The Free Motion Quilting Project: Danger! Chemicals and Quilts

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Danger! Chemicals and Quilts

Have you ever made a list of all the chemicals going into your fabric, batting, or finished quilt?

I recently ran through a list of all the chemicals I use in my quilts: detergent to wash the fabric, and sometimes I use Retayne if I'm worried about bleeding. Then I use lots of starch when I'm ready to use the fabric in a quilt. Sometimes I use glue sticks or Elmer's glue for applique. Also the glue in fusible web should count too.

An easy chemical to forget is the chemicals in marking pens, fabric paint, and fabric markers. If it's a liquid marker contacting the fabric, you can bet there are chemicals involved that make the marker show up, or disappear according to how the agents react.

Of course, there's probably a whole stock of chemicals used in the manufacturing process of the fabrics we use that we never even know about. That's the main reason why I prewash my fabric religiously - it may not be much fun, but at least I know what detergent and chemicals I've put into the fabric, and I know I've done my best to wash out whatever was left over by the manufacturer: sizing, excess dye, etc.

But there are even MORE chemicals commonly used in quilts! What about spray basting? Fusible batting? What about the chemicals in our thread?!

My slightly scientific mind has been thinking about all these chemicals: how they effect our quilts and their longevity.

Have any studies been done to accurately test these materials? What about combination tests? What happens when you use ABC brand starch with XYZ brand marking pens?

We're not just using 1 single chemical in our quilts, we're using several, and for quilters who make quilts that can't be (or shouldn't be) washed, this might be a problem down the road.

Now I don't consider myself an heirloom quilter. I don't really care if my quilts last for 1000 years so long as they last as long as I do, hopefully another 70 years!

But for many quilters, the idea of passing a quilt down to the next generation (or the next, or the next) is a very big draw. Shouldn't we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the quilts we make today will last as long as we want them to?

So all of this has been running through my mind for awhile, and then a few months ago I was emailed by an awesome quilter and long time follower, Monica, who was obviously having similar thoughts.

Monica had seen advertisements for the new Frixion marking pens made by Pilot that supposedly disappear when you apply heat. That claim, and the much higher price tag in quilts stores made Monica wonder, so she set out to experiment with the pens and see what happens.

Check out Monica's awesome experiment right here.

I also remember finding an experiment about Sewline Pencils, a dry marking pen that brushes or erases off of fabric. A quick Google search found that article right here at Foofangle, which shows how easily the different colors erase from different colors of fabric.

What I love the most about both experiments is that they're simple, yet clearly show the effects of both products. It just goes to show that you don't have to be a mad scientist or have access to a state funded laboratory in order to test the materials you're using in your quilts.

If you know of any other tests that quilters have carried out of quilting / crafting related products, please email me and I'll add them to this article.

But let's get back to longevity of our quilts. The straight truth is this: cotton fabric, batting and thread will not last forever.

However, certain chemicals may be aging our quilts far faster than usual.

Of course, this is extremely difficult to test accurately without a lab, and how likely is it for a university or independent lab to be interested in studying quilting materials?

It turns out they're interested enough to publish a case study!

Monica just recently emailed me with this case study published in 2003 in which several different types of spray basting and fusbile battings were subjected to longevity tests by the University of Nebraska - Lincoln.

Here's an overview of what was studied:
The purpose of this study was to carry out light and heat aging tests on three types of adhesives used in quilting. Products tested included three quilt basting sprays: Sullivans, Sulky KK2000, and Spray & Fix 505; three fusible webs: Stitch Witchery, Wonder-Under and HeatnBond; and three fusible battings: Stearns Mountain Mist White Gold (cotton), Hobbs Heirloom (cotton/polyester blend), and June Tailor low loft (polyester). The goal was to determine whether the selected adhesive-containing commercial products contribute to discoloration or promote degradation of fabrics over time.
Recognize any names? While I'm personally not a fan of basting spray, I've certainly used Hobbs fusible batting and Wonder-Under!

Please take the time to read this study today. It's extremely eye opening to know what these chemicals can potentially do to our quilts. This line in particular from the results and discussion section really got my attention:

Quilt makers who wish to use a quilt basting spray in a quilt they intend to become an heirloom should select Spray & Fix. Collectors and curators may wish to avoid acquisition of quilts containing these quilt basting sprays. The makers of Sulky and Sullivans may wish to reevaluate and modify their product formulations.
One thing I wish the study had tested was the water solubility of the basting chemicals. What happens if you use the basting sprays or webs, but soak your quilt in water immediately after quilting? Will the chemical remain after 1 washing or 10?

