Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Preshrinking Fabrics: Methods and Mishaps!

[vintage laundry ad, courtesy of drewzel on Flickr. Click to see it large!]

There are some sewing topics that are much scarier than others, and I would say that preshrinking fabric has a pretty high fear factor. Many sewists (including me!) fret about this issue. And why wouldn't we? Inadequate pre-treating of a fabric can lead to mishaps down the road that make garments unwearable due to shrinkage or fabric damage. But I also think we probably give this topic more worry than it's due. I recently received two e-mails in a row on this topic, so I thought that was a sign I should do a post on the matter.

I don't claim to be an expert, but I have done my research and I can tell you what I do. And then I hope you'll share your tips, too!

For these purposes, I've put fabric into three categories.

1. Washable fabrics, like cotton. This one is easy! Just throw the fabric in the wash as you would the finished garment.
  • I serge the ends of the length of fabric so they don't ravel in the wash, but you can also zigzag or pink them.
  • Be cautious of prints that may run, and wash them in cold water.
  • More fabrics are machine washable than you may think. For instance, I always wash silk habutai and rayon Ambiance lining. I make slips out of these fabrics, and just throw them in the washing machine.
2. Wool fabrics. Wool is tricky because it can shrink quite a bit, especially wool crepe.
  • A sure-fire way to preshrink wool is to take it to your drycleaners and have them steam press it. Make sure that you specify NO CREASES. Obviously, the downside of this is the cost. In my opinion, it's worth it for large pieces of fabric. I had 5 yards of wool/cashmere flannel for my coat steam pressed, and it came to $15.
  • For smaller pieces of wool that you'd like to treat on your own, I recommend Carolyn's method of preshrinking. Check out her invaluable post here!
  • Wool crepe shrinks like the dickens, so that's the one fabric I'm especially careful with. With other wool weaves, you'll probably be fine just steam pressing it on your own. Use a silk organza press cloth, a spray bottle of water, and lots of steam.
  • Be careful about submerging wool fabric into water! I did this once and it was a disaster. My pattern pieces were already cut out, and I accidentally left a mark on one with a too-hot iron. In a not-so-genius move, I tried to hand wash the piece in hot water. Oy! The whole thing shrunk up and took on a felted quality.
  • A question: has anyone tried Eucalan wool wash? I've heard that it's an option for wool fabrics. Please share your experience if you have!
3. Other Fabrics that Aren't Machine-Washable. This means silks, blends, etc. These don't have to be pre-treated because the methods that you'll use to clean them (drycleaning or handwashing) won't cause shrinkage.
  • Just because something isn't machine washable doesn't mean you have to dry clean it. I actually hand wash a lot of my blouses and dresses using a gentle detergent or even baby shampoo. Test this on a swatch of fabric first, as immersing fabric in water may change the hand of it.
  • Don't wash or dryclean too often. I'll be honest: I don't actually dryclean my dresses and such very often. I wear deodorant and let them air out between uses. That's sufficient for me!
I hope this helps answer some of your questions! Now please share thoughts and methods of your own!

P.S. Only slightly on-topic: have you ever seen this Sarah Haskins video about laundry? It's a must-watch. "Laundry: it's the woman's drug of choice."


  1. I pre-treat nearly all my wool the same way: I machine wash it in the wool cycle using Eucalan or something like Woolite; then I leave it to air-dry (I have a wonderful space to hang yardage over my banister) until it's nearly dry, then I iron it to get out the creases, and leave it to dry completely. I've never had it do anything terrible. I also machine-wash and air dry all my silk yardage similarly. I can honestly say I've never had a problem with this.

    I tend to use Eucalan more for hand knits and nappy (diaper) covers; it leaves a bit of lanolin in to condition the wool and so it is really brilliant for making things soft. And it smells great.

  2. I also use Eucalan for wool, especially wool knit yardage, and for silks. Any protein-based fiber, really. I also use the London shrink method on wool yardage (wrap the wool in a very damp bedsheet, let sit overnight, steam press).

