How to Prep Fabric for Sewing

Hey, you!

Every chef and foodie home cook understands the importance of mise en place.

Mise en place is a French culinary phrase that essentially means “everything in its place’ or “putting in place.” It refers to the gathering, chopping, dicing, mincing, and organizing all the ingredients that will be in a dish BEFORE cooking takes place.

Well, for those of us who sew, fabric prep is our “mise en place.”

Once you’ve decided on the perfect fabric for the garment you’ll be sewing, it is important that fabric is prepared properly before laying out, cutting, and sewing if you want your garment to fit and drape like a dream.

Personally, I prewash my fabric as soon as I bring them home. That way, when the mood hits me to sew something insanely pretty, my fabric is ready to be brought into 3D life!

By the end of this article, you’ll know the three steps that you must take to prep your fabric for sewing…

  1. Pre-wash and dry your fabric.
  2. Iron your length of fabric.
  3. Square your fabric.

RELATED: Click to learn everything you need to know about wovens and knit fabrics!

NOTE: This article may contain affiliate links. Please read my full disclosure HERE.

Pre-wash & Dry Your Fabric [Step 1]

pile of fabrics to prewash

I agree with you…

One of the nicest things about new fabric, especially wovens, is that it is, well, new and crisp!

So I can hear you asking, “Do I really have to pre-wash?”

And my answer is, “Heck yes!”

Three Reasons Why You Must Prep

There are three very good reasons why this is the mandatory first step in getting your fabric prepped for sewing:

Reason #1: To Remove Dye and Sizing Chemicals!

New fabric (and store bought clothes) have been treated with dye and sizing chemicals.

I know you don’t want this soup of chemicals next to your skin!

Plus, they make it more difficult for your sewing machine needle to pierce your fabric and dulls your needle faster. And trust me, your needle is already working overtime!

Reason #2: To Learn about the Fabric!

Prewashing will give you an education on the true personality of the fabric, such as (1) if it will shrink, (2) if it is colour fast, and/or (3) if it will soften with laundering.

For example, multiple washings will soften most cottons and linens.

Reason #3: Some Fibers Shrink a Lot!

Some fibers like cotton, rayon, and some knits shrink a lot!

And I’m sure you don’t want to take your precious time and money sewing a garment only to wash it once and have it shrink TWO sizes!

Pre-Wash Recommendations for Different Fibers

  • Cottons: Prewash in COLD water two or three times.
  • Knits: Prewash in COLD water two times.
  • Knits with Rayon: Prewash in COLD water three times.
  • Linen: Prewash in COLD water two times.
  • Rayon: Prewash in COLD water three times.
  • Silks: Silk does not shrink, but the texture and drape may change when washed. Hand wash in baby shampoo in COLD water and hang to dry.
  • Wool: Dry clean. Wool can be weird. Machine washing could result in serious textural change and shrinkage.

Pro tip: Muslin is cotton. If you will be using it only for fitting purposes, you don’t have to prewash. BUT if you will be using it as a lining or underlining, you most certainly do!

How to Pre-Wash Fabric

zigzag cut ends before prewashing to prevent fraying

Here’s how I do it…

First, some woven fabrics fray faster than you can say, “He’s a cold-hearted snake!”

So I like to take time to quickly make a straight or zigzag stitch along both of the cut ends. This step is optional. But it does help to prevent the following gnarly hot mess…

tangled, gnarly cut ends of prewashed fabric

I have noticed that I don’t experience any of the nonsense in the image above with better quality cottons.

As for knits, since they don’t fray, I skip finishing the cut ends. (Just another reason we love knits!)

Second, I pre-wash the fabric, in the same manner, I plan to care for the finished garment.

And for me, that always means COLD water and a GENTLE or DELICATE cycle.

Next, I remove my fabric from my washing machine as soon as the wash cycle ends. And give it a good shake before I hang it to dry. This way, I avoid excessive wrinkling, which means less ironing.

Finally, I hang my length of fabric to dry, which is the gentlest route.

However, with certain wovens and shrink happy knits, I dry them in a clothes dryer set to LOW to make sure that they’ve shrunken as much as they want to. Then, I remove them as soon as that clothes dryer buzzes done!

clothes dryer temperature dial - LOW is circled

What about Dry Cleaning?

