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How to Care for Fabric & Quilts: Part 1

Posted by Harriet Hargrave on Nov 20th 2015

Today, we're happy to bring you part one of Harriet Hargrave's (of Quilter's Academy fame!) comprehensive guide to caring for your quilts and fabric. Plus–get a handy needle/thread reference chart!

Launder Care

A general guideline for choosing a detergent is to look for the product with the least number of ingredients. The best cleaning agents are non-ionic and anionic detergents.

Laundering Your Quilts

Quilters overlook the fact that soil trapped in the fibers can often cause more damage than the actual laundering process.


Start the cleaning process by vacuuming. This will remove the dust particles whose sharp edges start to cut away at the fibers. Buy a 2-ft square piece of fiberglass screening and bind the edges with twill tape. Place the screen on the quilt. Using the corner attachment of the vacuum, gently vacuum over the screen, cleaning the front and back of the quilt.


Spot test for colorfastness before getting the entire quilt wet. Start by rubbing a dry, white cotton cloth gently over each fabric to see if any color rubs off. If not, go to a blot test. Using a solution of cool water and your favorite quilt cleaning agent, drop a couple of drops of solution onto the color you are testing. Blot with a clean, white cloth. Check for color on the white cloth. If the color tests show that the fabrics do not bleed, you can proceed with the washing.


I launder my quilts in the washing machine. The very gentle agitation of my washer has never harmed the quilts. Gentle agitation is not as harmful as the tumbling action of the dryer. Fill the washer to its largest capacity with cool to warm water. Remember, the water should be between 80° F and 85°F for laundering cotton fabrics and quilts. Add the chosen washing agent and agitate to dissolve.


Spin the water out of the quilt on the gentle spin cycle. Spinning will not harm the quilt, and is much easier than handling a heavy, dripping wet quilt.


To rinse, carefully remove the quilt from the washer and fill the tub with cool water. If soapy residue continues to come from the water, rinse again.


I think the best way to dry a quilt is to lay it flat. Drying quilts outdoors is fast and easy. Use two sheets–one for the top and one for the bottom–to protect the drying quilt from insects and the sun. When the top is dry to the touch, turn it over to dry the backside. If you dry the quilt indoors, lay it on the floor, a bed, or over a sofa, using sheeting and plastic to protect the surface. Fans speed the drying process. Never hang a wet quilt, because the stress can weaken the fabrics and tear the stitches. When the quilt is barely damp dry, you can fluff the quilt a bit by placing it in the dryer on air or fluff–no heat.

Prewash or Not?

The big decision is whether to prewash all your fabrics as soon as you get them home or store them new and make the choice to wash them or not based on the project. Like everything else, this can be a multi-faceted issue. It has to do with how you work, as well as the style of quilting you're involved in. Tastes and popular styles of quilts often change. With new battings becoming available there are many possibilities to explore. Here's an example: let's say that you want to make a 1930s reproduction quilt, and you want the true look of an old quilt. This is achieved by allowing the fabric and batting to shrink together and give the "puckers" so characteristic of older quilts. When going through your fabric stash, you find that all your fabrics have been pre-shrunk. This is not going to help you achieve the look you want, and you'll probably wind up purchasing new fabric for the project.

Now, let's say that all your fabric is stored unwashed. You decide to use a piece from some yardage you have and use it unwashed. After testing for colorfastness, you make that quilt and still have the remaining original piece. The next quilt that you want to use that fabric in needs to be prewashed for whatever reason, and you do so. The next time you want to use the fabric, it's again used unwashed. See the pattern? You now have options available to you. Each quilt determines how the fabric should be handled. You accommodate each quilt, but retain the option for next time with the remaining fabric. Your fabric stash becomes a working tool. If you know that you're always going to want your fabric prewashed and that you'll never change your need for a different look in your quilts down the road, then there is no problem with prewashing for convenience.


The fiber of choice for quiltmakers is I00% cotton.

  • Cotton retains its pressed form, giving a sharp crispness to a seam or an appliqué edge. Tension pulls and little puckers can be worked out of a seam allowance with a good pressing because of cotton's flexibility. The seams in cotton fabrics will lie flat, which is needed for accurate piecing and machine quilting.
  • Distortion is minimal if only I00% cottons are used in patchwork.
  • Cotton is more opaque than polyester, reducing the problem of seam allowances showing through the top layer of the quilt.
  • Bearding is less prevalent in I00% cottons than in blends.
  • Cotton will tear on grain, making it possible to find the true crosswise grain so that straightening is accurate.

Bonus: download this super-useful needle/thread reference chart!

Look out for part two next week!

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