I recently started a cover quilt for a new pattern that uses beautiful hand crafted fabrics from Handloom Batiks. I have been collecting these batiks every time I go to a quilt show where they are vending. They are beautiful, and different, and it took everything in me not to just start cutting into them once I decided how I wanted to sew them up. But, I knew that they should probably be pre-washed, especially since I was going to sew them together with cream solid!
As a general rule, I do not prewash fabrics, mostly because of time. I usually just sew them into a quilt and then wash the finished project. I have only had a few cases in which the fabric dyes ran, or at least only a few cases in which they ran and transferred onto other fabrics in the quilt. Luckily, color catcher sheets (just what the heck are those things anyway?!) have always taken care of the problem. This time, however, I was not going to risk it.
Here is the super-technical way I determine if fabrics need prewashing: I group them together by like color (and by that I mean colors that won't show it if the dyes transfer a little).
Then, I throw them together in my white laundry sink and cover them in hot water. If the colors run into the water (and at first it looked like they might not...), I just throw the wet fabrics in the washing machine - without detergent.
But this time, as the sink filled, I could tell I was going to need to not only pre-wash these fabrics, but possibly treat them a little with something to guard against any colors transferring onto the cream solids.
A quick search through my laundry cabinets provided only white vinegar. And after a google search about setting fabric dye with vinegar, I decided that I was going to need to get some Retayne - a chemical dye fixative. Luckily, you can usually get this at your local quilt shop! Needless to say, this decision dictated the next several hours of my day. I drained the sink, leaving the wet fabrics in a pile at the bottom (later I would be sorry about this, but I was having a fabric emergency so at the time it didn't matter). A quick phone call told me I could get some Retayne at Quilter's Destination in Arlington Heights. So, I packed up my daughters (promising them lunch, since it was 11:30 and I had to pull them away from their figurines and Sophia the First castle!) and we all piled into the car.
A few hours later (lunch took longer than expected and we made a quick stop for school supplies) we pulled up in front of Quilter's Destination. Thanks to some good advice, I picked up both Retayne and Synthrapol (a chemical detergent that can be used before and after dying) and headed for home. Ok, I might have bought some fabric, too.
When I returned home, I put all of the still-wet fabrics in the washing machine and ran them on a normal, hot water cycle with Synthrapol in the detergent compartment. I have a front loading washing machine and have been putting Retayne in it for years. When the load finished spinning I took it out and set it aside and repeated the same process with a stack of warm colored batiks - mostly reds.
I actually had been more worried about the red fabrics running (red dye has a reputation!) but believe it or not, they actually ran way less than the greens and blues.
After I had washed both loads with Synthrapol, I threw them in the washer together and washed them on a hot cycle with Retayne.
In the meantime, I soaked my laundry sink with hot water and bleach because the bottom of it was green and blue - yes, leaving a stack of steaming wet fabric in need of pre-washing at the bottom of a white laundry sink is a bad idea. I was really afraid that the dyes would not come out, and I told myself that it didn't matter if I slightly ruined my laundry sink for the sake of quilting, only I knew that it did. My daughter was standing by watching me saying "Mom, I really don't think that's going to work. What are you going to tell dad?" Luckily, the bleach worked and my sink is back to white again! Thank you, Clorox!
The hot water/Retayne cycle worked. When it finished spinning, I took out a few pieces of the different color ways and threw them back in the laundry sink (well rinsed from the bleach soak) to see if they would still run in hot water. They didn't. To be absolutely certain, I rolled them in a white terry towel and twisted it--success! No dyes transferred onto the towel. So, I threw everything in the dryer for a few minutes.
Years ago, I learned a nifty trick from my business partner, Janine. Instead of letting pre-washed fabrics dry all the way in the dryer, she takes them out while they are still damp-dry and hand presses them flat to dry the rest of the way. She uses the carpet, but I have two kids and a dog, so I tend to use my cutting mat and sewing table. The trick is to hand press them well, like you would a sweater that has "lay flat to dry" instructions on the tag. If you do this step well, you won't have to iron them when they dry--you can skip right to cutting them up! I usually stack them about four pieces high. In this case, however, I ran out of room and had to stack many on top of each other. I have a de-humidifier running in my basement studio, but it's been pretty humid here in Chicago. So, I rotated the pile a couple of times to be sure that all of the fabrics dried thoroughly without getting moldy.
Pre-treating/washing fabrics is sometimes a long process (especially when you don't have what you need on hand and you have to stop on the way to get what you need for washable markers and glue sticks) but it is so worth it. I have such heart ache when I spend hours working on a quilt only to take it out of the washing machine and find that the light colors all look - well - less light.