Of course, when it comes to making quilts and using chemicals, it really comes down to what you want to do and how you want to make your quilts.

Please don't let me, or anyone else tell you how to quilt your quilts or dictate what materials you use. If you like using it, if it works for you, keep doing it!

I know I'm not going to stop using spray starch in my quilts because it helps me achieve a stiffness before the quilting process that prevents pleats from forming on the top and back. That's based on my opinion, my experience, and the way I like to work with fabric.

But at the same time, I always make sure to soak my quilts in a huge tub of water after they have been quilted. Any chemicals that can survive a 30 minute soak in warm water are just going to have to stay put!

Let's go quilt,

Leah Day


  1. Unless I missed it, you didn't mention the COST of all these additional products! My word, a quilter has to add another $20-$30 or MORE to use he "best and greatest" "Must Haves". Yes, I'd like to have or at least TRY all the products, but they also take space, and not always so necessary. Thanks for all the info and links.

  2. Thanks for all of the wonderful information! My fabric also goes straight into the wash as soon as it gets home. I don't starch or fuse, or even mark a lot, and my quilts are made to be used, not really displayed, but I think this is important information, not only concerning quilt longevity, but health issues too. Great post!!

  3. I've been enjoying your blog for a while now and am glad to see you posting about chemicals.

    All of that stuff we use to make our projects work better affects the longevity of our quilts and the longevity of our own bodies and those of our family members. There are groups trying to push industry to remove the most toxic chemicals from consumer products and it seems to me that those protecting public health and those protecting the results of their creative endeavors have a common goal.

  4. A very interesting post, Leah. Another question to ask is "what harm might these chemicals be causing us quilters?"

  5. I'll give up the Frixion -- haven't tried mine yet and I am in love with The Fine Line air soluble marker -- but you'll have to pry the 505 from my cold, dead hands.

    P.S. I'm getting ready to wash a quilt that I couldn't prewash, and it's a quilt for my son's school auction, due in just a couple of days. I've been so nervous about bleeding, so I appreciate the reference to Retayne. I'll have to find some fast. I was planning to throw about 10 color catchers in there.

  6. Definitely an eye opening post. I know many fabrics are manufactured with formaldehyde, to which I am allergic, so most of my fabrics are laundered right away. Interesting to read about the bonding agents. I never would have thought that they wouldn't last.

  7. I agree with Becky. There are so little safety regulations around these kinds of products. We may not know for decades if they accumulate to harmful effects. I am interested in the effects on quilts too but much more concerned about my health and the health of my family.

  8. I actually don't use any extra chemicals right now. I just haven't gotten to that point in my quilting to worry about that.

    So I'm only stuck with the chemicals that are in the fabric, thread and batting. Which im hoping disapear after washing.

    I had never even thought about chemicals in quilting before

  9. I think Sulky KK2000 might have been reformulated since this study. They did change their packaging a couple years back and call it "Next Generation". So that's another challenge with these kinds of studies - you can never know if the manufacturer changes the formulation.

  10. Very interesting article! This is part of why I'm stubborn about doing applique without starches and glues.

  11. Very valid points Leah - and it has me wondering about my Applique Challenge quilt - it's been marked with washable marker, washed so far at least 3 times, and has just been starched and basted with watered down PVA glue!
    In many ways it's probably been through a similar process that most of us use, but I may have to rethink things.

  12. @Jenny - Please read the labels carefully before using! Retayne used on a completed quilt could make things worse! It sets the dye.

  13. I blogged about the FriXion pens awhile back. Only I WASHED mine. It came completely out then.

  14. There are other factors that can shorten the life of the quilt, including the use of poly batting with cotton fabrics (seams eventually rub apart) or the use of poly, rayon or silk thread (which can pull apart from the seams if you use them in piecing.) The best resources for this information are quilt restorers and antique quilt dealers.

  15. Very interesting post. Great info. I am new to quilting. Thanks a bunch.

  16. Yes, Kristine, I went and read about it -- thanks! I am washing it today and will just stick with cold water and crossed fingers. Thanks for your warning!


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