Prewashing Fabric in a Drought


By now, you have very likely read stories about California’s drought. It’s been going on for FOUR years. Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered historic mandatory water restrictions. This is a big deal because the state has never required any water restrictions, just voluntary reductions. It’s a huge political and bureaucratic issue, which you can read about in this San Jose Mercury News article.

I’ve become used to sunny skies and no rain but it’s not normal. I confess that when it comes to water conservation, I haven’t done much more than take shorter and fewer showers and be careful of water usage when I’m cooking or washing dishes. If you’re in California, what are you doing to conserve water?

I was appalled to read about how groundwater reserves in the Central Valley are being depleted to the point that farmers could be turning huge swaths of land into a dust bowl similar to what happened during the Great Depression. Scary…

Wind erosion carries topsoil from farmland during the Dust Bowl, circa 1930s (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

Last week as I was about to prewash some fabrics, I thought, “Uh-oh, I should’t use the washing machine to prewash just a few yards of fabric, that would be a waste of water.” Our apartment has a high-efficiency washer, which uses less water than older washers, which can use up to 40 gallons (!) a load (that’s roughly 151 liters). I’m not sure how many gallons ours uses but according to my quick Google search, high-efficiency washing machines use 14 to 25 gallons (about 53 to 95 liters).

A couple of months ago I bought this 15.25 quart (14.43 liter) dishpan at my local hardware store because I didn’t want to keep using the bathroom sink to pre-soak my interfacing. (Plus the hubby was getting annoyed.)

Rubbermaid dishpan for prewashing fabric -

It’s not very big – about the size of a bathroom sink. I photographed it in my bathtub, which is white so it’s a little hard to see.  Here’s what it looks like when you look down on it. The black thing covers a drainage hole, which is rather small and not really useful. It’s faster to just tip the water out.

Rubbermaid dishpan -

I got this gorgeous imported rayon knit at Britex Fabrics in March after a Bay Area Sewists meetup there. If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember seeing it on my feed (@csews). I thought about steaming rather than prewashing but as some helpful folks on IG reminded me, rayon knit shrinks so I should prewash. Rayon knit doesn’t necessarily wear well either – it can pill, so I decided it would be better to hand wash cold.

Rayon knit from Britex Fabrics -

I put the fabric in my tub and turned on the cold water faucet. Once the fabric was soaked, I put a little shampoo in the water, swished it around, and let it soak.

Prewashing rayon knit by hand -

Then I dumped out the water, filled the container about halfway with fresh water and rinsed out the fabric. Next, I gently squeezed it and then rolled the fabric with a large beach towel to get rid of the excess water.

It was only a little over a meter so I thought it would be OK to hang dry. It wasn’t heavy so I didn’t think it would get stretched out hanging on the shower curtain rod. There’s very little humidity in the air in California so I knew this lightweight knit wouldn’t take long to dry. If it were a heavier knit, I would lay it flat to dry.

It’s going to be an Asymmetrical Top from Drape Drape 2. I saw the striped one that MaciNic made for the Japan Sew Along (hosted by Catrin at Tanoshii) and the other striped one she made here. I didn’t find the designs of the first Drape Drape book to be very wearable but I do like a few of the things in the second book so I checked it out of the San Francisco Public Library.

I’m not sure when I’ll get to sewing it. First I need to finish my dress for the Spring for Cotton sewalong hosted by Lucky Lucille. And I’m also working on a couple things from Japanese sewing book She Wears the Pants, the English translation by Tuttle Publishing has just been released. What are you working on?

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My Test Results: Pre-washing Silk Chiffon

Silk ChiffonEarlier this month I did a little online research on pre-washing silk (see “Prewashing Silk Fabric“) because I was trying to figure out how I should treat this fabric before sewing it: dry clean, pre-wash by hand or machine, what soap or detergent to use, etc. I decided to limit my tests to hand washing because the fabric is rather delicate and I think a washing machine would be too rough. Here are results of my tests for pre-washing silk chiffon.

I did three tests using 4-inch (10 cm) squares of fabric, hand washing each piece in my bathroom sink using 1/4 teaspoon (~4 ml) of Johnson’s baby shampoo. I picked that amount because I guessimate that you use about a teaspoon or tablespoon to wash your hair. (Note: It takes about 1.5 gallons (5 liters) of water to get my sink 2/3 full.)

