If you need a versatile fabric that can be used to make clothing, provide the backing to a quilt, or make curtains for a stage, restaurant event space, or home, 100% cotton muslin is a perfect choice. Designers often make the first run of their new fashions with it thanks to its durability and versatility. Despite its popularity, some consumers worry about the fact that it’s made from cotton, a material that’s notorious for shrinking after it’s washed.
Cotton muslin will shrink in the washer or dryer, but it won’t shrink as much as you might expect. Some types of muslin don’t shrink at all. Those that do typically don’t shrink by more than 10%. Given that, there’s an easy work-around. When you’re buying muslin fabric, purchase 10% more than you need. If you need 10 yards, purchase 11 yards to allow for the shrinkage.
How Muslin is Made
What is muslin and how is it made? Muslin is made by weaving cotton threads together. The fabric used to be handwoven on a loom with threads weaving over and under vertically and horizontally, but there are automated looms that do the same thing but at a much faster pace. Manufactured muslin helped bring the price down and eliminated the long shipping times that importers used to face.
You might think that muslin is then just a normal cotton fabric since it’s woven cotton. There are differences. It’s a looser weave, however. If you think of a high-quality cotton sheet, the woven threads are often so tightly woven that you can’t pick out the threads. The looser weave in muslin fabric makes it easier to notice them and pick out any flaws in the fabric’s weave.
Cotton muslin typically has a thread count of no more than 130 threads per inch. To understand what that means, compare it to the cheap sheets you can purchase in a discount retailer. Those usually have a thread count of 200 to 300. The stiffer, somewhat scratchy bed sheets in a hospital are around the 130 to 150 marks. Cotton muslin is going to be more like the sheets and pillowcases that hospitals use.
Higher counts tend to have a sateen feel, making them desirable. If you want luxurious sheets, Egyptian cotton sheets often have a thread count of 300 to 400. Bamboo sheets are usually upwards of 500 to 600. The thread counts of different cotton fabrics vary, and the cotton muslin’s loose weave makes for a sheer, lightweight fabric.
Machines called looms to weave the cotton threads in muslin together. High-quality muslin, such as the muslin used to make the clothing of royalty centuries ago, was woven by hand. It’s a time-consuming process, so most muslin manufacturers today have machines to speed up production. The resulting muslin is an affordable fabric, and it’s increasingly popular for summer clothing as it’s breathable to prevent overheating.
As muslin is made from cotton threads, it has no choice but to shrink when exposed to hot water and heat from the dryer. Why is that?
Understanding Why Cotton Shrinks
During the process of weaving cotton threads together, those threads are pulled as tightly as possible. This stretches them out to their expanded size. When you apply heat from hot water or the electric heating element or gas flames in a clothes dryer, the heat relaxes the cotton. Once relaxed, the cotton threads contract, causing them to return to their original size.
What can you do to stop it from shrinking? Hand wash cotton muslin items in cold water. Avoid hot water. When the items are washed, lay them flat to dry or hang them outside. If you hang cotton muslin outside, try to keep the items out of direct sunlight.
If you’re worried about wrinkling, put them through a no-heat dryer cycle. The tumbling and cool air help remove wrinkles. Don’t use an iron. The heat from the iron can shrink the fabric.
Better yet, remember our tip about purchasing more fabric than is needed. Pre-shrink the muslin in hot water and put it through the dryer before you use it.
Flame Retardant Muslin is an Exception to the Norm
Flame retardant muslin has been treated with a chemical solution to lower the chances of the fabric catching on fire. That treatment affects the muslin, so you don’t need to worry about it shrinking. When you order flame retardant muslin, order the size you need. Don’t forget to account for any hems and seams that will be added.
Poly Muslin adds polyester to keep it from shrinking. The fabric is Inherently Flame Retardant (IFR), meaning the treatment won’t wash out. You can launder items made with poly muslin in a washing machine or take them to a dry cleaner and not lose the flame retardant benefit.
Tips for Shopping for Muslin
When you’re shopping for muslin, weigh your options and choose the one that best fits your needs. Stage curtains should be flame retardant due to the heat from the stage lights. You won’t need flame retardant fabrics if you’re using the fabric to line clothing or make lightweight curtains in your home.
Allow for that 10% shrinkage in natural cotton muslin fabrics and backdrops. Make sure the amount you purchase covers your needs. When you’re calculating the amount you need, add in the extra for seams and hems. Often, hems and seams add another three inches on each edge. If you’re using 100% cotton muslin to make curtains, you might want to add more than three inches to the top to allow the slot for a curtain rod, too.
What kind of muslin is best for your project? Chicago Canvas & Supply provides four options for muslin fabric. Choose from:
- Natural Cotton Muslin: This is 100% cotton in a natural off-white color. Best used for backdrops, curtains, cycloramas, quilting, and stage flats. Purchase in 100-yard rolls or by the yard in widths of up to 39 feet.
- Muslin Backdrops: Choose from solid-colored backdrops or Old Master Style backdrops that are ideal for photography sessions and come in sizes as large as 10 by 24 feet.
- Flame Retardant Muslin: This material is treated with a solution that helps lower the risk of a fire. If exposed to hot light bulbs or a candle, the material may smolder, but it won’t erupt into flames. Purchase it in five colors, including black, bleached white, blue, gray, and natural.
- Flame Retardant Poly Muslin: This blend of 100% cotton muslin and polyester isn’t as stiff. It comes in 16 colors and is available in 10.75-foot widths. It’s a popular choice for outdoor settings where humidity is an issue. Use it for outdoor wedding drapes and swags or for your outdoor theater or stage.
How can our muslin experts help you? Do you need guidance choosing the right material for your project or with understanding how much fabric to order? Reach out to us by phone or email. We’re happy to discuss the different materials and minimum order requirements. Our 100% cotton muslin is made in the USA, and we offer a price match guarantee. Your satisfaction is our goal. Let us know how we can help!