Ask Dana: prewashing fabrics and overwhelmed with projects?

It’s been a while since an Ask Dana post.  But I’ve been stockpiling your questions.  So here we go!

I bought some great flannels to make my daughter a chenille baby quilt. I dutifully machine washed them before starting. Now I’m reading blogs all over the place that say never pre-wash the fabrics and my heart is sinking.
Is this a total disaster or is there something I can do?
Thank you very much,

Don’t fret!  Your blanket is going to be fabulous and wonderful and far from disaster.  In fact, it’s typically best to pre-wash your fabrics before getting started with a project. But there are always exceptionsSo let’s talk about it….

• The reason for pre-washing fabrics is simple.  Many fibers, such as cotton, linen, and wool will shrink when washed.  So if you’re making something that may require washing down the road, it’s best to pre-wash the fabric before sewing so your finished product doesn’t shrink.  I’ve had this happen to me and it’s totally frustrating. So I’ve learned to not be such an antsy pants and now I pre-wash most fabrics right when I get home from the fabric store with a normal batch of other laundry.  This way the fabric will always be ready for me when I want to grab it and sew.
• Some fabrics should not be pre-washed.  Yes. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, which is why it’s good practice to check the fabric bolt for washing/care instructions.  Some silks and wools should not be washed; some fabrics should only be dry-cleaned; and some can be washed by not dried in a dryer.  Of course my book, Fabrics A to Z has info on that very subject, for every type of fabric!
• Some projects don’t require pre-washing.  I’m not really a “quilter” but I do know that part of the quilting charm is to wash your fabrics AFTER making the quilt.  Quilts are put together first by “piecing” the fabrics together, then they are “quilted” over the top with a decorative design.  Once this is done, washing and drying a quilt helps the fabrics shrink together a bit, giving it that good cozy aesthetic.  But there’s no right or wrong answer here. If you’re a person who likes to pre-wash fabrics before quilting, excellent!

I will say this though about the faux chenille baby blanket….what makes that blanket wonderful is all the washing.  The fabrics start to curl up and become softer and softer with time.  So if you’ve already washed your fabrics before sewing, then you’ve only gotten the ball rolling.  Have fun sewing!
How do you keep fabric edges from fraying excessively in the washing machine?

You mean, like this?

There are a few things you can do.

First, remember that fabrics will fray depending on how tightly they are woven.  Loosely woven fabrics like Linen and some cottons can fray a 1/2 inch or so (like the photo above).  But some cottons and polyesters with a tighter weave might only frizz out on the ends.  And knit fabrics won’t fray at all.

But if you’re worried about excessive fraying, try one of these methods before washing your fabric:
• Serge the raw edges of the fabric (you don’t need to serge the selvage edges since they won’t fray)
• Sew a zigzag stitch along the raw edges of the fabric
• Cut with raw edges with pinking shears (see photo below for before and after)
• Wash fabric in a pillowcase so it has less chance of churning around in the washing machine.


I love your “silky” burp cloths and have tried making a few myself, but I can’t find a silky fabric that doesn’t get weird spots on it when washed.  What fabric did you use? Does it require special washing?  I’m hoping to find something that won’t look to awful after being tossed in the wash with everything else, who wants to have to wash their burp cloths (cute as they may be) separately?!

Thanks so much!


Silky fabrics can be tricky yet it’s so darling to use for projects (like the ballet bag (hobo sack) and burp cloths below).  

All of the “silk” fabric that I use comes from standard shops like Joann, Hobby Lobby, etc.  It’s made of polyester or nylon so it can be washed in the washing machine. But as you mentioned….yes, I’ve had that very thing happen before—“water spots” on the fabric.  I haven’t noticed any rhyme or reason to it.  Some fabrics I’ve washed in the machine are fine; some have spots here or there.  The best answer is to test a small piece of fabric first by spraying it with water and ironing to see how it reacts.  Of course water spots don’t always show up everywhere on fabric, so that might not be a true representation.   So I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have a definitive answer.  How’s that?  But the good news is….if you’re making burp cloths, they only require a small rectangle of fabric.  So if water spots have shown up on your fabric, you should still have enough to cut a small burp cloth. And at the end of the day, poly silk is cheap. You can always buy more!

