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Common wisdom is to wash your fabric before sewing in the same way you plan to wash the finished project. This way any shrinkage from machine washing will happen before cutting out your pieces, and it won't shrink more after you've sewn it up.

Along those lines, I recently read a sewing blog post about how the author was making a jacket from fabric marked "dry clean only", so she took the fabric to a dry cleaner before cutting out her pieces.

That got me thinking. What if I didn't want to take my jacket to a dry cleaner? Could I just pre-wash the fabric in a machine, sew the jacket, and it'd be safe to machine wash? What would the consequences be?

  • I think dry clean only is generally due to the delicate nature of the fabric, but I'm not positive -- so I'm looking forward to an answer to this! – Erica Jun 14 '17 at 13:24
  • Considering the answer posted, could you be more clear about what sorts of "dry clean only" fabrics you're talking about? – Catija Jun 14 '17 at 16:13
  • @Catija I didn't have a particular fiber type in mind, the jacket I read about was wool but I've also seen silk and even polyester garments labeled as dry clean only. I didn't mean animal based (leathers, fur), or highly embellished fabric though (seems pretty obvious those would need special care!). – user812786 Jun 14 '17 at 18:28
  • I posted the comment before I posted my answer, so I was thinking more about the two examples given there. Velvet, specifically. Though, velvet isn't particularly popular as a clothing fabric right now anyway. Regardless, clarity in a question is always appropriate and appreciated. – Catija Jun 14 '17 at 18:34
  • Just to add another example, I was in a chain craft store yesterday and they had a "fashion" knit (nothing fancy in the fiber content and not particularly high quality either) which was marked dry clean only! TBH I probably wouldn't have thought to check on something like that, except for the responses to this question :) – user812786 Jun 27 '17 at 12:11
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I think it really depends on the fabric.

If the manufacturer of the fabric states that it should be dry cleaned, that's probably a signal that they're serious about it. Silk and wool can often be hand-washed in very gentle shampoo as a way of pre-shrinking the fabric... but some fabrics simply don't tolerate washing well. They lose their look or shape when soaked in water, so even pre-washing won't do much for you. Another consideration is colorfastness... apparently some brightly-colored silks can lose their color when washed.

From a dry cleaner's website:

The first determination is whether or not the fabric can be submersed in water. Fabrics such as cashmere and wool are susceptible to losing shape in full submersion and will likely shrink, so typical washing should be avoided. Another gentle fabric is silk. An extremely delicate material, silk can be hand washed; however, it should never be complete submerged nor agitated in a washing machine. [. . . ]

While some fabrics may be washed, like certain chiffon, satin, and lace articles, additional care must be taken when ironing. A dry cleaning process offers a safer alternative to typical ironing, making it more effective for a wider variety of products.

If you're making a structured jacket and you want to retain the crisp lines and smooth drape, you probably don't want to machine wash your jacket as it may destroy the cut and the work you put into it. Now, if it's a casual jacket that doesn't need to look "neat" or "sharp", your washing regimen likely won't matter but keep that in mind.

I found another quote that sort of peeved me - it's tangentially related and I thought it might be valuable here...

Q: I was wondering, does it mean all the Big Designer Labels pre-launder all their fabric before production?

Graceful Sewing
June 1st, 2015
No, they do not. That is often the only reason that garments purchased from them have to be dry cleaned. If they had preshrunk the fabric, we could toss it in the washer and it would do fine. But because they skip this step, we are left with huge dry cleaning bills so they could save a few dollars and make us think we are. Also, on clothing that is washable, you will often find the the seams are a just little gathered coming out of the dryer, or that the garment is not quite on grain like it was (that why our garments tend to look old quickly). The best way to handle these is to gently tug on each end of the seams (particularly in knit fabrics) and straighten it out while warm. The lay the garment out flat or neatly fold it without wrinkles and let it set until it cools completely. If the garment is twisted off grain, gently tug on the two shorter corners to pull it back into alignment and then proceed as above. Your clothing won’t have the advantage of custom-made (and preshrunk) does, but it will look better and last longer.

So, my interpretation here is that, yes, to a degree, if the fabric is pre-washed, it may affect the final outcome's washability... so it's not only the fabric type that determines the washing method on store-bought clothing.

Another interesting source is on The Laundress where they go through various fabric types and garment styles to hash out what can and can't be washed at home. The ones that relate to fabrics specifically include

  • Don't wash viscose (it shrinks, often unevenly)
  • Don't wash polyamide blends (they grow)
  • Don't wash "structured" items - ties, blazers with shoulder pads
  • Don't wash suede & leather - if marked "not washable" or "Dryclean only"
  • Don't wash fur with skin

There's actually not too much on this list, amusingly... so it seems that, provided you do some research on how to wash anything else properly (that does not mean you can toss everything in your washer, though), you should be able to avoid dry clean only clothes to a large extent.

  • +1 for your last three paragraphs. This echoes what I have always heard--a great many clothing items that are labeled "dry clean only" are labeled as such because they need special treatment if "wet-washed" and clothing manufacturers are concerned that people will blame them if a poorly executed wash ruins the garments (or if they know that they are cutting corners during manufacturing as mentioned above). – magerber Jun 14 '17 at 17:10
  • I'd be careful about hand washing in shampoo. There are so many shampoo formulations and ingredients that didn't used to exist - like silicone coatings for anti-frizziness and shine, curl enhancers, color protection… none of which have been formulated for or tested on textiles. Human hair is a protein fiber, as are wool and silk, but wool and silk are probably the textile fibers that need the most care, so again, pre-testing would be my advice. And sometimes the "gentle" or "senstive skin" description on cleaning prodiucts just means there's no perfume in the product. – user1798 Jun 14 '17 at 19:57
  • @abbie good to know. The site I was on specifically said "baby shampoo" so maybe I should have been more clear. – Catija Jun 14 '17 at 19:58
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This is an excellent question, and the time to ask this question is before you cut or sew or wash or dry-clean your fabric, so you are ahead of the game!