Here are the three tests I did:

  1. Wash and rinse in cold water and the iron on silk setting
  2. Wash and rinse in lukewarm water (barely warm) and iron on silk setting
  3. Wash in lukewarm water and rinse with water mixed with 1/8 cup (30 ml) of vinegar. I just picked that amount because it was half the amount Steph mentioned in her post about washing silk in the washing machine (see “This Is how I Care For Silk“). I also ironed this square on the silk setting.

And here’s my documentation of the process:

Two silk chffon squares before washing in cold and lukewarm water.
Two silk chiffon squares before washing in cold and lukewarm water.
The lukewarm water got very bubbly
I soaked the fabric for about 10 minutes for each wash. The lukewarm water was the most bubbly.
I soaked and rinsed each square in the temperature I washed it in.
I rinsed each square in the same wash temperature. I put it under the spigot and then soaked in rinse water for 10 minutes.
Left: after cold water wash and rinse; right: after lukewarm wash and rinse. Note: Cold water barely shrunk but lukewarm had slight shrinkage (I didn't cut these squares as precisely as I would have liked).
Left: Silk chiffon after cold water wash and rinse, then ironing at silk setting, only a little shrinkage 1/16″ (1.6 mm). Right: Silk after lukewarm wash and rinse, and ironing, shrinkage was about twice that of the cold water square – 1/8″ (3.2 mm)

My third test (washing in lukewarm water and rinse in vinegar solution) was with this square of chiffon.

Silk chiffon before lukewarm wash and rinse with 1/4 cup (60 ml) vinegar in water
Silk chiffon before lukewarm wash/rinse with water & 1/8 c. (30 ml) of vinegar. (Note: I was off in cutting this square!)
After lukewarm water wash and rinse with a little vinegar, and ironing the square, you can see that this test had the most shrinkage - about 1/4" (6.4mm) - of all the squares.
After lukewarm water wash and rinsed with water mixed with 1/8 c. (30 ml) vinegar, and ironing the square, you can see that this test had the most shrinkage – about 1/4″ (6.4mm) – of all the test squares.

The hand of this silk chiffon is very soft and has a lovely drape as you can see in the photo below (see “The Hand of Fabric” for more on the hand of fabric). So I really didn’t want to change the hand significantly by washing it. Note: I held each square in the center, with the front edge parallel tome. I didn’t want to hold it on the bias, which would make each square more “drapey” than usual.

See how this square of silk chiffon (no wash) drapes?
See how this square of (unwashed) silk chiffon drapes? It just fall straight down from my fingers.
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in cold changed the most. It's doesn't drape as much.
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in cold changed the most. See how it doesn’t drape as much? 
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in lukewarm also changed but it had slightly more drape than the cold.
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in lukewarm also changed but it had slightly more drape than the cold test.
Hand of silk washed in lukewarm/rinsed with water mixed with vinegar. This square had a lot more drape than the ones rinsed in plain water.
Hand of silk washed in lukewarm/rinsed with water mixed with vinegar.This square had a lot more drape than the ones rinsed in plain water. However, the texture of the fabric seemed slightly rougher than the unwashed version.

So what will I do? I’m leaning heavily toward prewashing in lukewarm water and rinsing in lukewarm with a little vinegar. Though this version shrank the most, the hand changed the least – and the hand is more important to me than a little shrinkage.

I envision this silk chiffon floating over a lightweight cream wool skirt. My next step is finding or modifying the right pattern or drafting my own skirt pattern.

Test results from prewashing silk chiffon in cold and lukewarm water -

Prewashing Silk Fabric

Silk Chiffon

I have nearly three yards of this lovely silk chiffon – a beautiful remnant I got at Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. I’m thinking of using it for a skirt and pair it with a solid silk underskirt (cream or some other color). But before I start sewing it I need to prewash it or take it to the dry cleaners. Prewashing silk fabric in the washing machine may seem wrong but it’s not something you should automatically rule out. I’m trying to decide what I should do.