    I do prewash silks of all kinds, because I toss those blouses etc in the washing machine on delicate with a mild detergent (Dreft). That way, I don't have to worry about water spotting on the garment either.

    Eucalan is great on RTW and handknit sweaters etc, too. I love that you don't have to rinse it out. A man's large wool sweater is darned heavy when soaking wet.

  3. I use handknit wool diaper covers and wash them in Eucalan. I also use it to soak other handknits as needed. It smells terrific, doesn't need rinsing (seriously!), and has a tiny bit of lanolin in it which helps the wool fabric keep the nice properties of wool without getting sticky.

  4. I have (and use) woolite, but have never heard of this Eucalan before -are they interchangeable?

    I'm also curious about the types of wool fabrics ejvc and BetsyV are referring to. Do you just mean knitted wool (and does this include jersey?)? Or do you also mean woven wool yargages?

    For myself, I toss all cellulose fabrics (including viscose/rayon and bamboo) in the washing machine on warm and even in the dryer. I also do this for silks with no sizing or other treatments (like dupioni has), and wool jerseys. I take the approach of pre-treating to a degree slightly rougher than I will actually use to care for the garment - just so I'm sure to be covered.

    I advise against drycleaning whenever possible. In a textile conservation course I took I learned about the drycleaning process. It's very harsh, very hot, and it's the luck of the draw whether your garment will be put into clean solution or dirty. If you have to dry clean something, I would recommend taking it to a place that specializes in things like wedding dress preservation, and/or caring for leather or other fine fabrics.

  5. I don't use eucalan for wool, but I use shampoo. It works just fine, after all...wool is just hair!

  6. I got this tip from
    Off The Cuff ~Sewing Style~
    I've used this methond twice and it worked wonderfully and is super easy.

    Serge or zig-zag the raw cut edges of the fabric.
    Next, wet some clean thick towels with HOT water until they are very wet but not quite dripping.
    Now toss the hot wet towels and the fabric into your clothes dryer.

    Set the dryer on HIGH heat, and tumble the fabric and hot wet towels for 40 minutes.
    Take the yardage out of the dryer and lay it flat until it is cool.

  7. Your tips come in handy just now! I bought wool flannel to make a dress with just two days ago and was already fretting about how to pre-treat it. Normally I throw all my wool in the washing machine at a cold or low-heat wool program with some sort of wool detergent. But I somehow am unsure if I should do the same with many methods of preshrinking....what will I do? Probably just steam iron the hell out of it...

  8. Like Michelle I also recommend using shampoo for your wool items. I've had many knitters tell me to NEVER use Woolite as it is very harsh. I've never used Eucalan but I've heard of it and I think I will give it a try. I also don't dryclean my garments very often and I always let my wool coats, dresses and pants air out for at least 24 hours after I wear them. Now that it's cold and dry out I will often hang items outside and they end up smelling so nice and fresh!

    If I have a wool garment that's a bit itchy I'll give it a soak in the sink with some hair conditioner and that softens it up very nicely.

  9. Oh, you are such a dear to write this post! I was just about to ask folks on Sew Retro about their experiences with preparing wool fabrics, and you saved me the trouble! Not knowing some of this info is part of what has kept me from diving into sewing on something other than cotton.

    One thing I've done as part of my learning process is buy clothes at the Salvation Army that are in the fabrics I'm too cheap to buy in yardage, and experiment with them, practicing sewing and alteration techniques. If I mess them up, at least I haven't spent a ton on fabric, I've learned something, and I might have a wearable garment at the end! ;-) It only just occurred to me after reading this post that I could practice laundry and stain removal techniques on things from the S.A. as well!

    Thanks for all the info and the good ideas!

  10. Thank you for compiling and presenting your tips about prewashing fabrics! One thing dislike about prewashing my cottons is that the edges ravel and tangle. I hadn't thought about serging the edges, but will do that from now on.

