Friday, November 29, 2013

Coat-dress construction: Pre-shrinking the fabric

How do you pre-shrink your wool fabrics, readers? Are you a daredevil who throws it into a drier, or even washes it, or a purist swearing by the London shrunk method? Or, maybe you don't believe that the wool can be properly pre-treated at home and, so you hand it over to your trusted dry cleaner?

In fact, quite a few good wool manufacturers pre-shrink their fabrics (Linton Tweeds, for example) before they land in stores or designer workrooms, but often you just don't know whether you fabric has been pre-shrunk. Either way, nowadays a careful steam press is usually all you need for a better quality wool fabric.

Of course, you do need to consider the type of fiber/ wool you are dealing with (for example, crepe doesn't like much moisture and shrinks like crazy), the fabric weight, and the future use and care. I hope you understand that I can cover only what's relevant to my particular project. I chose high-end wool flannel, medium weight, that can be successfully used for jackets, dresses or skirts. With fabric like this,  a good steam press is an adequate method of pre-shrinking.

Anything else would overshrink the wool. I will explain. Let's go ahead a bit and talk about the construction of the dress - this is where a proper planning comes in handy! I want to shape my sleeve elbow sections with steam and iron, a little - to conform to the natural shape of the arm. I also want to convert my neckline darts in the back to ease - I got a slightly rounded back and have to add those unsightly darts, but I can eliminate them on the face fabric, again with steam. These operations require the wool to be able to stretch or to shrink. Steam pressing leaves some room for shaping during the construction process, but, at the same time, stabilizes the fabric just enough to withstand regular cleaning and pressing.

This method is really simple, and was first recommended to me by Kenneth D. King and Susan Khalje in their Sit and Sew class in New York. Later, I did my own research and put together these simple steps for preparing wool for work.

  • research your particular type of wool (quite a few require special attention when pre-shrinking, such as crepe, for example)
  • check whether your fabric is on grain
  • fold the fabric, right side inside, align selvedges and smooth out any wrinkles
  • gently steam press wool by hovering (not gliding) the iron, section by section without applying force and without leaving any gaps as it will leave unpressed sections lighter in color than the pressed ones. 
  • press the fabric dry, again, section by section, without too much pressure, for a few seconds at a time.

For heavier fabrics, pressing can be done through a cotton or linen press cloth. Dip it into water and then wring it almost dry. The moisture on the pressing cloth should be distributed evenly. Too much moisture, and the fabric may pucker. Actually, the same is true for steam - use it thoughtfully.

And, please, use tumble dry only if you want to felt your wool! Drier, also in combination with a washing machine, will permanently change surface characteristics and the fell of your wool fabric - if this is what you aim at - experiment freely...

Finally, I thought I'd share some of the resources I referred to to complete this step. Interestingly, Claire Shaeffer in her  Couture Sewing: Tailoring Techniques  doesn't offer any advice on pre-shrinking the fabric, although the book and the complimentary DVD are a great reference for specific couture construction techniques. Her Couture Sewing Techniques reveals more about the process, and her Fabric Sewing Guide gives directions for the London Shrunk method.  However, if you want a comprehensive step-by-step guide to constructing a couture tailored jacket, I'd refer to Vintage Couture Tailoring by Thomas von Nordheim. If you are interested in high-end tailoring techniques, the book is a must.

I wish my US readers a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend and hope to connect to them on Monday again! Meanwhile, please do leave comments about your preferred methods of pre-shrinking!


  1. Very helpful and timely, thanks! I am making my first coat using Marc Jacobs boucle wool fabric and have been wondering how to pre shrink it, or whether to. I experimented with the hot wet towel in the dryer method with some other wool and it really damaged the appearance of the fabric... I think I will try steam pressing the boucle. Educational as always, thanks!

  2. I usually send the fabric to the dry cleaners. I once tried the London Shrink method, but it in my circumstances it was unwieldy. I don't have a lot of space.

    I agree that the von Nordheim book is excellent.

    1. I think I read somewhere that it is ok to cut the wool into pieces after laying out the pattern. It would certainly be more manageable than trying to preshrink a 2.5 yard piece.

  3. heheheh I wash it in the front loader on the wool setting with eucalyptus wool soap. Then I dry it flat on a towel. Done that with loser weave stuff, suit fabric and one coat weight wool and not had any issues yet. Fingers crossed. I know of the steam to treat method but lack the time or interest in doing it XD This is a good 'un to bookmark though for when I decide to do it the old fashioned way ;) Cheers.

  4. I sew mostly with wool gabardine fabric (it's cold where I live). Unless I'm sewing a formal or fancy wool garment, I pre wash my wool in my washing machine with lukewarm water and iron it dry. I wear wool pants and skirts every day and machine wash, but never machine dry them and I have not experienced problems so far. This may be fabric lover's heresy, but I iron pretty much everything with my iron on cotton setting because chemically wool, silk, and even good polyester fabric can handle the maximum heat of most home irons. I do however, see merit in lower heat and pressure for textured fabric and fabric with heat sensitive dyes.

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  7. Hi Marina,
    Oh gosh, I had a terrible experience, after reading on a blog about throwing wool fabric in a tumble dryer with a rung out hot towel...................The stunningly beautiful Linton Tweed was wrecked afterwards and my DH threw it away as I was distraught!! My previous wool/silk tweed from Lintons was fine when I used the steam method and my daughter is loving her chanel style jacket and skirt made from that.
    So, I learned a hard lesson and wont try the hot damp towel trick ever again........................Oh dear. Mind you there is something good from this...........DH has said when we have the opportunity he will take me to Cumbria for the weekend and we can go to Linton's for me to pick some fabric. Perhaps my Chanel style jacket will finally be made this year. At least I learned a lot making my daughters and I found the whole process very therapeutic.
    If you are wondering why my precious Linton hit the bin, it was red with an outline of black one inch squares and it just could not be rescued........................Shame I didn't check with Linton until after I had done the deed..........

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