A little over a year ago I was given my first sewing machine and
stumbled into the world of homemade goodies and DIY.  However, I get so overwhelmed and lost at the immense amount of things out there that I feel I need to tackle!  Where should I start?
– Kaylee

Kaylee, I think you just summed up how many people feel about the amount of projects in blogland.  Everyday a new one pops up; everyday you feel like you want to (or should?) try it out.  Pinterest only complicates the matter by stockpiling your to-do list with endless projects and pretty pictures.

But here’s the reality….we’re not all doing all the projects we pin and dream about it.   There just isn’t enough time in the day for anyone.  So if you’re ready for a project but feel overwhelmed, start simple.  And start with something that actually sounds fun to you–not something that you feel you should do—or something that everyone is making so you should jump on the bandwagon.

Sewing and creating is about having fun.   And if your schedule is too packed to make something this month, no sweat!  You can make something when you have more time.  Of course once you start sewing, you may find it addicting and your creative fire will be fueled. Then you just can’t help but keep working on projects.

If you need a place to start, here are 4 very simple projects:

The simple skirt.  This is an excellent project for any beginner (or advanced sewer too). They’re fun, fast, and you might be able to make one in 15 minutes when you get the science of it down!
Sprinkle shirts These are easy to take along with you to the park.  If your only free time is when the kids run around then a portable project is great for everyone. They play; you have fun creative time.
Pillowcases.  Another sewing 101 project for anyone to enjoy.  Make pillowcases for your kids, for friends’ birthdays, for a charity.
No Sew Flowers These don’t even require a sewing machine!  Maybe your kids can get involved in the process too.

Lastly,  the best way to feel motivated is to hear good motivating stories. I love it when you guys email me about your sewing successes, and not because you’ve tried out my particular tutorial.  But because it’s really fun to see the excitement bursting out of you.   It’s cool to watch people discover new talents and creative thrills.

So here’s a little sewing story for the day:

Dana! I made 2 simple skirts last night and I cried for a good 10 minutes after I was all done!  You have no idea how much I yearn to sew and how much fear I have of even trying.

Last night, I waited until everyone went to bed and I worked from 11pm til 4am. Yes, it took me so long because I either stopped to read the manual on how to re-thread my machine, or run to the bathroom to cry and look in the mirror and tell myself I could do it….

But, I did it!  I am so proud!  Thank you.  My girls were so pleased that they wore their little skirts with no so straight stitching lines to school.

– Emma

If Emma can do it, so can you!
Have fun sewing, crafting, cooking, taking care of kids, driving a carpool, working full-time, being a grandma, or doing whatever your specialty is today!

  1. 1) CeLine

    For me the number one reason to prewash quilting fabrics is that they are coated in formaldehyde and when I iron patchwork I don’t want to inhe the cancerous chemical. I got suspicious when at Joann’s there are signs in the fabric section stating that there are chemicals known to cause cancer. So please prewash!

    • 2) Michelle

      Celine, unfortunately washing fabric (or clothes) doesnt remove the formaldehyde 🙁 there are so many chemicals in todays fabrics and clothes, it is very scary.
      The only way to be sure that you are getting something pure, is to buy organic fabrics. I no longer buy anything made of fabric unless I know for sure that it is certified organic. Best for our families and best for our environment. 🙂

      • 3) CeLine

        Man so not cool! Well thankfully different companies are coming out with cuter andcuter organic fabrics!

  2. 4) Leslie

    I am one of the non pre-washers out there. I do quilt and make garments and I want to be able to use my fabrics when I want them, not have to wash, dry, and iron every one! Good for you, Emma, for sticking with it! I was just like you a couple years ago! Every one starts somewhere!!

  3. 5) Christina Poynter

    Yay, Emma! I think I need to go sew something, myself…

  4. Emma’s story at the end actually brought me to tears–how awesome that she stuck it out like that! I love that even though she cried when she was frustrated, there were happy tears at the end. Sewing is like that–just when you think you’ll never finish, sometimes it’s as though the tunnel opens at the last possible minute and it all becomes clear. Thanks for sharing that little glimpse into her life with us!