    I posted a link to your tips on Craft Gossip Sewing:


  11. Great post, Gertie! Since I always preshrink my fabrics. The last thing I want is for something to shrink after I've spent time making it. As I sew almost exclusively in cotton (just love it!), in the wash & dryer it goes as soon as it arrives on my doorstep. Then it's ready to use anytime.

  12. First ~ thanks for sending people to the wool crepe post. I love wool crepe, sew with it alot and this method has never failed me.

    Second ~ I am the same with my dryclean only clothing. I generally dryclean most pieces just once a season. It's the reason why I own 5 pairs of black wool crepe pants! *LOL*

    Finally, I have Eucalan and use it from time to time...generally on a wool that I am going to gently wash in the washing machine. Shannon from Hungry Zombie Couture did a great post on washing wools and I took her advice and it worked.

    But the most important thing from your post is that you MUST pretreat or you will end up shrinking a garment that you've put alot of hard work into! Great post!

  13. I am TERRIBLE. I never prewash anything. I pretty much only ever sew with quilting cottons, and I only ever hand wash things that I've handmade. That's my justification, but I'm sure this will catch up with me one of these days.

  14. aaaaand thanks for the great post! :)

  15. As a knitter and a spinner, I would like to share my knowledge about wool.

    Felting occurs as a combination of three things: heat, soap, and agitation. The simplest thing to do to not felt your wool is to avoid these things! Wash your wool in cold water with minimal agitation. Hand washing or soaking is especially good for this. With a top loading washing machine, you can fill the washer, shut it off while you let it soak, and just spin the water out.

    You *can* use hot water if needed -- dyers have to with wool -- you just have to avoid sudden changes in temperature, and combining it with agitation and soap.

    I highly recommend Eucalon, Soak, or Brown Sheep Wool Wash. While they will clean your clothes, they aren't exactly soap, and they don't promote felting. They also treat the wool gently. With Eucalon or Soak, you don't have to rinse it out. What Michelle says is true -- wool is hair -- and felting wool is the exact same physical process as making dreadlocks. Still, just like how people of African descent and people of European descent need to use different products to get the best results, using a wool wash will get better results. Also a good wool wash will be formulated to account for the fact that the wool has been shorn from the sheep and therefor no longer gets the lanolin from the sheep's skin to soften it up. You can use conditioner or a little shot of white vinegar to soften it up. I DO NOT recommend Woolite, because it has been reformulated to care for synthetic delicates, not wool.

    Other animal fibers such as alpaca and angora don't felt much, while mohar can do it easily. Caring for them the same way as wool should work fine.

    Additionally, if you are concerned about color bleeding, you can wash any natural fiber, including wool, in Synthropol, which should keep the excess dye particles in solution rather than letting them settle on other parts of the fabric. A post on Craft Nectar recommended using Shout Color Catchers. I don't know exactly how these work.

  16. I use Shannon's Eucalan method and I've used Carolyn's wet cloth and steam method on coating in particular. Pam Enry posted a method for preshrinking wool in the dryer with two large wet towels. Haven't done this one yet, but it sounds good and easy. I pretreated wool for pants and have been washing and hanging them. Much better than harsh chemicals. I do get my coats cleaned, but not very often.
    I will add that certain fabrics should be prewashed several times because of residual shrinkage. Denim being one and rayon lycra knits being another. I test wash anything I'm not sure of with a 4" square and check the size after washing and drying.

  17. Great tips, everyone! Keep 'em coming. I looked up Shannon's post that a couple of you mentioned and here's the link:

  18. I love all the tips. I saw a youtube by a Emily Geddes, a sweater designer, on how to wash woolen items: use organic shampoo and conditioner and roll up sweater in heavy towels to get the water out and dry flat on towel.

    But, I have a problem that maybe you or a commenter can advise: I washed a lined wool skirt, and, yes, the wool shrank a wee bit and the lining did not. Is there something I can do to get back a bit of the length of the skirt?????

