To Wash or Not To Wash? That Is The Question

To Wash or Not To Wash? That Is The Question

The issue of washing fabric can cause huge angst, and has done so to me as well, so I thought I would talk about it here.

First of all, if a fabric is washable in the washing machine, I always shove it straight in with a little colour safe liquid on a 30 ̊C cycle to pre-shrink. Putting the fabric in a bag or old pillowcase helps keep the tangling of fibres at the cut ends to manageable proportions. Afterwards you can sew with confidence, knowing that the garment is not going to force you to go on a diet just to wear it.

I imagine most people who do a fair amount of dressmaking (or quilting for that matter) follow this routine, and there is no fear factor involved; cotton and most manmade fabrics behave themselves as they swish and swash about in your machine. However, we then come to high quality and high value. Many sites declare ‘Dry Clean only’ for such fabrics. Dare we challenge that?

Well, yes, but with the use of common sense. If you are making a coat, or a double-sided throw that will weigh a ton when sodden, and take aeons to dry flat (not to mention flooding the floor beneath it) then accept dry cleaning as the method of keeping it clean. Likewise, dry clean if you are making a tailored jacket with free interlinings, batting or buckram. I would never wash a gentleman’s suit and regard structured ladieswear in the same light.

I would not wash a heavy Chinese embroidered silk, but I do wash thin silk satins and crepe de chines, ALWAYS by hand, in very cool water and with a liquid designed for silks. Do dry flat, and I suggest keeping an old bath sheet to roll up the material for a first squeeze to rid it of excess water after a good rinse.

Woollen fabric is not as delicate in some ways, but the weave is very important. If there is plenty of room between the fibres there is plenty of room for shrinking, but this just means I might just err on the side of a bit extra when ordering the fabric, as a precaution, and always hand wash in suitable liquids. I have certainly pre-washed chunky open weave fabrics, such as the lovely Icicle Blue Chunky Herringbone, and there were no mishaps. Below is a photograph of two pieces of the fabric. The one on the right I am keeping to make a double sided throw (with Glacier Blue Mohair, on the reverse - one of my first Fabworks Online purchases), and it will not be washed, for the weight issue above. The left hand one I want to make up into a ‘50s loose jacket with wide sleeves.

Being a pale fabric, I thought it best I washed it so that if ever there is the ‘coffee disaster’ or some lorry decides that splashing pedestrians with a dirty puddle is the game of the day, I can clean my jacket.

I washed it in a good sized sink, and the 2m was not too big to handle. I have a dryer that is a simple frame on legs with lines strung along it, and it actually makes a good flat drying area for fabrics that cannot be hung over a line! It did take two days to dry, and, ahem, I have the most mopped kitchen floor in the shire! As you can see, the washing has not ruined the fabric, and the only differences are that it is a little fluffier and more ‘relaxed’ in handle. I find this perfectly acceptable for the garment I am making.

Fig 1.

I have also washed wool skirt fabrics, such as the Hainsworth Purple Passion which you can also see in the picture, (ready for a skirt), and the shrinkage was insignificant. However, you do seem to lose a little ‘finish’, that slight sheen of a new fabric. When well pressed you would only notice any change if you compared a ‘before and after’ very carefully. It certainly has not ruined the look of the twill, and to be honest I find skirts are items that really do need a clean more often, being exposed to mishaps and general wear. I can be confident the purple skirt will keep colour and size, and I am happy with having washed the material.

These are my own thoughts, not absolute guidelines, and you need to think about the particular fabric you are using, even try a small piece on its own first. I tend to order samples before committing to two or three metres, therefore like to wash my samples shortly after their arrival. However, I do believe more of us should take the plunge (yes, bad pun) and cease to fear dealing with natural fibres. After all, we used those long before we even had cottons in Europe, and they got wet, either when being worn, or in the very occasional wash.

As an historical note, it was the shifts, shirts and petticoats that were washed, the linens and later cambrics and cottons, not really the outer woollen clothes, which were well brushed after each wearing. We might consider more use of the clothes brush on our woollen skirts and jackets today on a regular basis. Also, ladies’ skirts in the nineteenth century had sacrificial ‘brushing hems’ to attract the dust and dirt, and these could be unstitched easily and washed or replaced. I am glad we wear ours shorter!

Elizabeth Binns

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