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.
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.
- 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.