  19. Oh my god! I forgot about Target Women! Thanks for the tips, and the little add-on. :)

  20. When I'm washing cotton fabric, I never seem to have even a decent sized small load of one color, all lights, all darks, etc. I use the Shout Color Catcher sheets, which act like little dye magnets. I've yet to have a color bleeding accident and I've gone so far as to wash a magenta stripe fabric with a white print (yikes!).

  21. Since I'm too cheap to wash all my fabric, I cut 6X6 squares and throw them my regular wash and dryer. If they come out unchanged, no problem. If they shrink, then I'll wash the whole piece.

    for wool, I roll my fabric in a damp towel and leave it overnight. Then the next day I'll hang the fabric over the shower rod to dry.


  22. I solve the pre-shrinking issue by following a few rules. I only buy cheap fabric (so if it shrinks I'm not out a lot of money). I only do a cold water wash to eliminate shrinkage from hot water. And I line dry just about everything I make to avoid shrinking in the drier. Wimpy, I know and not correct housemaking strategy. But it's definately prevented a lot of disaster. I love Sewjourner's tip to launder just a big swatch as a test run- why didn't I think of that!!

  23. Great Post! I do need to point out however that fabrics can and do shrink with drycleaning. It is rare but it does happen. Just something to remember. It is best to always pretreat your fabric using the manner in which you intend to care for the garment. You don't want to hand wash a fabric and then decide to dry clean the garment - it could have disasterous results.

    Another great option for washing silks and other delicate fabrics is to use dish washing soap. It's designed to cut grease and works wonders on stains. I prefer one that is fragrance free and free of dyes. Whatever you choose to use, check the ingredient list for enzymes which break down protein based fibers. Ever wonder how companies like Gap and J Crew get those pants so soft? Yep, they use enzymes to break the fibers down during wash cycles. Check the label for enzymes.

    Cheers and happy sewing!

  24. I wash and dry everything, but then, I stay away from wool because it makes my skin itch really badly.

    I'm a fan of hand washing with liquid castile soap. No scary chemicals and it leaves cashmere feeling even more soft and luxurious.

  25. Interesting to hear about how to pre-treat wool. In my great innocence, I never even knew about such things! Now I know. I've also always hand-washed my silks with Woolite, and had never heard of Eucalan. Rather alarmed to hear that Woolite is considered harsh. There don't seem to be any stores that sell Eucalan in London though, so will have to try ordering it online.

    And what about rayon shrinkage? I used a prewashed vintage rayon crepe (to get rid of that lovely 'vintage' smell) which went on to lose two sizes the next time I washed it (with cold water, like I'd read). I tried to iron it back into shape, but it has quite a complicated neckline which is really hard to iron, and it's only partly worked (i.e. it's still a good size too small and too short). Not all rayons seem to do that, but any tips for those that do?

  26. Thank you very much for this post!

    Is there a set proportion or inches per yard extra that people buy of wool crepe to allow for shrinkage?


  27. This was a really good post. Great tips from everyone. I have one for washing yardage. I found this tip in a quilting magazine and have used it every since: when washing yardage, accordion fold the fabric along the selvage. use safety pins to pin the folds together. wash and dry fabric. This method prevent your fabric from getting tangle and twisted and reduces some of the wrinkles.

  28. Hilary asked:
    Is there a set proportion or inches per yard extra that people buy of wool crepe to allow for shrinkage?

    Gertie if you don't mind, I have an answer...ummm, since I buy fabric in general lots - 5 yards for a suit, 3 yards for a dress, 1.5 yards for a skirt, I've got built in extra for shrinkage, design changes, etc.

