Ask Madelyn: Washing Handwovens

There are two factors that contribute to choosing the optimum methods of wet finishing handwoven textiles. Madelyn explains the details.

Madelyn van der Hoogt Oct 16, 2017 - 4 min read

Ask Madelyn: Washing Handwovens Primary Image

Photo Credit: George Boe

Hi Madelyn!

How do you recommend finishing 20/2 spun silk at 24 ends per inch in huck lace? Wash in cold water, delicate, or dry clean? I would like to minimize shrinkage but want the huck softness. Which is better?

– Roxie

Dear Madelyn,


I recently finished weaving three Ozark Quilter towels from the *March/April 2016 Handwoven. *The washing instructions say to soak them in cold water for two hours, roll them in a towel to remove excess water, and then to iron them. Next is to machine wash them in warm water, damp-dry them, and iron them.

My question: Is this a one-time procedure or do I need to follow these washing instructions every time I use and wash these towels?


Hi Roxie and Joan!

There are two factors that contribute to choosing the optimum methods of wet finishing handwoven textiles. One is the yarns involved. The other is the intended use for the fabric (you certainly don’t want to have to handwash or dry clean dish towels each time they get dirty, for example).

When you are considering the yarns themselves the key issue is their relative tendencies to shrink and/or full and the way you want or don’t want that to happen in the final product.

Washing Handwovens: Ozark Quilter Towels by Marty Benson. Handwoven March/April 2016

Ozark Quilter Towels by Marty Benson.Handwoven March/April 2016.

Silk will shrink in hot water (as opposed to wool, which also shrinks and fulls in hot water but reacts even more to agitation). So for the 20/2 silk fabric, I’d handwash in barely warm water with a mild soap like Orvus Paste. Rinse well (adding a bit of white vinegar to the second-to-last rinse is often recommended), lay flat to dry, and press with the iron on low while still slightly damp. To soften the silk after pressing, slap the fabric along a rounded counter or table edge to soften the fibers. Care after that can be the same. (I can’t think of any handwoven fabric I’d dry-clean except maybe something in wool that I could not allow to full even the tiniest bit more. Washing softens fibers.)

Mercerized (pearl) cotton shrinks only a little in hot water. Unmercerized cottons do shrink and full in hot water, some more than others. The Ozark Quilter towels are woven in 8/2 unmercerized cotton. The first soaking allows the yarns to full a bit; the pressing may tend to maintain that amount of fulling. The first time would be the only time to include the soaking as part of wet finishing the towels. After that, I’d care for the towels by only doing the second step (machine wash, machine damp dry, iron before completely dry. If the towels have at any point fulled as much as you’d like them to, I’d omit machine drying and limit the amount of agitation in the machine-wash cycle.

My general rule of thumb is to handwash all fabrics in barely warm water with mild soap, roll in towels to reduce moisture, and lay flat to dry (pressing before completely dry). With mercerized cottons I often skip the lay-flat-to-dry step and press until dry after removing the fabric from the towels. If I am trying to shrink of full a fabric, though (usually wools or collapse fabrics), I add agitation to the washing/rinsing process, as much as needed (along with the use of hot water).


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