I’ve done a little research and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

StephC of Sewing Cake patterns washes silk in the washing machine. Here’s what she says in “This Is How I Care for Silks” on her blog 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World:

This is how I care for silk fabrics:

  • Serge/overlock the raw edges of the length of silk fabric to be turned into a garment
  • Put into washing machine.  If desired, add a few other garments of similar weight and color.  Make sure to zip up any zippers.
  • Wash on a cool setting with a small amount of mild detergent.  I make my own.  DO NOT USE POWDER.  In a pinch, use a capful of shampoo.
  • I like to add a little bit of vinegar to the rinse water.  Try 1/4 cup.  It freshens the silk and removes any soap residue.
  • If desired, use fabric softener.  I think of it the same way as using conditioner on my hair.
  • Remove from the washing machine immediately.

Be sure to read the rest of her post for more of her experiences on washing silk.

I also tweeted (@csewsalot) for advice and StephC (@SewingCake) advised: “when in doubt, just wash a 10cm sq of fabric to see what happens. don’t use hot or cold water. Gentle cycle. Should be ok.” [Note: For the metrically challenged (like myself) 10cm is about 4 inches.]

I found this blog, How to Clean Stuff, which had this helpful post “How to Wash Silk.” Be sure to read the comments for more advice. This site has many, many posts on cleaning a variety of clothing and fabric, from “How to Clean Antique Lace” to “How to Whiten Yellowed Wool.”

I also called a local fabric store to see if they carried anything that you could use to wash silk. The woman I spoke to seemed a bit appalled that I would consider putting silk in the washing machine, suggesting that I dry clean it because washing it could really change the fabric. BUT she said if I really wanted to do that, I should use baby shampoo.

So I’ll definitely prewash a test swatch and see what happens to the fabric and then I’ll decide if I want to prewash all the yardage or just take it to the dry cleaners. I’ll be sure to post my results!



Pre-washing Fabric

Prewashed fabric

I usually pre-wash cotton woven fabric in cold water and tumble dry low before I cut it. Pre-washing fabric ensures that your fabric will not shrink after you wash the completed garment. It would be really awful to spend a lot of time cutting and sewing something only to have it shrink after your first wash. If you want your fabric to last longer, then don’t put it in the dryer. You’ll also be saving energy by line drying.

Sometimes I’d rather skip pre-washing because I just want to start sewing. But I tell myself it’s better to pre-wash.

You can even pre-wash silk, as I learned from Steph at her 3 Hours Past blog here.

The only exception I make is wool, which I don’t typically pre-wash. However, I might consider dry cleaning it before cutting. For example, I decided to dry clean some wool crepe fabric because I’ve read that it shrinks.

You can certainly throw wool fabric in the washer. Then it’ll be machine washable when you’ve completed the garment. I wouldn’t put it in the dryer though. My guess is that it would shrink more in the dryer than in the washer.

If you have a more delicate wool or an expensive wool, you might not want to put it in the wash because you’ll be putting more stress on the fabric and the fabric may get worn out more quickly.

When you pre-wash your fabric, be sure to finish the cut edges by either pinking the edges or just sewing a zigzag stitch close to the edge.

I pinked the cut edges before prewashing my fabric.
I pinked the cut edges before prewashing my fabric.

This will prevent any unraveling of the fabric as it goes through the wash cycle. If you don’t do that, you’ll end up with a mess of tangled strings.

If you are washing a piece of fabric that’s more than two yards long, it’s a good idea to sew then ends together in one big loop. Then the fabric won’t get all tangled up with the other fabric you’re pre-washing.

I forgot to do that when I did a load of pre-washing earlier this month. I had two longer pieces of fabric – one was about three yards and the other four yards –  that I was washing along with other cotton prints that were one or two yards each. So when I took the load out of the washer and the dryer, the longer yardage was all tangled up with the rest of the fabric (as you can see in the photo above).

If you are using fusible interfacing in a project that you intend to put in the wash after you’ve finished the garment , you may want to pre-wash it in the washer or soak it in hot tap water for 15 minutes and letting it air dry (as mentioned on Fabricland’s site here). I haven’t experienced interfacing shrinking but I have read about other people having problems, such as in this post here.

Do you pre-wash your fabric before you sew?