    I'm not a proponent of purchasing the amount of fabric listed on the pattern envelope because you never know when inspiration will strike and you will want do something different...but that's me! :)

  29. Kathi G. is referencing Pamela Erny's blog site which is awesome; I've used this method for my wool.

    But. I do wash and dry wool sometimes in the REGULAR cycle and the dryer to boot: I did so for the wool flannel in kids' winter coats this year. Sometimes pre-treating changes the hand of the garment slightly, but that's fine with me.

    I sew for a family of four; too many dry-clean only items that got washed anyway - and ruined, because they weren't pre-treated for this kind of thing. So I tend to avoid any kind of dry-clean only scenario.

    I also washed and dried my silks; a light dupioni for a dress lining I'm making myself, and the silk twills used in the lining in the coats above. Everything turned out fine.

  30. I am scared to use wool.... I want to make a wool skirt so bad though.... I am afraid it will shrink to nothing though... I mostly use cotton and havent had a problem... thank god. except when I was lazy threw everthing in the wash and they bled...

  31. "Laundry. Once you can't stop. It just feels so GOOD. And your first time is free."! I love it!
    Now if I could just figure out how to use my Norwegian washer and dryer, this would all be so easy!

  32. I soak all my wools in cold water with a bit of eucalan or shampoo, then spin the water out, and air dry. The softer, more delicate wools I dry flat between clean towels, the rest I hang to dry. If I want to thicken the fabric up a bit, I use the dryer with frequent checking till it has the hand I want. I always steam press the wools before cutting.

    I machine wash all lightweight silk twill and charmeuse, and air dry them (I used to machine dry them, but now I only do that if I want that "slightly scuffed and sandwashed" look).

    I laundered a fine silk tweed once but have learned that it's a real no-no, the colours ran and it turned muddy.

    I've also had a silk tweed get a few terrible water spots during steam pressing, and as a result have gone off silk tweeds completely. Why bother sewing something that's so likely to suffer permanent damage at the drop of a hat when you could instead use all these gorgeous and indestructible wool blends out there?

  33. I'm an avid knitter, and I can tell you that the best approach for woolens washed at home is tepid water (like your own skin temperature, but never hot) and shampoo. Wool is hair and when subjected to harsh detergents, can end up felted, worn out early, faded, and old looking. The fibers are actually degraded like one's hair after too many chemical treatments. Rule of thumb: if you wouldn't put it on your own skin or hair, don't put it on your woolen garments.

  34. Oh but Brrrandi. If you only knew what kind of things I was WILLING to put in my hair!, ;-)

    Kelly, who's recently gone from green to auburn and is now considering candy-apple red.

  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

  36. Eucalan and Soak are both very good products. I like the Soak scents better, but that's me. I use Soak on almost every delicate garment I have -- lingerie, rayon jerseys, silk, wool, etc. It's much gentler and cheaper than washing things in the machine, and I LOVE that I don't have to rinse it out.

  37. What a great blog. I'm a new reader, a Vintage shop owner and a seamstress, altho I like your phrase sewist. I'd just like to add to the care of non-washables; I'd highly recommend investing in a good quality stand up steamer, they are a life saver! I've even seen them remove salt stains on silk satin dresses.

  38. I have found that lots of the trouble I have with washing clothes comes from the dryer. So I no longer use my dryer I air dry everything on a simple clothes drying rack. It is a great option for keeping my clothes like new and like Gertie I often just hang up my things on the rack and let them air out if they are not soiled.

