Should I pre-wash fabric before quilting?

You may have heard that you should pre-wash fabric before using it for your patchwork.  Some quilters wash every single piece of fabric as soon as they buy it – before it even goes into their stash.  But why?  What are the reasons behind this?  And should we all be doing it?

Colour fastness – One of the main reasons given for pre-washing fabric is to prevent colour bleeds after the quilt has been made.  I’m sure everyone has experienced colour runs while washing clothes at some point in their lives – I know denim is the worst for me.  The most notorious colour for bleeds has always been red, but it can happen with other vivid and dark colours.  Pre-washing fabrics – in some cases twice or more, until no more colour comes out – means quilters can be more confident that they won’t get colour runs on a completed quilt.


Shrinkage – Another commonly given reason for pre-washing is that cotton fabrics can shrink when they are washed – and if different fabrics shrink at different rates in a quilt then this could cause distortions the first time the quilt is washed.  This shrinkage occurs due to the manufacturing process.  When cotton fabric is manufactured, threads are stretched on a loom and coatings are added to help stabilise the threads and keep them taut. When the fabric is later washed, the coatings are reduced and the cotton fibres relax to their natural state – which appears as shrinkage.

So, if pre-washing helps with colour fastness and shrinkage, then why is it that many quilters don’t pre-wash any fabric?  Many quilters will point to the fact that fabric manufacturing processes have changed and modern fabrics tend to be a lot more colour fast than they were even 15 or 20 years ago.  They may also argue that any benefits which come from pre-washing are far outweighed by the effort which goes into washing – and tracking which fabrics have been washed in your stash.

Delays – Another reason for not washing fabric is that it can delay the sewing!!  Have you ever bought a piece of fabric and been itching to use it?  Or have been participating in a workshop at a quilt shop and bought some fabric for the class project. There is really no way to prepare the fabric to use in time without losing valuable class time or delaying the project you’re desperate to get on with.


Accuracy – A lot of quilters in the ‘non-pre-wash’ camp actually prefer to work with the slightly stiffer textile of a new cotton fabric.  They find cutting, quarter inch seams and quilting is much more accurate with less movement in the fabrics.

So what to do then?  We would suggest that you choose one of the other.  Either pre-wash everything – or nothing.  Using a mix of washed and unwashed fabrics will potentially cause the most problems with shrinkage.  If you do pre-wash, try using starch to re-stiffen the fabric before cutting and piecing to improve accuracy.  If you don’t pre-wash, take care when laundering the quilt after it is made.  And if you have concerns about a particular fabric – for example a bright red – try a colour fast test before use.

How to pre-wash fabric – These guidelines apply to most 100% cotton fabrics:

  • Unfold all fabrics before putting into the washing machine.
  • Wash fabrics in tepid water with a mild detergent.
  • Pre-soak any dark coloured fabrics you are concerned about individually in soapy water for approximately half an hour or until the water runs clear when they are rinsed.
  • Hang out or tumble-dry fabric until almost dry then iron.

Important – never pre-wash pre-cuts such as charm packs or jelly rolls – you’ll end up with a horrible, fraying mess in your washing machine!!

Jelly roll


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