keep an eye on the dye

design, fabric, quilting, sewing

Every time I write a book, teach a class or talk to anyone I recommend that people prewash the fabrics they will be using in a quilt. The reasons why people don’t prewash their fabric range from “It’s too much trouble” to “The sizing the manufacturer puts in the fabric makes it flatter and easier to work with.” Some people say that they never plan to wash their quilts. That leaves me wondering how they are going to smell and feel in 10 or 20 years if they never get washed. Are they going to dry clean them, perhaps? You’d have to have a really good dry cleaner to entrust them to a quilt that you’ve labored over so much.

We prewash everything because you never know what’s been on that fabric, because I want the shrinking to happen before I start working with it and because I’ve seen way too much bleeding. I’ve had the biggest bleeding problems with red fabrics but have had fabrics of other colors run as well.

In that wonderful Harriet Hargraves book, From Fiber to Fabric that was re-released in August of this year, Harriet works with a textile engineer to figure out the best ways to wash fabric to prevent fading. She notes that while the soap one uses affects fading and running, so does the minerals in the water used in the washing machine. Although she writes that equine shampoo may be the best overall soap to use when washing fabric, Ivory Ultra dishwashing soap is also excellent. (And frankly, I can’t recommend to our clients who live in New York City that they need to track down equine shampoo.) Anyway, I love that book so much that the first words I uttered after meeting Harriet Hargraves were, “Thank you so much for that wonderful book and all of the research you did for it.”  If you haven’t read that book, you will find the research in it extremely helpful.

I always want to show people who don’t believe in prewashing fabric the red and white quilt I made ten years ago that bled, even though I thought I had prewashed all of the fabrics. To get the bleeding out I had to pretreat the stains and wash the whole quilt on hot, which of course faded all of the fabrics.

Seeing and reading about bleeding that has happened on other people’s quilts has really made me think every time I wash a quilt. Last week we washed in cold water with Ivory Ultra a quilt that will be featured in our upcoming book. The quilt has multicolored shapes on a cream field. All of the fabrics used in the quilt were tone-on-tones from a variety of commercial manufacturers. Even though I was certain that we had prewashed all of the fabrics, the white field made me nervous. Just to be safe I threw a Shout Color Catcher (a small sheet that you add to the wash cycle to catch bleeding dyes from ruining your whole load) into the wash with the quilt. Even with prewashing look at all of the dye the Color Catcher caught (the one in the middle of the photo)! I couldn’t believe it.

I became similarly concerned washing a quilt made with Cherrywood fabrics. I followed the recommendations and prewashed the fabrics with Synthropol before I started cutting them up. Look how much dye came out on that Color Catcher (the one on the far right)! Even with the Color Catcher, the quilt bled onto some multicolored cloth napkins I had washed in the same load. I still love Cherrywood fabrics and will continue to use them but I will make sure that I only wash them with very dark fabrics and will always use a Color Catcher.

By the way, if you live in the US and have never seen Shout Color Catchers in the laundry aisle of your supermarket, you might want to try Target or buying them online.

18 thoughts on “keep an eye on the dye

  1. My husband and father-in-law (Cevin & Brent Smith) were the textile engineers/chemists that worked with Harriet on that book. I am a very lucky quilter to have someone that not only looks out for my fabrics, but is excellent at color matching them as well!

  2. Thanks for saying this again; but no matter what you say many people won’t listen! I wonder if there aren’t some fabrics that catch the dye more than others (sort of like the Color Catchers do). I’ve had only one light fabric in a scrap quilt pick up the excess dye when the others did not.

  3. I’ve never pre-washed fabric because…well….I’m LAZY. Thank you, Weeks, for demonstrating why this is a good idea. I’d also never heard of the Shout sheets but I’ll certainly be buying some.

  4. I couldn’t agree more! I have always prewashed but after two incidents over the past couple of years, I think I’ll prewash my reds twice in the future.

  5. I always prewash fabrics, and have never really understood the “it’s too much work” argument. It’s not like I have to pound the fabric on a rock in the river, or smooth it out with flatirons heated on my woodstove. :)

  6. I’m going to start giving a box of color catchers alongside every quilt I give to friends and family. I always use them when I pre-wash, and the recipients should certainly be able to protect the quilt the same way I do! I’ll get ’em started on the right foot!

  7. I agree with this entirely! Similar to your “colour catcher” swatches, i (accidentially) put my calico shopping bag in to wash with some red fabric i was pre-washing – it’s now a fantastic shade of pink (similar to your fabric on the right). Thankfully it looks good like that, but it definitely reinforced the importance of pre-washing stuff.

  8. Wow! That is big recommendation. I do make some quilts that I do not plan washing… But your are right… what is going to happen to them in 20 years… (they are wall quilts). I will grab one of the colour catchers next time I am in Target.
    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Hmm. I’ll admit that I’m lazy and that I don’t often pre-wash. But here’s the thing – your experiments seem to me to demonstrate that prewashing doesn’t work all that well. Since the red dyes are still running, even on your prewashed and treated fabrics, what exactly was the point of the prewashing?

  10. In response to Ros’s question, the point of prewashing is to do three things: 1) preshrink the fabric as much as it’s going to BEFORE you begin to piece it, 2) remove all of the chemical finishing agents and 3) remove as much of the extra dyes as possible. Those Color Catchers were from the 2nd washes. Imagine what the first ones looked like. Prewashing absolutely works but it’s not always enough. But I’ve personally seen three quilts in the past year that were ruined from not prewashing. Even though the Color Catchers showed running, neither quilt showed any damage. That is the huge difference.

  11. as a weaver and a dyer, i really appreciate this article. i have always relied on synthrapol to rinse out the extra dye and also for pre-washing and scouring. red is the most fugitive color, blue being second. this is why we have so many pink sox! regardless, those color catchers sound amazing! i can’t believe i hadn’t heard about that before. this article proves that preparation can be as important as the process! thank you.

  12. A year ago my mom came to visit for a few days to help me organize my fabric stash. We sorted by color and washed all of it, a separate load of colors at a time. We didn’t iron the fabrics, just folded them and stored in my fabric drawers. Now, when I go to the stash to make a quilt I don’t have to wait until fabric is washed to start cutting and piecing. New fabrics don’t go into the fabric drawers until they’ve been washed.

    As for the people who like the stiffness of new fabrics when sewing, I say to iron and spray Mary Ellen’s Best Press on it. (I like the unscented one the best!) I find that it adds just enough stiffness. Then you can wash the quilt after it’s made to return the fabrics to nice and fluffy softness.

    Thanks for the Color Catcher recommendation. I’ll have to get some and try it out.

  13. Interesting article. I had an experience with the ink that was used to print paper piecing templates for a quilt I was making. As I sewed the blocks, the ink from the paper ran on the material and ruined it. Any suggestions for something like that.

      1. I had the paper printed at a local printer and that was the only machine big enough to handle the size I wanted so I don’t think they can do a thing about it. Actually I had enough fabric I redid the pieces at actual size and then just adjusted the size of the pattern. Now I am really leary about having anyone blow up the pieces for me.

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