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Notes on Washing Fabrics

Prep and care for the fabrics you’ve selected to make garments and those you’ve already sewn, to keep them looking good and lasting longer. To help you with this task—and in honor of National Laundry Day (April 15)—we’re highlighting some articles and information about washing fabrics before and after sewing and about removing fabric stains.

Wash hanging outside in the sunshine on a clothesline

Get spandex blend fabrics ready for sewing

Author and online sewing instructor Sandra Betzina provides care instructions for dozens of fabrics in her book, All New Fabric Savvy (The Taunton Press, 2017). In “Sewing Lycra Blends,” Threads #86, Sandra discusses how to prepare Lycra, or spandex, blend fabrics for sewing a garment.

Washing fabrics: front of washing machine as it washes clothing
Photo courtesy of Irene Van Auken.

“The common sense rules that apply to preparing fabrics for cutting, whether knit or woven, still apply when Lycra is added to the mixture. Knits that can be machine-washed should be preshrunk in a warm-water machine wash on the gentle cycle, using a mild detergent, and then dried on low heat. Machine-washable Lycra wovens, such as linen, microfiber, and cotton blends, take a regular cycle for both washing and drying. When hand-washing is appropriate, as for some silks, use cool water and hang to dry, or if you prefer, have the fabric dry-cleaned. Garments made of wool and Lycra blends, both knit and woven, will need to be dry-cleaned, but yardage can be preshrunk by holding a steam iron 1/2 inch above the fabric’s surface.”

Handling white fabrics

In the following excerpt from “Sewing Pristine and Often Fragile White Fabrics,” Threads #106, custom clothier Rae Cumbie offers recommendations for washing fine white garments:

“After you’ve worked so hard to keep your project spotless during construction, it’s worthwhile to know how to keep it that way. Laundering by hand or machine is the gentlest way to clean whites, but avoid chlorine bleach (except for durable cottons, and don’t use bleach with every wash). For other fibers, nonchlorine bleach, such as Clorox 2, is a safer choice.

“Frequent dry cleaning can leave white items of all kinds—garments, linens, curtains, and accessories—grayish and dingy. I often insert dress shields in clothes I make, so that my clients won’t have to dry-clean them after each wearing. Before you pack your whites away for a season or longer, launder or dry-clean them (even items that look unblemished can develop stains over time), cover or wrap them to protect against dust, and for long-term storage, use acid-free boxes and tissue.”

Washing fabrics: Light-colored wash hanging outside on a clothesline.

Laundering linen

Threads Contributing Editor Susan Khalje’s advice for working with linen from “Easy and Elegant Linen,” Threads #65, explains what to do before and after the textile becomes a garment:  

“Shrinkage is an issue with linen, although some of the newer softening processes claim to have eliminated this problem. If you’ll be laundering the garment, it’s best to wash and dry it beforehand (if you plan to machine-dry the garment, do so at this point also). If the garment is likely to be dry-cleaned, steam-press it before construction. Be sure to dry-clean both pieces of a suit in order to keep the intensity of the color and the feel of the linen the same for the entire garment.”

Caring for fancy fabrics

Threads Digital Ambassador’s Becky Fulgoni’s advice for cleaning fancy fabrics may surprise you. See her article, “Sew Fancy Fabrics into Everyday Styles,” Threads #210.

Wash a mystery fabric?

What do you do when you are not sure of the fabric’s content? Contributing Editor Judith Neukam answers this question from a reader about mystery fabric in Threads #202. 

“When I obtain a mystery fabric, a chief concern is how to care for it. Test cleaning and pressing procedures on a fabric corner or swatch. Typically, I gently wash the fabric by hand in cold water with a pure castile soap, Ivory soap, or a clarifying shampoo. Avoid laundry soaps with bleach or stain removers. They can damage fabric. Bleach dissolves wool and discolors and weakens silk. You can rinse the washed fabric in a vinegar solution followed by clear water; this may help remove heavy creases.

Removing sticky residue

Judith, an expert on handling stains and experimenting with fabric, also solves a sticky fabric situation in “Got Spots?”

Fabric lost causes

In Sewing With Threads podcast Episode 26, Judith shares some of her worst fabric stash disasters and how experimenting with washing fabric led to nearly miraculous results.

To wash or not wash fabrics

Also check out a reader forum discussion about pretreating fabrics.




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