  39. Pardon me if I repeat someone else's comment.
    I owned (and sheared, spun and cared for ) sheep for many years.
    Wool is really an easy to care for fiber if you remember a few things:
    Do not excessively agitate it in soapy water. Do not use super hot water.
    That's it.
    If you always remember this you can wash anything from fabric yardage to your finest and most expensive cashmere sweater.
    Basically to wash your cashmere (or other wools, angoras, bunny hair etc) do this:
    Fill a tub or basin (or other larger roomier than your item container) with luke warm water. Swish in your soap of choice (I use a nice smelling body wash) and then gently push your item into the water. You can move it around a bit, shifting it occasionally to get it all clean, bit but don't get crazy with it and stir it like a soup pot :-D
    Allow your items to soak for at least an hour (occasionally I forget and mine sit overnight) then dump out your dirty water. Gently (key word) squeeze out the excess water. Then run fresh luke warm water into your container again. Put your item back in and let the rest of the shampoo soak out. If you got crazy with the soap...repeat.
    Then, drain water, gently squeeze and lay item into a towel. Roll it up, push on it to help remove water from item ( I kind of pound just a bit on the rolled towel especially on large bulky sweaters) Then lay out to dry. Voila. Clean sweater, no nasty dry cleaner and no shrinking. Works on skirts too as long as that is how you pre treat your fabric and wash it the same way always after making the skirt.
    Will this work with a suit? I am not sure, besides you would still have to steam the fabric because creases need to be set. The interfacing would be my concern on shrinking. However...many years ago people washed wool suits and re pressed them just fine without dry cleaners so I am assuming it can be done.

  40. I pre-wash all fabrics that I use. More durable in machine and delicate materials I only quickly soak in cool water without detergent. Not only because they might shrink, but because they usually have some finishing chemicals in them that might change the feel of the fabric.
    I have done machine wash for wool crepe and some qualities take it pretty well. Behaviour in the wash depends of the softness of the yarn used on the fabric. The softer the yarn, more likely it is to felt.

    Crepe is actually weave that always shrinks abit in wash, no matter what material it is but it's possible to get it back into original measurements by ironing. You just have to remember that wool never ever should be washed warmer than 30 degrees Celcius.

  41. Knitters say to wash wool or other similar textiles (angora, alpaca etc) in COLD water with mild shampoo such as baby shampoo. You can also use conditioner on it as you would your hair. No heat. Silk is similar, it doesn't like heat, but you can hand wash in cold or luke warm and iron on low with a pillowcase on top of it (to protect if from the iron). I have noticed thought that some silks will take on a matte appearance (like a sandwashed silk) - so it depends on how you want it to look. Try washing a small piece and testing it. I personally avoid dry cleaning because of the chemicals.

  42. Thank you for this valuable tidbit of info: "•Be cautious of prints that may run, and wash them in cold water." I have searched and searched for what temperature of water to use and that hit the nail on the head. I have a first-time throw blanket project for a sewing group tomorrow, and the clerk at the fabric store advised me to pre-wash before sewing. It didn't dawn on me to ask what temp to wash at! Thank you for your blog, I think I shall devour each article!

  43. A combination of knowing (thanks to working with environmental scientists) exactly how horrible perc (the nastiest of the dry cleaning chemicals is);

    bad experiences with clothing coming back smelly, with animal hairs (and I had no pets) and lint that wasn't there when I took them in and over pressed and shiny from the dry cleaners; and

    that of the 10 dry cleaners I called to steam my fabrics only 2 agreed and when I took the fabric to the closest one then refused,

    I refuse to dry clean anything.

    People cared for tailored wool suits with far less advanced materials before dry cleaning. So I am with everyone who posted that wool can be cared for without it. Pandleton Mills says some of their worsted can be machine washed.

    And the CO2 technology? Where? I am still waiting for this to become viable 8 years after it was announced to the public in my area.

  44. This comment has been removed by the author.

  45. Hi, I am about ready to pre-wash/shrink my first fabrics.. ever.. and I dont own a serger or my own washer/dryer.. so it would be a very expensive trip to the laundromats. I have 2 contrasting fabrics for a dress, one is a bright pink with black polka dot with a white and flower print fabric for skirt of the dress. these are 100% cotton. I then have 2 other random fabrics for other projects, a black with day of the dead skulls (cotton) and a blue with black polka dot (jersey) ... then I have 2 fleece fabrics light pink and lilac which will wash well together but I am concerned about what will haven to the rest... and should I put them in together? help please!


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

© Gertie's Blog For Better Sewing. Powered by Cake