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How to Prepare Fabric Before You Cut & Sew: 5 Critical Steps

So you’ve just bought some gorgeous new fabric and are ready to cut into it? WAIT!

There are 5 important things to do first, or you’ll have problems later on with your project. For example, your new top might shrink after it’s first wash! Or the colors may run.

Here’s how to prepare your fabric for cutting and sewing:

  1. Pre-wash your fabric to stop future shrinkage, and remove excess dyes and chemicals from the production process.
  2. Dry your fabric. A tumble dryer is ideal as it will further pre-shrink your fabric, but it’s optional.
  3. If you’re using a fabric that requires dry cleaning, not washing, then steam it using your iron to pre-shrink it.
  4. Iron your wrinkled fabric. You need it to be flat in order to cut your pattern pieces accurately.
  5. Check the fabric grain lines have not been distorted (important!)

I’ll explain each of these steps below, and give step-by-step instructions.

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5 ways to prepare fabric before sewing

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1) How to pre-wash fabric before cutting & sewing

Why do you need to pre-wash fabric?

Most of the time, you’ll want to pre-wash your fabrics.

This allows them to shrink, so hopefully, they won’t shrink again once you’ve made your project.

It also gets rid of excess dyes and chemicals from the manufacturing process.

The exception is when a fabric seller tells you NOT to wash the fabric. For example, if it’s dry clean only. I’ll talk about what to do in this situation later.

What washing machine settings to use

Wash the fabric according to the instructions from the seller. This may be written on a tag, or on the website’s product page.

I’ve noticed that a lot of stores don’t give much instruction. If that’s the case for you, wash your fabric the same way you plan to wash the final garment/item.

At my house, we normally wash our clothes at a cool temperature (20 degrees) and a gentle cycle. So technically, I could just wash my fabric using the same settings.

But, I don’t.

Because I’m not the only person in the house who does laundry, I know that someone else could wash my clothes on a more aggressive cycle and at a higher temperature.

So I pre-wash my fabrics using harsher settings instead, just in case.

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Unfold the fabric before washing

If your fabric is folded neatly, unfold it before putting it in the washing machine.

We want the fabric to move about freely, and for the water to penetrate every area.

(Optional) stop the fabric from fraying

The cut ends of your fabric will probably fray when washed, so you’ll lose some of the length.

pre-washed cream linen fabric with frays
Here’s a loosely woven linen fabric that I washed without treating the cut ends. It frayed.

The most popular ways to stop this are:

  • Zig zag the cut edges of the fabric.
  • Use a serger machine to serge/overlock the cut edges.
  • Use pinking shears to reduce fraying. This probably won’t work as well on loosely woven fabric.

Nowadays, I don’t really bother trying to stop the fraying.

I have found that when I zig zag or serge the edges, I usually lose about 1/4″ on both cut edges of the fabric. By “lose” I mean those parts of the fabric aren’t usable anymore. They’re covered in needle holes and thread.

And when I wash the fabric without finishing the edges, I normally lose the same amount from fraying anyway.

I only bother finishing the cut edges if it’s a loosely woven fabric. They shed threads a lot more than tightly woven fabrics.

white fabric with blue florals pre-washed
This polyester-cotton fabric hardly frayed when I washed it. The cut ends did not need finishing in this case.

(Optional) use a color catcher

If you’re washing a printed fabric with white parts, I recommend using a color catcher. This should stop the dyes in the rest of the fabric from dulling the white parts.

Wash similar colors together

Like normal laundry, you want to wash similar colors together to avoid the colors running.

If you use a color catcher, you might be able to get away with a mixed load. The packaging often says that you can do multi-colored washes if you use them, but I don’t 100% trust this.

They normally have a disclaimer in tiny writing that says “product performance cannot be guaranteed where there is an excessive amount of color bleed” lol.

New fabrics may bleed more than normal, so that’s another risk.

(Optional) use detergent

I have heard rumors that pre-washing with detergent may cause fusible interfacing to not stick as well.

I haven’t seen proof of this yet (hmm…I should do a test actually), so I’m going to say that either way is fine. At least with detergent, your fabrics will get a good clean.


2) How to dry fabric before you cut & sew it

You obviously can’t cut and sew wet fabric, so you’ll need to give it time to dry.

Either:

  1. Hang it on a washing line.
  2. Use a tumble dryer.

If you don’t have a tumble dryer, you’ll need to use option 1.

But if you do have a dryer, I recommend using it.

It will further pre-shrink the fabric.

So when you make your project, wash it, and then tumble dry it, it will (generally) not shrink again.

Exception: if the fabric seller has told you “do not tumble dry” the fabric, then you can just line dry it.

Tumble dry settings

Choose tumble dry settings according to the fabric sellers advice.

If there isn’t any, use the same settings (or harsher) that you normally use when drying your clothes.

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The tumble drying debate – is it a good idea?

One of my dressmaking books doesn’t recommend using a tumble dryer.

She warns that it will “cause problems with further shrinkage”, but for me, that’s the whole reason why I want to tumble dry.

I want to get as much shrinkage out of the way now, so that I can wash and tumble dry my finished item without worrying about shrinkage.