It is certainly an option…

But honestly, I can’t’ help you here. I am totally allergic to dry cleaning! I don’t like the use of those nasty chemicals. And the cost of dry cleaning is ridiculous!

Pro tip: With the exception of wool, even when a fabric says dry clean only, it is often safe to pre-wash it in your washing machine! I’ve never had a single problem with this.

Prepping Zippers & Trims

Do you have to pre-wash zippers and trims?

Maybe not!

But if you want to be on the safe side…

  1. Soak them in warm water for 20 minutes.
  2. Air dry.
  3. Press with a warm, DRY iron.

How to Test if Your Fabric Is Colour Fast

how to test if fabric is colour fast

Easy.

  1. Cut a small rectangle of the fabric.
  2. Place it on top of a white, 100% cotton rectangle of fabric. This fabric has to be cotton! A synthetic will not absorb dye.
  3. Then, fold the cotton rectangle in half so that the coloured fabric is in the middle.
  4. Wet both thoroughly and let sit for 30 to 45 minutes.

If the fabric bleeds, you could try adding ¼ cup white distilled vinegar to the next wash cycle to help remove the excess dye.

If after this, the fabric still bleeds, then do NOT use this fabric in combination with another fabric. And always wash the finished garment by itself.

How to Test for Fabric Shrinkage

Easy!

  1. Cut TWO 6×6-inch squares of the fabric.
  2. Wash ONE of the squares of fabric. Set aside the other one for comparison.
  3. Dry the washed square of fabric in a clothes dryer.
  4. Now, press and measure the washed square of fabric. Did it shrink?

Or, easier still…

  1. Wet ONE of the 6×6-inch squares of fabric.
  2. Then, steam press it until dry.
  3. Measure. Did it shrink?

This will give you a pretty decent idea of how much shrinkage you can expect after prewashing your fabric.

Pro tip #1: If you want to play it safe, you could buy an extra ½ yard of fabric to account for shrinkage.

Pro tip #2: Even if the end of the bolt of fabric says the fabric has been preshrunk, I still prewash for my own peace of mind and to get rid of those nasty sizing chemicals and dyes.

Iron Your Length of Fabric [Step 2]

ironing board, pressing cloth, spray bottle

Once your length of fabric has been pre-washed, it is time to iron.

I know…

You probably despise ironing. Most people do!

But it is crucial that you don’t skip this step.

Ironing your length of fabric guarantees that it is smooth and free of creases and wrinkles. This means that later when you lay out and cut your pattern pieces you will do both with greater accuracy.

How to Iron

There is a difference between pressing and ironing.

Here’s how you iron your fabric…

  1. Pull on the selvages along their entire length to remove puckers.
  2. Then, choose the temperature on your iron based on your fabric’s fiber content.
  3. Next, from the wrong side (WS) glide your iron back and forth, up and down, parallel to the selvages. The goal is to be gentle so that you don’t stretch the fabric out of shape but you still remove all creases and wrinkles.

If for some reason you need to iron on the right side (RS), don’t forget to use your pressing cloth!

Now, how simple was that?!

Pro tip: Remove your fabric from the washing machine or dryer as soon as the cycle ends to reduce wrinkling.

How to Regain the Crisp Feel of Unwashed Fabric

faultless heavy starch

As I shared previously, prewashing will often change the texture and/or drape of your fabric.

But if you love the crisp feel of unwashed fabric as you sew? Then, you’re in luck!

All you have to do is after prewashing your fabric, spray it lightly with spray starch and iron.

In the image above, the can says heavy starch. I’ve used it and it ain’t nowhere near “heavy.” In fact, I am still unable to locate any starch in my local big box other than “heavy starch.”

Square Your Length of Fabric [Step 3]

You’ve pre-washed and ironed your fabric.

Yay!

You are now at the final step in fabric prep. And it is a CRUCIAL one!

Before you even think about laying out your pattern pieces, you have to make sure your fabric is on grain or square.

And because this is such an important step, it has earned its own article. Click HERE to learn how to square your fabric!

The End

That’s it!

Yes, once you’ve (1) pre-washed your fabric; (2) ironed it; and (3) made sure it is square or on grain, you’re finally ready to layout your pattern pieces, pin, mark, and cut.

I’ll see you at the cutting table!

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!

RELATED: Click here to learn the essential sewing tools and supplies!

RELATED: Click here to learn all you need to know about your sewing machine, your Best Friend Forever (BFF)!

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