Let’s Talk About Fabric… Part 1 – All Fabrics

I haven’t written a lot about fabric, even though it’s one of the most important decisions we make about our needlework. What size, what fiber content, what weave…  they’re all important. I guess I’ve always thought that it was a very individual choice – But that choice can be made more easily when you know a little about the different options available for you.

Today I’m going to talk about things that are common to all ground fabrics, at least in the US right now. In many cases, this also applies to sewing fabric!

Fabrics are Imported

Most fabrics today are imported – whether they come from China, Russia, Belgium, Ireland, or wherever, they come in large shipping containers, usually from overseas. What does this mean for the stitcher? Two things:

First, they’ve been fumigated. This means that pesticides have been pumped through that cargo container to kill any of the little invasive bugs that hop ship with things that come over seas. This kills the moths, the spiders, the biting bugs… but it leaves a chemical residue on the fabric.

Second, that residue can be dangerous. Not just unpleasant, but dangerous. Sometimes it contains formaldehyde. Sometimes it contains other chemicals. But it will eat away at your beautiful project and destroy it sooner than you probably want it to. Some people are allergic to the chemicals, and working with these fabrics unwashed can cause hives, stuffy noses, or even worse depending on the allergy.

Fabrics are Sized

This doesn’t mean that they have measurements, although of course they have those, too! It means that some form of starch (these days usually not a natural one) has been applied to the fabric to make it stiffer: to make it hold it’s shape better. This is why some quilting patterns say “cut and sew before washing.” It’s just easier to keep fabric on grain for quilting while the sizing is still in it.

Fabrics Should Be Washed

Whether you wash them before or after stitching is always a question. But they SHOULD be washed. You need to remove the pesticides and starches so they don’t attract dirt on heirloom projects. If the fabric is hand-dyed, you can wash it to get any extra dye out so it doesn’t stain your thread (most dyers do their best to get it to “rinse clear” but there’s always the possibility that it hasn’t).

Here’s a Controversial Idea:

I hold that all fabrics should be washed in at least mild soap and water. Not dry cleaned. Because you know what? Dry cleaning is treating that precious fabric with yet another chemical to dissolve dirt and other chemicals! If you’re using beads and sequins on your embroidery and dry clean it after stitching them on, the dry cleaning chemicals can leech all the color out of those beautiful additions.

Personally, I like soaking my embroidery fabrics in a gentle wash like a very small amount of Orvus® (which is pure sodium laurel sulfide). (It’s available from Needlework and quilting stores as ” If I’m going to be sewing clothing or quilts from them, I run them through my washing machine on the setting I’ll be washing with. Sometimes twice. If they can’t hold up to that kind of “abuse,” frankly, I don’t want to wear them. Which leads me to:

Fabrics are NOT Pre-Shrunk

Just what the heading says. So if you’re going to sew something with them, wash them first! otherwise that dress that you so carefully fitted to your form suddenly doesn’t fit any more.

If you’re quilting you can wash fabrics before or after you make your quilt. If you wash them before, you may have a harder time cutting on the straight of grain. But the quilting will stay crisp and even because the patchwork won’t shrink at different rates… If you sew first and wash after, you get a lovely old puckered, vintage look. Your choice.

No matter what you are making, or how you plan on treating your fabrics, knowing even this little bit about their origins and what they’ve gone through before they get to the fabric store and finally to you, you can make better decisions about how to treat them before or after you put so much effort into your stitching.

Next post on the subject will be fabrics for counted thread embroidery.

If you liked this post, you may like the series, “Let’s talk about Needles”.



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4 Responses to Let’s Talk About Fabric… Part 1 – All Fabrics

  1. I always pre-wash my embroidery fabric (normally linen) before using it. Pre-washing saves little headaches later on, too, especially if you’re embroidering something that must needs be washed later – for example, table linens and the like. Better to wash it ahead of time and get most of the shrink out of it, than to be surprised that the finished linen didn’t quite end up the size you expected, or worse yet, that shrinkage caused your stitchery to pucker. And, in those cases where the piece won’t be washed later (i.e. goldwork, silk embroidery), best to get the sizing and additives out before starting!

    Nice article!!


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