, of course, am itching to make things from the (really quite modest amount of) fabric I bought in NYC. But first! To the laundry, for I am a evangelist for pre-washing. Lo, I will stand high on the mountaintop and sing the praises for this rather tedious first step for any sewing project. You should always pre-wash your unsewn fabric in the way that you intend to wash the finished garment (for me, machine wash in cold, and air-dried). And this is why.

1. Natural fibres are super, but…

They tend to shrink when washed. What’s more, they often do so unevenly – the length may shrink to a greater extent than the width. I had a fabric shop staffer reassure me recently that “oh, that’s silk, that won’t shrink.” I knew she was wrong, but I wonder how many of her other customers took this advice as gospel?

You should always pre-wash to do the shrinking before you cut and sew. Remember the organza dress I laboured over? I washed the organza but foolishly (why, oh why..?) I did not pre-wash the silk lining. Upon the one and only laundering of the frock, after its one and only wearing, the lining shrank so much that the dress is ruined.

See that rippled, warped seam? That’s because the lining shrank when I washed the finished dress. Lesson well and truly learned.

2. Dry cleaning is evil

The most common solvent used in dry cleaning is a diabolical character called tetrachloroethylene, or ‘perc’. It’s a splendid cleaning agent but it’s also toxic, a probable carcinogen, and a known soil contaminant. Strolling past a dry cleaners, you’ll inhale a cloud of this stuff. Have you considered the health of the people who work with it all day long? And where do you think the solvent goes after it has washed your precious silks? And the plastic bags that sheath your freshly-cleaned garment… sure, they can be reused as playthings by Sally Draper, but otherwise, it just goes to landfill.

I consider ‘dry clean only’ as merely a serving suggestion. It’s Darwinian – if the unsewn fabric can’t stomach laundering, we’re never going to get along, anyway, and it’s best that we part ways immediately.

3. No alarms and no surprises

Laundering can affect your fabric ways other than shrinkage. Many fabrics are sized during manufacture to make them stiffer for printing and packing. After the first wash, fabric may have a very different hand, drape and sheen. Sometimes washing will remove excess dye too. It’s not necessarily bad news but it’s stuff you need to know before you cut and sew. If fabric is too soft after washing to work with, you could try a spray-on stabiliser… I’ve not tried this myself but I certainly intend to.

Can you see two light horizontal lines in this waxed silk? That’s where the creases of the fabric wore slightly while tumbling in the washing machine. I don’t mind, but it does change the kind of garment I’ll make from it – I’ll treat it more like a casual linen. So glad to know this now before it’s made up!

Pre-washing tips

So now you’re a convert, you’ll want to know how to do it right. Start with this very good tutorial on the topic from Colette Patterns and another one from Gertie. To this I will add two things:

  • snip off the corners of your fabric piece to prevent fraying in the wash. Sure, you can overlock or serge the cut edge, but just snipping the corners works just as well. It’s like magic. Plus, you can tell what’s pre-washed in your stash by checking for snipped corners.
  • dry your fabric flat if you can find the space. I love seeing fabric flapping gaily in the breeze as it dries on the clothes line but invariably, it will warp slightly from being pegged out. I just spread it out directly on the carpet, giving the dog strict instructions that it is not for walking on, and it works a treat.

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12 thoughts on “Pre-wash brainwash

  1. That’s a great point about drying fabric flat. I’m always annoyed at the inevitable warping of loose-weave fabrics from hanging out on the line- it has sometimes distorted the grain so much that I’ve had to modify a cutting layout to avoid the warped bits. For some reason I never even considered there might be a way to avoid this. Your solution seems so obvious now!

  2. Wow, I never realised that pre-washing fabric is so important, even though I always knew that it was recommended that you do it. Lucky I’ve mostly been reconstructing second-hand garments!

  3. I love the snipped corners idea. I prewash everything after a few shrinking disasters. However, I seem to have mixed some washed and unwashed fabrics and there is a piece or two that I can’t recall if they’ve been treated or not.

  4. (Gasp!) Never in a hundred years would I have thought that snipping a corner would limit raveling in the washer. You are brilliant, and I salute you. Agree that wash-and-wear is best for both the environment and for one’s sanity — did I take that dirty thing to the dry cleaners? Did I remember to pick it up again? Where is the dratted claim ticket? etc.

  5. I also live by pre-washing. I know do it first thing when I buy fabric, so if it’s been bought in the last 4 years I know it’s been takien care of. Basically, I buy it and dump it in the dirty clothes hamper (though some I just wash in hot water in the sink). Love the clipped corners idea, thanks to your mom. Oh, and that last picture, the fabric is amazing, wow! Can’t wait to see what you make with that!

  6. Your comments on dry cleaning are very amusing but sadly misinformed. Most households have a dozen products in their kitchen or laundry which are toxic. That’s not to say they are bad. However, you’ll be very sick indeed if you drink a litre of bleach or toilet cleaner or even dish washing liquid. You drive a car too don’t you? I have heard that petrol is pretty toxic, though I haven’t proved it personally.
    And what does happen to the solvent when it has cleaned your garments? Do you think it goes down the drain? Dry cleaning solvents are expensive. They cannot afford to be wasted. The used solvent goes into a distilling unit in the base of the machine and is distilled into clean solvent to be used again, and again, and again. An average dry cleaning machine might hold about 35 garments and complete about 40 or 50 loads of cleaning per week, and need refilling with solvent twice a year. A modern dry cleaning machine costs as much as a quality luxury car. It is well made, and might use possibly as much solvent as quarter to half a ml. per item of clothing. There are some people who would say that this is easier on the environment than pumping billions of litres of dirty water into the sewerage systems every year.
    The machine also collects all the grease and grime out of the clothes and when there is sufficient it is removed by the oil waste specialist and further refined for any useful recoverable products. Everything that is refined out of the waste is something less that goes down the sewerage system.
    Statistically dry cleaners collect national superannuation for much longer than high school teachers do.
    I know you wouldn’t really let your children play with plastic film. However, the dry cleaners where I work offers a choice of plastic film or having the garment wrapped in brown paper. Nineteen out of twenty customer choose the plastic with a coat hanger because they don’t want their cleaned and pressed garment with fold lines.
    Additionally, most dry cleaning businesses I know use biodegradable film. It costs almost the same as normal film and within twelve months of being exposed to the air it quite factually turns to dust. (Don’t try to use it for permanent storage of your garment, though)
    If you smell anything when walking past the dry cleaners it’s probably washing powder as most do as much laundry as they do dry cleaning.
    I hope I might have been able to show you that there are two sides to every argument, and that you might be a little kinder to dry cleaners in future. They are just people like everyone else. They perform a useful function in society, however humble it may be, cleaning other peoples dirty clothes, bedding and furnishings

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