Should you wash the fabric you are going to use to make cloth grocery bags?
As always, it seems, the answer is “it depends.”If the fabric is new, unstained, odor-free, and clean, then probably not. Any sizing won’t matter as it will stiffen the finished bags. If you ever wash the finished bags, it will be by hand in the sink, a process that will not traumatize the bag, followed by line drying. Besides, it can be difficult to manage a 10-yard piece of 60-inch-wide cloth in your washer. Not impossible, but if you don’t have to do it, don’t bother.
If the fabric is dirty or smelly, then it should be washed. This is most often a problem with secondhand tablecloths and drapes, especially if you bought them at the Goodwill Bargain Bin.
As a side note: You could dry-clean the fabric, but I have not found it necessary and that’s extra money spent on something that is supposed to be inexpensive. I’d rather play laundry roulette.
Handling linens and drapes
Tablecloths, heavy sheets, and rod-pocket curtains can require special handling. They can be washed as-is, in cold water with a cold-water rinse and your usual detergent. Line-dry them and the odors will vanish. Try a cold-water wash first to see if they come clean. If stains remain, step up to warm water, but be careful: warm water can shrink curtain fabrics.
Secondhand tablecloths have probably been washed before so somebody else shrank them. The dryer heat will shrink the fabric so line drying is always a better option, unless you want to ensure that your bags will never shrink again. As an added benefit, shrinking tightens the weave, but never enough to close holes in openwork cloth.
If the draperies have rings or other hardware, remove them before washing. Tab tops can go through the wash. Pinch-pleated drapes have to be unpleated before they go in the wash. Otherwise, the papery stiffener inside them will disintegrate and foul the plumbing. It’s much less risk to rip them and wash in cold water.
Once you’ve washed curtains or tablecloths, rip any seams (if you have not already done so), iron them and you now have plenty of clean, ready-to-use yardage to cut up and sew into bags.
(This post is a draft from the upcoming book “Sewing Cloth Grocery Bags.” A complete list of the posts can be found here.)