How to Pre Wash Fabric Without Fraying

The disappointment of having your favorite clothing item shrink or fray after the first wash is one which we can all relate to. When sewing clothes for yourself or others, there are ways to prevent such disasters from occurring.

Not only will pre wash fabric guarantee little to no shrinkage but it can also reduce wrinkles in the fabric and soften it as well. Knowing how to properly pre wash fabric is key.

As a rule of thumb, pre-wash fabric if it’s from natural fibers such as silk, cotton, wool, hemp or linen. All of these fabrics tend to shrink after washing and/or heat from the dryer. Cotton tends to shrink the most, which is why people lean towards purchasing pre-shrunk jeans.

What’s interesting though is that cotton isn’t actually shrinking upon its first wash; it’s really just going back to its original state.

Once cotton is immersed in water, the fibers end up relaxing and then returning to their prior pre-stretched and pulled size. Hence the importance of washing cotton before sewing with it.

Other fabrics that can shrink, especially when heat from a dryer hits them for an extended time, are: spandex, nylon, rayon and bamboo. If you are working with any of these types of fabrics, pre-washing is good practice.

Should you wash your fabric if it’s of synthetic fibers?

Not necessarily. These fabrics don’t absorb as much water as natural fibers do so their current state is not altered much during washing. Keep in mind though that even polyester can shrink some if washed in hot water and dried at high temperatures, but usually fabrics made of 100% polyester or vinyl don’t shrink if washed and dried in proper temperatures.

Let’s break it down by fabric. Knowing when to pre-wash before sewing, as well as how to wash and dry each type of fabric to prevent shrinkage, fraying and unraveling, will save you a few headaches.

Cotton

With cotton it’s a good idea to wash and dry it the same way it will be washed and dried after wearing the finished product. If the cotton jeans will be washed in cold water and dried on low heat, do that with the pre-sewn fabric.

Also keep in mind that there are different types of cotton. If you’re using a voile cotton, which is a soft, sheer cotton often used for curtains, or even a lawn cotton, a fine smooth cotton used for finer shirts, handwashing or using the gentle cycle of a washing machine is highly recommended.

A few minutes in the dryer to remove wrinkles then line-dried tends to give the best results and reduces the risk of shrinkage and fraying.

Other types of cotton fabrics needing to be pre-washed are medium weight cottons like broadcloth or quilted cotton. These sturdier cottons are fine in both the washer and dryer.

Just be sure to use the same temperature of water and heat when pre washing the fabric that will be used when washing the finished product.

When sewing fabric made of flannel, a soft medium weight cotton, pre-washing in hot water and using higher heat is recommended.

This is because flannel does tend to shrink a lot. If you pre wash it using hotter temperatures, you can be fairly sure that cooler water and lower heat won’t cause shrinkage later.

Finally, to close out talking about cotton pre-washing, knits have been known to shrink quite a bit as well. Therefore, use the same methods of pre-washing knits as suggested above for flannels. You may wish to avoid using the dryer on finished products except for maybe a few minutes to get out any wrinkles.

Laying knitted products out to dry is the safest route for avoiding any shrinkage or unraveling. The heat of the dryer can really affect the fibers.

Should you wash your fabric before sewing with it if it’s not cotton? Other than 100% polyester, yes, it’s a good habit to get into. Even though it’s an extra step, it can prevent headaches later on.

Fabric such as rayon, linen, silk, wool and hemp have a tendency to shrink if not washed before sewing. Here are some quick tips for washing these materials.

Rayon

Pre wash this fabric in warm water and then use medium heat to dry it, however, it’s a good idea not to use the dryer at all with the final product. The heat can still cause some additional shrinkage.

Linen

This fabric is actually easy to work with and will even get softer with laundering. You can pre wash this material in hot water and even dry it on high heat to prevent any shrinkage with the final product.

Silk

This is a more delicate fabric so it’s recommended you use a gentle soap like baby shampoo and wash this fabric in a sink prior to sewing with it. Other gentle soaps you could use are: Ivory Snow, Woolite or any Eco Friendly brands like, Earth Friendly, Ecover or Planet. Some say dry cleaning is fine with silk, but hang drying it is the safest bet. Obviously, silk needs a gentle touch.

Wool

Dry Cleaning this fabric is the #1 preference for pre washing and post washing. Other than that, you can safely hand wash it with baby shampoo and lay it flat to dry.

Hemp

Also a natural fiber that can shrink. You can pre wash it the same way you’ll wash and dry the final product. Cold water and low heat are the most common recommendations.

When sewing fabric made of non-natural fibers, as long as the final product is laundered in cold water then dried in low heat, no change in the product should occur. Only when the water temperature is hot or the heat is high will fibers work to shrink away from the heat.

Let’s get into a little more detail on preventing fraying or unraveling of fabrics. Serge or zigzag raw edges of the fabric to avoid any fraying occurring during the pre wash or dry. You want to use pinking shears for fabric, not the kind for paper. With the zig zag blades on these fabric shears the cuts go with and against the grain, preventing fraying.

If you do find yourself working with a kind of material that frays a lot, using your sewing machine sew along any cut edges or sides using a zig zag or even a straight stitch. Another option is overlocking with a serger. This will certainly prevent any fraying inside the sewn area.

Also be sure to backstitch at the beginning and end of stitching, then cut off any stray threads; this will prevent pulling and gathering from occurring in the wash.

Additional tips for preventing fraying and unraveling in the pre wash:

  • Cut a small triangle out of each corner of the fabric
  • Fold the fabric in half and using no-rust safety pins, pin the edges
  • Place the fabric in a lingerie bag or even a pillow case
  • Fill the washer then stop it; place the fabric in to soak and then run the spin cycle.

If even after taking all these precautionary steps the material does end up fraying, even in the gentle cycle of the washing machine, it’s best to simply hand wash with gentle detergent.

Gently squeeze out excess water when finished before beginning your drying process. Always be sure fabric is completely dry before beginning to sew with it.

Preparing fabric for pre-washing and going through the washing and drying process before even beginning to sew with it can be time-consuming, but sewing fabric without these steps can end up causing more problems for you in the long run.

Having to remake an entire product due to shrinkage or unraveling will add on more time to your work and create disappointment as well. Save yourself time and headaches and properly prepare your final product for its best look and longevity.