  5. 7) Laura

    I have advice for Kaylee. I used to consider myself a beginner, but I’ve recently upgraded myself to intermediate. Two things I do — 1) I keep a big(ish) project going for myself that is pattern-based, somewhat challenging, and that I know will probably take a while. Usually it’s a dress of some sort. 2) I do small, quick projects that I usually find on blogs or pinterest, such as baby bibs, various refashions, OR (thanks to Dana for the introduction) a Craft Hope project. This way, I get the instant gratification of completing a nice little project and I also get the ongoing “here’s how you construct a serious garment” experience. Oh! The other rule for beginners! If you screw up, who cares? Do it over or throw it out! It’s just cloth!

  6. Pre-washing: I read one time that curtain/drapery fabrics shouldn’t be pre-washed, as they have a special coating that will keep them looking stiff and nice while they’re hanging. Although that means your only option for cleaning them is steam cleaning or dry cleaning.
    If you have a serger, you can also serge the edges together before you wash them to cut down on fraying.

  7. I love Ask Dana! I learn something new every time. And I love the motivational story from Emma. Thanks!

  8. 12) Dianna

    Thank you, Dana! Go Emma!

  9. I always wash my fabrics with a load of the regular laundry and that seems to cut down on the amount of fray as well–much better than when I used to wash my yardage alone.

  10. Great advice Dana. Particularly the one about finding time…I have been blogging about sewing for an year now and there’re weeks ( not days) when I just wish I had 5 mins of quiet and peace to just sew one simple seam, sew on a button or just add some finishing touch to a project, AND I don’t find those 5 mins.
    With a daughter, a full time job and regular household stuff…I have learned to be cool about it and just wait for the right time. And I do find time somehow…the sewing machine lures me its way.
    So yeah, not sweating my to do list and trying my best works for me.
    I loved Emma’s story. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Yay for Emma, and good advice from all ladies above. That’s why I like sewing for kids – I can usually knock out a project in a 3 hour naptime (or get it most of the way done and finish after bedtime), and then they have a garment to wear until they grow out of it! For women, the Wiksten tank is a decently quick sew. Part of why I don’t do much quilting is because they take so long, and I love the instant gratification of a kid’s garment. But sometimes it is fun to have a longer-term project going. And I totally agree with Dana – just because I pin something doesn’t mean I’ll ever make it, but if I DO have the urge to make some knot shorts a year after the tutorial goes up, I have it bookmarked! 😉

  12. Great post! I’ve been getting more and more into sewing lately and your site is quickly becoming my #1 source for hints, tips, inspiration and how-tos. I’ve been following along for a while and just adore everything you do! 🙂

    Here’s one more question re: questions #1. If I’m making a quilt or doing applique on a toddler’s tee, do both fabrics need to be either washed or unwashed before putting them together? In other words, if I sew a quilt using a combination of prewashed and unwashed fabrics, will something bad happen? Or if I sew unwashed fabric onto a washed toddler’s tee, will something bad happen in the wash like bad shrinkage or fabric tearing away from other fabric? Or am I just completely over-thinking this whole thing?

    • 17) Cynthia

      There’s no hard and fast way to know if something bad will happen, so much depends on the types of fabrics. It could turn out just fine, it could tear away or it could just pucker the appliqué so it doesn’t lay right. You can just give it a try and see what happens, but if you want to be safe, pre wash them both.

      • I usually pre-wash at least the garment and try to pre-wash all of the fabric before appliqueing, but there are times (for example when doing an applique station for a baby shower or making a last minute gift) that I didn’t pre-wash anything or used a combination of pre-wash and not, I just didn’t have time to wash and iron. In those cases, throw a shout color catcher (they look like dryer towels and you can buy at grocery store/target) in the wash when you wash the garment the first time, if one or the other (garment or fabric) is going to bleed, the color catcher will typically prevent it from bleeding onto your clothing (though most of the time everything is fine and there is no bleeding or weird shrinking at all). I also line dry then iron (or throw in the dryer to soften) a lot to prevent shrinking.

