Before You Sew: Prepare Your Fabric

By | October 3, 2016

You’ve found the perfect fabric, you’ve acquired the yardage and now you’re going to lay out your pattern and start cutting, right?

Wait! Stop! Arretez-la!

Before you cut your fabric – before you even pin/stick your pattern on to it – you have to prepare your fabric by washing it or sending it to the dry-cleaner. Why? There are a variety of reasons:

  • Ensure colorfastness. Ever turned your socks blue when you washed them with a new pair of jeans? You really don’t want something like that to happen when washing your hand-made costume. Even if the label says “colorfast”, don’t believe it.
  • Getting the shrink out. Again, most fabrics sold via regular retail will gleefully announce that they have been pre-shrunk, but you should never take that for granted, especially when it comes to natural fibers, such as cotton and wool.
  • Removing any lingering chemical ick. This one is especially true for upholstery fabrics, which can be treated with a myriad of compounds to ensure a tough / fire resistant / long-lasting fabric. Again, it shouldn’t be an issue by the time  you’re buying the fabric, but why risk it? Who wants to wear something smelly / inadvertently itchy?

So, how do you prepare your fabric? If you were a forward-thinking costumer, you will have taken a picture of the bolt-end of the fabric which includes care directions. Online retailers usually include some description of how to clean their wares – email them if they didn’t. Follow those directions (such as ‘machine wash warm, tumble dry low’) at least once – some folks like to wash certain fabrics, such as pure cotton, a couple of times – and once your fabric is dry, then you can start cutting it.

If you’re lacking any information from your retail source, then you’re going to have to put on your thinking cap. Perform a burn test to verify the likely composition of your fabric.  Search this site, and the web in general, for information on how to care for the fibers identified in the burn test. When all else fails, consider hand-washing the fabric in cold water.

One huge exception to the wash it in cold water rule: upholstery fabric. If you picked up something from the upholstery section (which will happen, sooner or later) then take your yardage to a dry-cleaner and pay them to run it through. You might get a funny look from the folks behind the counter – I certainly have – but you can minimize the chance of being misunderstood by going to a dry-cleaner in your local theater district. They’ve seen it all and the odds are good they’ll “speak costume” more fluently than your average suburban dry cleaners. It is very possible that water – even plain, non-soapy water – could ruin your upholstery fabric, so don’t risk it. Me? I try to avoid buying dry-clean only fabrics whenever possible. They’re such a bother.

Another time to go to the dry-cleaner is when you’ve got a length of pure wool to cut. Why? To take advantage of their lovely, oversized steam-presses. Steam pressing is a great way to prepare a length of wool for cutting and getting the last of the shrink out without the risk of over-shrinking it. Sure, you could press it at home with an iron on the “wool” and “mega steamy” settings but it’s hot, hard work. I did it once and it was exhausting. It didn’t help that my multi-colored cats wanted to get involved, thus getting their fur all over my nice, clean fabric – gah! Since then, I’ve shelled out the dosh (and tolerated the odd looks) to have the chore done by someone else.

There have been times when I’ve been in a rush and skipped prepping my fabric, and I’ve paid for it. Costumes that bled in the wash, seams that shrank unevenly (cotton jacket, polyester lining), you name it. Learn from my folly!

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