She also mentions that tumble drying can damage fabrics. Studies show that dryers will:

  • agitate fabric,
  • cause damage to the fibers, which then fall into the lint tray,
  • reduce the tensile strength of the fabric (tensile strength measures how resistant a material is to breaking under tension. source).

The reality is that many of us still tumble dry our clothes. It’s convenient.

So if it’s used in your home, I recommend tumble drying the fabric before you cut and sew it, even if you plan to avoid tumble drying it later.

Someone in your house may wash and tumble dry your item accidentally, so we want to prepare for the worst!


3) How to pre-treat ‘dry clean only’ fabrics

Some people recommend steaming the fabric using your home iron to pre-shrink it.

Some will take their fabric to the dry cleaners. They want to pre-treat it the same way they want to clean the final item.

Some don’t bother pre-treating at all if the fabric is unlikely to shrink. (source)

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Can you ignore dry clean only instructions?

Possibly.

Ex-fashion designer, Liesl Gibson, reveals that sometimes manufacturers say a textile is dry clean only, when in reality, it’s actually washable!

They just don’t want the extra expense of textile testing. Sewing factory owner, Kathleen Fasanella, says the same thing.

If you want to try washing and drying a ‘dry clean only’ fabric, I recommend cutting a 6″ x 6″ / 15cm x 15cm swatch and testing it on that first.

This way you can see what happens, without risking all your yardage.

Make sure you measure the swatch after it has been cleaned and dried, so you know how much shrinkage to expect, if any.


4) Iron your wrinkled fabric

After all this washing and drying, your fabric is probably looking rumpled right now. You need to iron it flat so that you can cut your pattern pieces out accurately.

wrinkled cream linen fabric
What my linen looked like after washing. Lots of ironing needed here!

Ironing settings

Set your temperature according to the fabric sellers instructions. Generally, low temperatures are for delicate fabrics, and medium-to-high for fabrics like cotton and linen.

If you need to get rid of deep wrinkles, iron it with lots of steam.

How to handle delicate fabrics

If your fabric is delicate and could be damaged by an iron, use a cloth in between the fabric and the iron to protect it. I use a piece of 100% cotton.

For example, do this if your iron leaves shiny marks on the fabric (find out by testing a small corner).

Some fabrics just don’t need any ironing. I once burned a polyester chiffon fabric. It literally shriveled and disappeared as soon as the iron touched it, leaving a big hole in my sister’s fancy dress. Whoops!


Check the fabric grain lines – have they been distorted?

This can cause major problems when you make your project. If the grain lines are off, your fabric pieces may hang differently and twist weirdly.

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What is a grain line?

Fabric grain is talking about the direction of the threads when they’re woven together.

  • The straight grain goes up, in the same direction as the selvage edge (the self-finished sides of the fabric that don’t fray). These are the strongest threads, so they’re the least likely to stretch out of shape.
  • The cross-grain runs left-to-right across the fabric.
  • The bias grain runs diagonally across the fabric at a 45 degree angle. This is the most unstable direction and the most likely to stretch.
fabric chart showing straight, bias, and cross grainlines

We want all of these threads to be going in the directions described. If they have been distorted, the fabric will become less stable and hang differently than expected.

(source)

How do you know if your fabric grain lines are distorted?

Sometimes, when the fabric is woven onto a bolt whilst wet, the grain lines become distorted.

So when you fold your fabric, it won’t be a straight rectangle. There will be a weird bubble in the middle.

Here’s how to check your fabric’s grain lines:

  1. Make sure the cut edges are perfectly straight. Pull 1 thread out, and use that empty gap to cut it straight. Or make a 2″ cut, and rip the rest of the fabric.
  2. On a flat surface, fold the fabric in half, matching the selvage edges together.
  3. Look at the fabric (laying on a flat surface). Is it a neat, flat rectangle? Or is there a weird bubble? If there’s a bubble, the grain lines are distorted.

How to fix distorted grain lines

One of my dressmaking books recommends doing this:

  1. Pull the fabric along the opposite diagonal to make it square again.
  2. Press the fabric with an iron. Leave it to lie flat and cool down.

Then repeat the test above to make sure the bubble has gone.

Here’s a video tutorial:


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Sources

J. Fallon (2017). ‘Complete dressmaking: essential skills and techniques for beginners’. Quarto Press, London.

E. Wolff-Mann & T. Senguen (updated 2019). ‘How dryers destroy clothes: we delve into the research’. [online] Available at: https://www.reviewed.com/laundry/features/how-dryers-destroy-your-clothes [accessed: 24 Jan 2021]

K. Fasanella (2005). ‘Dry cleaning discussion’. [online] Available at: https://fashion-incubator.com/dry_cleaning_discussion/ [accessed: 24 Jan 2021]

L. Gibson (2017). ‘How to pre-wash your fabric before sewing’. [online] Available at: https://oliverands.com/community/blog/2017/10/how-to-pre-wash-your-fabric-before-sewing.html [accessed: 24 Jan 2021]

sewing.patternreview.com forum (2008). ‘Pre-treating your dryclean only fabrics’. [online] Available at: https://sewing.patternreview.com/SewingDiscussions/topic/36144 [accessed: 24 Jan 2021

thecuttingclass.com (2011). ‘A Basic Explanation of Grain Lines’. [online] Available at: https://www.thecuttingclass.com/grainlines/ [accessed: 24 Jan 2021]