  13. 20) Leigh Anne

    I LOVE Ask Dana posts! They are always so informative. Keep ’em coming 🙂 And YAY for Emma! I can soooo relate. I used to get so frustrated at my sewing machine my hubby would ask me why I was doing it cuz it didn’t look like I was having much fun….but I stuck it out and now I love it!

  14. 22) Cynthia

    I always always pre wash my fabrics for quilting. The main reason is that the colors can bleed and then your lovely white and red quilt that you spent half your life making is now splotchy pink. There is specialty soap made just for quilts to help prevent that, but on my budget, being patient and pre washing is definitely the way to go.

  15. This was such a great post. I loved Emma’s story! I always pre-wash my fabric straight from the store too. I want it to be ready when I want it. I used to wash my fabrics separately and they would always end up all knoted up. The best advice I ever heard was to just through your new fabrics in with your regular laundry (in like colors of course). It works! My fabric comes out with just a little fraying.

  16. 24) Sarah K.

    Great post – thank you! Now to find some time to get behind that sewing machine!

  17. 25) Angela

    Yay for Emma!! I cried reading her story too! I can totally relate to sewing frustration. I have so many projects I’d love to do, projects I am thinking about, but I know I won’t be able to finish, so I don’t even get my stuff out to start. Makes me sad 🙁 but I hope to have time someday! Lol

  18. One other thing to add to all of the washing advice. I read a year ago on Amy Butler’s site to make small diagonal clips into each corner of the fabric before you throw it in the wash. It usually is just into the selvedge, so you don’t waste any fabric and it cuts way down on fraying. I do it every time and it works great! Also, there’s a product out there that I usually can find at Target that helps prevent color bleeding. It is basically a microfiber cloth that you throw in with the wash that attracts any loose dye. You can reuse it several times and it works well. You might be able to make your own, but I haven’t tried that. I always use this cloth when I make a quilt with precuts, since you can’t really prewash those. There’s my two cents 🙂

  19. 28) ira lee

    lots of good questions and tips. i can totally relate to the “more ideas than time” that the last question hinted on. its really SOOOO hard to organize my mind, much less finish a project!!! just this morning i got an email reminder about a baby shower that i had completely forgot about and its tonight!!!! what?!?!?! so im going to have to hit the walmarts or jcpenny and just buy something instead of being the creative little thing i like to think myself as being!! lol

  20. 29) Katie

    Thanks for the reminders! I also have a list of projects the length of a football field. I want to write them all down and just start crossing them off one by one.

    You also reminded me of when I began sewing in 7th grade. It was a disaster! My quilt squares were cut uneven and sewn even more crooked. I washed it after sewing and the purple fabric bled on the lighter fabrics. I kept that quilt all the way through college to remind me that wherever you start the only way to get better is to start.

  21. 31) Karen

    I’m glad Beth shared the “cut the corners” idea. This works for me and I’m usually washing 100% cotton for quilts. Even small fat quarters come out of the washer/dryer the size they were when they went in! A couple of snips and unraveling isn’t a problem. This also tells me which fabric I’ve washed and which I haven’t.

  22. I <3 you for this post! What IS important are the joy and smiles and triumphs there are in letting your creativity flow. (Thanks to you I look at a fabric scrap and size it up to see if it's market skirt-worthy! I get such a kick making those for my grand daughters.) Me sewing again has led to conversations with my g-baby about what we both like… butterflies, and twirly skirts, and dragonflies, and colors. Happy stuff. I can't tell you how alive and happy and dorkily excited I get about sewing something else up. Sounds like we all suffer from over-whelm. I may never see my dining room table again! But I'm smiling! Thanks again Dana!

  23. 33) Ivonne

    I’m another Emma! But is so rewarding At the end! 🙂

  24. Our range of HDPE Woven Fabrics complies with international quality and safety standards.

  25. 35) themissymom

    LOVED the Emma story. I got all choked up! Go Emma!
    I am a pre-washer of fabrics. If I need them “stiff” again, I iron using spray starch.
    Such a nice blog, Dana.

  26. I fall into the more ideas than time category. And my biggest problem is that I don’t stick to just one hobby! Last week I was on a sewing spree. This week I’m on a furniture painting spree. Next week I’ll be on a baking spree (birthday party!!).