The first thing to keep in mind is that fabrics and garments are quite complex. We think of textiles as simple commonplace things in our everyday world, but each stage of manufacture, from fiber to yarn to fabric to dyeing and finishing and garment construction contributes its own set of physical properties (and chemical properties in the case of dyeing) to the final product. In many cases, these properties are not evident to the naked eye, and they are interrelated with the properties from earlier stages of textile production. Example: even a simple 100% cotton white T shirt is a complex system: cotton fiber is an agricultural product that is harvested, cleaned and bleached and processed into fairly loose yarns (for comfort and breathability and stretch); the yarn is lubricated and knitted into a flexible stretchy fabric; the fabric is cut and sewn to maintain the stretch and comfort of a T shirt. So where does the comfort and breathability of a cotton T shirt come from? The answer is: 100% cotton T shirts are “engineered” for comfort and breathability at every stage of manufacture: from fiber to yarn to fabric to garment construction.

Below are the primary elements going into the makeup of a textile (fabric or finished garment). Your question encompasses elements of both the fabric you buy in the store and your finished garment. I’ll start by talking about finished garments, highlighting the fabric elements relevant to your question.

Fiber Type (i.e., cotton, silk, rayon, wool, polyester, etc.). For fabrics (not garments) this is probably the most important element you need to be concerned with. Most common fibers we wear will machine launder beautifully, e.g cotton and polyester and blends made of these. For other fibers, for example, wool, silk, rayon, in general they can be damaged in laundering and should either receive special care (very gentle hand washing in cool water and not machine dried) or dry cleaning.

Yarn Type (fibers are made into yarns before knitting or weaving). Yarns that are very loose can easily be damaged in laundering. They can shrink or actually fall apart. Tightly made yarns usually wash well assuming the fibers they are made from can withstand washing and drying. A good example of the “multivariate” nature of a textile is looking at fiber type and yarn type together: Cotton knits are more prone to shrinkage than cotton wovens - not because of the cotton fiber, which is stronger when wet than when dry, but because of the looser knit construction. On the other hand, wool knits are highly susceptible to shrinkage and damage in laundering, both because the wool fiber itself is very delicate and weaker in water than when dry, and the loose knit structure will allow the delicate fibers to rub against each other and felt and shrink.

Fabric Type In general, woven fabrics withstand laundering better than knits because the fibers in a woven are more “fixed” in place than in a loose knit. Some nonwoven fabrics (e.g., wool felt) can actually fall apart in laundering, while others such as polyester “felt” (batting or interfacing) will maintain its shape.

Dyeing and Finishing Fibers, yarns, fabrics, and garments are usually dyed and finished at some stage of production. In general, the earlier in the process the dyeing occurs, i.e., at the fiber stage vs. the finished garment stage, the more durable the dye will be. But this is hard for the end-use consumer to know, so always assume the worst (dye loss, dye transfer to other items, fading, streaking, etc.) Some finishes are temporary or water soluble like starch, while others are meant to be permanent if dry-cleaned - like mechanical "polished" finishes on upholstery fabric.

Embellishments and Construction Details you don't see E.g. pearls and sequins, embroidery, fancy buttons, lace, etc., can be damaged by machine laundering. These items can often be gently hand washed but not dried in a dryer. For garments that have interfacing fabrics (stiffening in the collar or cuffs or in tailored suiting, shoulder pads, etc., these are the "unseen" elements of a garment that cannot withstand laundering and must be dry cleaned. So a 100% cotton jacket may say “dry-clean only” not because of the cotton outer fabric, but because of the construction elements you can’t see.

Some garments are “over-labeled” meaning that the item can be safely hand or machine washed even though the label states it’s dry-clean only, but going against the label is a risk if you don’t take into account all the variables that go into making fabric, and making up fabric into a garment.

Why would a manufacturer use a “dry-clean only” care label if the garment can be safely laundered? In some cases it’s a simple case of the manufacturer protecting itself from any damage claims. In others, it is because it can be more cost-effective for the manufacturer to have one label to sew into everything they make, and still in others, it may be because there is something about the finished garment that may not to be evident to you.

My advice:

It is always good policy to pre-clean fabric yardage prior to construction, using the method of cleaning you plan to use after your item is made up.

Without knowing the fiber content, fabric construction, etc., of the fabric you have purchased, and the construction elements of the item you want to construct, I would follow the fabric manufacturer’s instructions for pre-cleaning your fabric. It is the safest way to go to ensure that your efforts are not wasted.

If you want to wash a fabric labeled dry-clean only prior to cutting, I suggest you buy an extra 1/4 yard and wash that before you wash your entire yardage. That way you can assess fiber damage, shrinkage, dye loss, etc., before you risk your entire fabric investment.

  • Wow that's a lot of good info! I didn't think about the interfacing and such on finished garments being a reason for dry cleaning, and the dye/finish type would make sense for some fabrics too. Definitely will wash a test piece first :) – user812786 Jun 14 '17 at 18:23
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As well as shrinkage, you'd have to consider the fabric itself. Would velvet or suede be as aesthetically pleasing, or would the essence of the fibre be lost?

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