Choosing Fabric for Your Cloth Doll

Dali's house in Costa Brava
Nobody said you have to follow the “rules.”

The first rule of cloth doll making is: BREAK THE RULES!

Nobody said the skin fabric has to be pink. Or muslin. Or brown. Or whatever.

Your doll’s skin can be purple. Or green. Or paisley. Or white lace over silver lame that you’ve fused to muslin.

Nobody said that your dolls’ legs and arms and faces all have to be made with the same fabric.

If your art doll is for show more than for actually playing with, the skin can be something other than fabric. Like twisty paper. Or layers of raffia that you’ve fused to muslin so the “skin” holds together and the muslin doesn’t show. Or a paper grocery bag. Or autumn leaves. Or even dollar bills, fused to muslin to make a big enough piece of “fabric.”

Nobody said her (or his) clothing has to be tasteful, or stereotypically shocking with black lace and a boa, either.

Of course, sometimes you MUST make a good trashy doll, just for the sake of having her around. Or an Elvis impersonator doll, for the male counterpart. (Or, in my case, Voodoo doll Barbie.)

Nobody said that your doll has to wear clothing made of fabric, either. Feathers might work. Or foil. Or maybe you’ll melt some 3.5″ computer disks (ventilate very well if you heat them) and give her a high-tech breastplate.

When you’re making a cloth or mixed media doll, you have many, many options.

Don’t be limited by rules in your head. And don’t be limited by rules from famous dollmakers or even your teacher.

Cloth doll goddess Elinor Peace Bailey once made an amazingly insipid doll, just to break her own anti-rules.

The point is, when you plan your doll, think big. Think original. Break the rules. Be outrageous.

But mostly, be your most creative self.

Cloth Dolls – Should You Preshrink Fabrics

Should you preshrink fabrics (or prewash them) before making a cloth doll?

clothes on a clothesline
If you’re preshrinking fabric, use a dryer, not a clothesline.

Yes… and no.  It depends upon what’s important to you.

Why not to prewash or preshrink fabrics

Fabrics, especially cottons, never look quite so “fresh” after prewashing.

The sizing* and surface finish wash off, so the fabric doesn’t look as smooth. In most cases, you’ll never wash the doll in a machine anyway.  Why worry about shrinkage?

Also, not preshrinking fabric saves you considerable time since you won’t be ironing it.

You can rush home with your new fabrics, and head straight to the cutting table. That’s ideal if you have amazingly creative visions in your head, and you can’t wait to turn them into a doll or two or three!

Dolls seem to turn out best when the full energy of your brilliant concept is right there, fresh in your mind.

Pausing to do anything mundane, such as washing & drying, can be lethal to that fresh & vital energy.

In other words: You don’t have time to preshrink fabrics.  Just get to work and create that doll!

Yes, the fresh-from-the-store surface treatment may repel inks and paints when you’re adding details (such as the face).  That’s easy to fix.  Add a couple of drops of a surfactant** to your painting water, to break down the resistance. Prewashing is not necessary.

Why you should prewash or preshrink fabrics

When fabrics have been treated with sizing and a surface finish, they often won’t accept paint, pen, and/or felt marker designs as well.  If you’re adding a lot of artwork to the surface of your doll, that’s a problem solved by prewashing.

If the doll has an accident — like when something spills on her — you can wash her (carefully, of course) without worrying about the results. Prewashed fabrics have already shrunk, bled, puckered, and softened as much as they’re likely to.

If you always preshrink fabrics as soon as you bring them home, you can confidently use the same fabric in your wearable art and know that the finished garment can be tossed into the washing machine.

How I preshrink fabrics

First, I trim any loose threads off the fabric. They’re going to fray in the laundry.  Sometimes, those loose thread can wrap the fabric into a tight, wrinkled ball by the time the drying is completed.

If it’s a small and expensive piece of fabric, I may fray-check the cut edges to prevent further unravelling and fraying.

Dritz makes a product, “Fray Check,” for this, and other manufacturers have similar products. It’s a lifesaver, in my opinion.

Before prewashing, I refold the fabric so it is not folded along the same line as it was on the bolt.

If you don’t do that, the original fold line will promptly wear and fade, even in the first washing.  You’ll have to cut around that part of the fabric.

I always wash the fabric by itself, or in the laundry with dark items that will not bleed.

(“Bleeding” colors mean colors that aren’t permanently dyed.  Some of the color will wash out during the first washing, and sometimes during successive laundering. )

For example, my kitchen dishtowels don’t show stains, so they can be washed when I preshrink fabrics.  If I’m not concerned about mixing fabric weights in the laundry, I often wash older blue jeans with my new fabrics, too.

Three things can happen when you preshrink fabrics:

First, there’s the effect of water on the fabric.

Some fabrics pucker, wrinkle, and go limp in water.

The puckering and wrinkling can be steamed out when you iron. The limpness is resolved with a spray sizing or starch, usually added when you iron.

However, if you’re going to paint or draw on the fabric, it’s best to apply the sizing or starch after you paint or draw, so the pigment is well absorbed.

Next, consider the effect of soap and water on the fabric.

The colors may run as you preshrink fabrics. The texture of the fabric may change, too.

Almost anything can happen, particularly if you’ve bought a cotton by an unknown manufacturer, or a mixed-fiber fabric from the markdown bin.

I use cold water the first time I wash a fabric. Some people also add a small amount of vinegar or salt to the water, to set the colors. Or you can use one of those disposable towels that absorb excess (“bleeding”) colors in the washing machine.

Sometimes, texture changes can be remedied with plenty of steam ironing and starch or sizing.

However, some fabrics will never look the same as when they were new, which is why some dollmakers prefer not to prewash.

Finally, there’s the effect of dryer heat. I use the hottest dryer setting and dry the fabric for over an hour, usually tossing in other loads of laundry rather than wasting dryer heat on just one piece of fabric.

(Exposure to dryer heat can be the most important step when you preshrink fabrics.)

In my experience, shrinkage is not eliminated until the fabric has been through two to three hours of dryer heat.

Summary

If you love the fabric just as you bought it, and you don’t plan to wash your cloth doll, ever, there’s no reason to preshrink fabrics.

However, if your doll may be exposed to wear & tear, and stains or dirt are possible, preshrinking can reduce worries.

Fabrics can change color, size and texture in the laundry and dryer.  In some cases, you can restore the texture.  Faded colors and shrinkage usually cannot be reversed.

I preshrink almost all of my fabrics before using them in dolls, but there are exceptions when the doll will be displayed, not worn (as a pin doll) or played with.

* Sizing: Similar to starch, sizing is a fabric treatment that makes the fibers stiffer, crisper, and “fresher” looking. Sizing washes out in the laundry, but you can replace it in the rinse cycle, or with spray-on sizing when you iron.

** Surfactant: A product which breaks the surface tension of water, and helps “cut through” the protective layers sometimes applied to stain-resistant (and other) fabrics.

I use a Shaklee product called Basic H, and place two or three drops in a pint of water when I’m using watercolors on a doll, if the paint beads too much. But, you can do the same thing with a drop of dishwashing liquid. (That is, liquid soap intended for washing dishes by hand.)

Consider every reason to preshrink fabrics (or not to) before deciding.