How to Care for Fabric & Quilts: Part 2

How to Care for Fabric & Quilts: Part 2

Posted by Harriet Hargrave on Dec 18th 2015

Welcome to part two of How to Care for Fabric & Quilts from Harriet Hargrave!

Quilters need to be aware that not all cotton fabrics are created equally. Price very often reflects quality, but a higher price alone does not always signify that a fabric is trouble-free! A product called DyeMagnet® claims to have "magnetic" properties that hold any excess dye during washing, which helps prevent bleeding and fading. However, it does not eliminate the need to understand the properties of each fabric we work with.

Use these tests, adapted from standardized textile tests for you, to test your fabrics at home.

Thread count

One determinant of how many years a fabric can last, what chance the batting will have of coming through the fabric, what percentage of shrinkage there will be, and how high the print quality will be is the thread count. Today's cottons targeted for the quilting market are woven 68 threads per square inch in both the warp (crosswise grain) and filling (lengthwise grain) directions. This is considered an even weave fabric, and is the easiest weave to work with when piecing and doing appliqué.


Is the ability of a fabric to stand up to light. Dyed fabrics that are exposed to light can, in time, fade or change color. Both natural sunlight and artificial lights can cause damage to color. The damage caused to a fabric from light depends on the intensity of the light source and the amount of exposure, as well as the properties of the dyestuff.


Is the transference of color from abrasion. Dark shades are more likely to crock than light shades. Printed fabrics tend to crock more easily than dyed fabrics because most of the coloring agents of printed fabric is on the surface and not inside the fiber. How does this relate to quilting? If your chosen fabric crocks, the fabric will continually lose color in use and washing.


Many of the color loss problems we see in fabrics are due to their lack of fastness to chlorine. A normal level of chlorine in drinking water is three parts per million (ppm) if well controlled, but the suspected safe level for fabrics is less than 0.1 ppm.


Bleeding is often caused by alkali in the soap or detergent. You can test this by treating the water with bicarbonate solution, soda ash (baking powder), or ammonia. Alkali promotes bleeding of many dyes (such as direct dyes); therefore this is a very important test of the fabric's wash­ability in detergent.

Resin-Treated Cottons

When cotton fabrics are resin-treated in the finishing process, they become extremely resistant to bleeding off and staining. Quilters should always try to use resin-finished cotton goods.


Cotton fibers themselves are relatively stable and do not stretch or shrink. In quiltmaking, we cut small pieces and sew them together with other fabrics, stabilizing all edges. Then we layer these joined pieces onto a batting and backing, stitching through all the layers. No one small piece of fabric will shrink more than the batting or backing. In fact, the  batting is the strongest determinant of shrinkage in a quilt, not the individual fabrics in the piecing.

Tumble dryers and dryer heat are large contributors to shrinkage in natural fibers. Most shrinkage occurs when drying the last 25% of moisture out of the fabric. Dryer temperature should never exceed 160°F (140° is best). Consider drying cottons on a low setting and removing them from the dryer when they are still slightly damp. Air and line drying are two ways to avoid possible problems the dryer might cause.


Colorfastness technically refers to a color's permanence or its ability to remain unchanged throughout the useful life of the article to which it has been applied. Some colors may have excellent fastness to launder­ing, but poor fastness to light. It is unfair to state that a color is simply fast or not, without qualifying what is causing it to be fast or fugitive (the loss of color). To prewash fabric thinking that you'll eliminate all of these possibilities is thinking in the wrong direction. Instead, we need to learn what each fabric's characteristics are based on the dyestuff used to color it, then decide how to treat it from there.

What if I told you that you could make beautiful quilts that would retain their color for years and years without even prewashing the fabrics? The only requirement is to spend a few minutes testing water and detergents for their compatibility with your fabrics.

Water temperature

Chemists and professors of textiles all agree that cotton fabrics should be washed in "cold" water. This means between 80°F and 85°F.

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