  27. 37) Carrie Overman

    Emma!! I loved your story! I recently took a very basic sewing class, and had to go into the bathroom, lock myself in a stall and cry. And then I had to come out with a blotchy face and try to finish up some very ugly pajama shorts. 🙂 My very first thing to sew on my own was a simple skirt for my daughter too! (Thanks Dana) And when I finally nailed a pillow I cried and woke my husband up (at 3am) to take pictures. Anyway – keep sewing!! 🙂

  28. Oh my goodness! Thank you for this! I so needed it tonight! I am just learning how to sew with the hope of making skirts to 1. Raise money to support my ministry’s mission in Uganda, Africa(Broken Within Ministries and 2.To send skirts to little girls in orphanges in Uganda:-) I have such a passion and desire to do this and it has been so frustrating to not learn right away even though I have only had my machine 3 days there has many tears and “why is this hard?!” But Emmas sweet story reminded me of myself and gave me the hope I needed.that I CAN do ALL things through Christ who strengths me!!:-) Thank you for sharing and for your awesome site! I am planning to attempt the simple skirt tomm!!:-)


    *If anyone wants to add me on fb please do! I would love to have sewing buddies!!:-) “look4hiddentreasures”

  29. 39) Pam

    Love Emma’s story. How great that she accomplished something that she wanted to do. I remember many tears myself as I was learning to sew as a teenager, and my mom wasn’t there to come and help me. But I think that is the best way to learn, because you have to think through it and actually figure it out yourself.

    Yeah, Emma

  30. 40) Isabelle

    I am just writting a small message from France to thank you for your blog.
    I have made 3 simple skirts this week-end (one with one of mu husband’s old shirts) for my girl who doesn’t want to wear pants (“Pants are for boys not for girls” she says). The tutorial was very clear and helpful.
    Thank you again.

  31. Hi, I wanted to say thank you for the pillowcase tip to reduce fraying. This week I had a load of new fabrics to wash (including some really nice printed cotton duck for my first commission) plus some pillowcases from the charity shop. Instead of bunging it all in the machine willy-nilly I stuffed each case with a length of fabric and (with the exception of the calico which climbed out) it all came out of the machine in really good condition. Now I just need to steel myself to start cutting – always the hardest part of every project. 🙂

  32. 42) Shannon

    I’m another Emma. Wanting to sew cloth diapers for LO left to am older used machine on craigslist. It’s a nice embroidery machine for that time. Got a serger with it but stick it straight on closet. It scared me. I took a class @ Joanns in February. Learned bare basics on one of their machines. Really just what was needed to do the small bag project. I managed to get 2 upcycled bibs from scraps and a washcloth and other from old blanket with a microfi ber towel. I’ve been reading and pinning for months. Have snagged up way too much fabric from coops and remnants. Also thrift items to upcycle. Took serger to get estimate Tuesday during big sale at local dealer. Should’ve known better. Saw a little old lady trying out a machine and had to sit down. Was told serger was more $ than worth to fix. Ended up buying new Janomne 7330 and serger. The sewing machine is a dream compared to old one.My time on old one was spent fixing it or my simple mistakes. I did manage to get velcro sewed on today, though not exactly right. I cut that part out weeks ago. Hope to get time while teething LO is with Grandma to do more and play with serger. Hope I finish it and other one cut out before potty trained. So many more plans and prayers I hope to learn to make.

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  34. 44) T

    I am one of those people who can’t throw out little scraps because I just know there is a creative use for them. I have thought about using the small scraps of polyester and other synthetic fabrics for applique projects. I watched a quilting show where the lady sewed the fusible interfacing to the fabric, right side of fabric to sticky side of fusible, than sliced the fusible web and turned the applique inside out. This gave the fabric a turned under edge and put the fusible side of the interfacing to the back, ready to be ironed to the fabric. Would this method work with polyester fabric or synthetic blends? If I buttonhole stitch or topstitch around applique edge will it shred/fray? Don’t want to spend a lot of time on an applique if it is not going to be durable. I would probably use polyester/synthetic appliques on items that are gently used ? Any thoughts on this subject?

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