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My big stupid mistake (alternate title: prewashing matters!)

My big stupid mistake (alternate title: prewashing matters!)

Here’s a big long ridiculous story of a stupid mistake I made.

(I wish I took pictures of the actual mistake, but I was in a big hurry to deal with it and I didn’t think to document the whole experience. You’ll just have to use your imagination!)

So I was making a costume for a client. Specifically, these costumes:


Adorable, right? It’s Seattle Seahawks themed Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter. My clients, who are also my friends, had sent me 10 yards of the Seahawks print fabric to use on this project. The dress required about 6 yards, maybe 5 and a half, so I cut a 6 yard piece and prewashed it, planning to send the extra 4 yards back in new condition. I folded the 4 yards up and put it on top of my fabric pile and went on with my life.

(I should note that this happened about a week before I was leaving for Star Wars Celebration. These costumes were actually for a con the weekend after Celebration but they still had to be done before I left. I had been working crazy long hours without a day off for well over a month, and I still had more work to do. I was exhausted and my brain was fried, but I was still enjoying the process and excited to sew every day!)

So I woke up the next morning, drank some coffee, ate a bagel, grabbed my pile of fabric, and went to work! I spent most of the day making the bodice and sleeves of the dress, meticulously pattern matching the important seams, making sure all the pattern placements were just perfect, and of course getting the size and shape just right. The bodice is fairly simple but because of the fabric’s print this one required a little more work than usual. I spent about half a day on this.

As I was handling the fabric I kept thinking how stiff it was and how it still smelled like chemicals. It was a stiff, smelly fabric to start, and I was really surprised how well the new-fabric-chemicals held on after washing. Even ironing wasn’t softening it up very much. But whatever. I’d wash it one more time before I delivered it. It would be fine.

After I finished the bodice I moved on to the skirt - a full circle skirt that required about 4 yards of fabric. The skirt would be made of one half circle in the front and two quarter circles in the back. I cut the half circle, and then realized I didn’t have enough fabric left to cut the back pieces! What the fuck! How did I possibly miscalculate my fabric yardage so badly! There’s NO WAY the bodice used 4 yards of fabric! Right??? RIGHT????? WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO??????????

And then it hit me: I’d been working all day on my unwashed 4 yards of fabric. I went downstairs to the laundry room and sure enough, there were the 6 yards I’d washed the day before, soft and clean smelling and neatly folded on top of my pile of clean clothes.

I am an idiot.

So now what? What happens if I wash the bodice? Will it shrink too much? Will the seams get weird? Should I wash the finished bodice and skirt front half and then cut the back skirt panels out of the prewashed fabric? Should I wash the bodice but cut a whole new skirt? Should I scrap the whole thing and start over? What do I do?????????

(Here’s the part of the story where I teach you something: the primary reason you should prewash your fabric is to shrink it. If you sew unwashed fabrics and then wash the finished garment, you’ll get unpredictable shrinking results. Worst case scenario is, of course, that your garment will be too small. But also your seams could pucker, your patterns could shift, the fabric could shrink more in one direction than the other and your pattern pieces could get all misshapen and weird. It’s all terrible. On top of that, prewashing also helps prevent color bleeding later. Imaging if you made a red dress with white trim, then washed it and your red dye bled all over your white trim? That would suck. Prewashing won’t always get all the excess dye out but it definitely helps. And finally the fabric manufacturers put horrible chemicals in the fabrics that can be really tough on sensitive skin. Prewashing means you don’t have to handle those gross chemicals!

Have I sold you on prewashing? Keep reading. Spoiler: you’ll definitely be sold by the end of the story!)

So I took a break, ate some dinner, and thought about my problem. First things first, I decided to see if my bodice was even salvageable, so I washed it, and the front skirt panel, and a square piece of fabric that I measured so I could figure out my shrinkage amount later. It turned out that I lost about 2% to shrinkage. Not bad, right? I’d cut enough ease into the bodice that 2% didn’t seam like a big deal!

And then I put the bodice back on the dress form.


2% was indeed a big deal.

It had gone from a nice comfortable fit to a very snug fit. Technically my client could probably still have worn it but it wouldn’t have been as comfortable or looked as good. Also my darts seemed weird and my perfectly spaced seam allowance where I’d planned to put my zipper had shrunk and the new fold line was messing up my perfect pattern matching.

So at that point I basically had no choice but to remake the whole thing. So I did. And it turned out beautiful and the client loved it, but I lost a half a day that I could have really used, and I had to replace the 4 yards of unwashed fabric out of my own pocket. I probably could have gotten away with not sending her the unused fabric, but I would have felt like a dick, so I bought the last bit of fabric they had at the store and sent it to her along with the costumes.

So the moral of the story: prewash prewash prewash! And then make sure you’re actually using your prewashed fabric!!!!! Because it really does make a difference!

I’ll leave you with a few prewashing tips, too:

I’ve heard people complain that the fabric frays too much in the washer. This is totally true! You can solve that problem by sewing the cut edges with a serger or a zigzag stitch. Like a finished seam, the fabric will only fray up to the stitching. Bonus: this is a GREAT way to use up the last of your unwanted thread!

Don’t baby the fabrics with delicate wash and dry cycles. Do that after the garments are done. Now is the time to abuse them a little! Ok this isn’t entirely true, I’m a little more gentle with fabric than my normal clothes, but not by much. I usually wash my fabrics on a regular cycle in cold, which is how I wash most of my clothes, and dry them on extra-low with dryer balls. But really, just wash them kind of normally, don’t be extra gentle now if you know you’re just going to throw them in with your jeans and t-shirts after con.

Take your fabric out of the dryer midway through the cycle, rearrange it, and put it back in. Fabric tends to tie itself in knots in the dryer and it’s tough to get the knots fully dry. Untangling and rearranging makes a world of difference.

So, yes, I know, prewashing is a pain in the ass, it’s time consuming, the fabric gets all wrinkled and you lose that nice center fold line, and you have to wait to start your project when you’d rather get going immediately! But use this as a cautionary tale. Be smart and prewash your fabrics every single time!!!

As a reward for getting through this wall of text, Pics!

Here’s a pic of the dress by itself-


And a completely unrelated pic of my dog, because why not? 😄 

 Star Wars Celebration: My Costumes!

Star Wars Celebration: My Costumes!