For this edition of Sew You Wanna Quilt? I am going to be talking about fabric – where to find it, how to select it, how much to buy, how to store it, and color and value.
Readers are addicted to books and quilters are addicted to fabric. I don’t know one quilter who doesn’t have a generous stash of fabric hoarded away and waiting for the next project. Honestly, my love of fabric and color is what initially drew me to quilting…and it is still largely what fuels my passion.
Quilting is, essentially, the art of cutting up fabric and then sewing it back together in pleasing patterns. The fabric industry is huge. Your choices of fabric are endless. Today’s modern quilters are not just buying quilting cottons…they are also using satins, silks, voiles, wools, corduroys, and other specialty fabrics to add depth, interest and texture to their quilts. My recommendation is that new quilters or those who have little to no sewing experience use 100%, high quality (high thread count) fabric for their first projects. Why? Because it is economical and (even more importantly) easy to handle and stitch. It doesn’t fray like silk, it doesn’t slip and slide like voile and satin, it is easy to get a flat seam when you press, and you will find many, many choices in quilting cottons.
Some Basics About Fabric Designers, Manufacturers and Collections
Designers: These are the artists who envision the patterns and colors of a line of fabric. Many designers have blogs you can follow to see what they are working on. Certain designers will appeal to you more than others. This is like finding a favorite author – you like their style, their presentation and their vision. These are some of my favorite designers:
Manufacturers: These are the big companies which produce the fabric. Manufacturers are a bit like book publishers and you will see that their fabric lines have a signature appearance or style. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself consistently attracted to fabric lines produced by one or two manufacturers. Here are some of my favorite manufacturers of fabric:
Collections: A fabric collection is a group of different fabrics which are designed to go with each other. Often a designer will produce several different prints in two or three different color palettes. Here is an example of a collection by Joel Dewberry. This collection is called Heirloom and consists of thirteen different prints in three different colorways (Citrine, Ruby and Sapphire).
Sources for Fabric
Quilting is a very old art form. Your grandmother probably used left over scraps of fabric, feed sacks, and whatever she could find to make the beautiful quilts you remember from childhood. Here is a quilt that my husband’s grandmother made which is made up of largely scraps – and it is gorgeous:
Many of today’s quilters shop for vintage fabrics to create their quilts…and there is nothing wrong with that. BUT, older fabric or inexpensive fabric will not hold up to multiple machine washings like today’s high thread count fabrics. Anyone who has purchased an 800 thread count sheet for their bed will instantly see the difference from the 150 count sheets – the quality is softer, silkier, and becomes more wonderful with use. This is the same with quilting cottons. Go to your local quilt shop and feel the fabrics – you will immediately realize the difference between these and cheaper fabrics.
So my recommendation: spend the extra money to purchase high quality fabric. You are going to put many hours of effort and creative energy into making your quilt. It is worth it to use the best fabric you can afford.
I believe strongly in supporting local businesses. Most towns or cities have at least one quilting store – check your yellow pages or ask around. My area has four different stores all within 20 minutes of each other. Each quilting shop is unique – they carry different lines of fabric, or celebrate different styles of quilting (ie: modern vs. traditional). There is nothing like being able to actually feel the fabric and see it “in person.” Even if you decide to shop online for your fabrics, visiting your local store to see the collections available is a good idea. Start to get a feeling for the colors you are drawn to and the designs which make you feel good. When you see a fabric you love, check the selvage of the fabric where the designer and manufacturer’s name will be printed (also the name of the collection if it is part of a collection). My guess is that you will start to see a pattern – certain designers will appeal to you and certain manufacturer names will start popping up. Carry a little notebook with you and jot down the names of designers, manufacturers and collections which you are drawn to. If you start to develop a working knowledge of your favorite designers and manufacturers, shopping for fabric will get easier!
A Note About Joann’s:
Almost every reasonably sized city in America has a Joann’s Fabric and Craft Store. I love Joann’s for buying notions, tools and books – but I rarely buy fabric there because, in general, their fabrics are not of the high thread count which I can find on line or in my local quilting stores. The one exception: I buy my Kona solids at Joann’s when I have a coupon. Joann’s carries basic colors of Kona Cotton Solids – a high quality fabric. I use a lot of white Kona Cotton in sashing (plain or pieced strips of fabric that are used between quilt blocks) for my quilts (more about sashing in a later post), so I stock up on it. The Joann’s coupons (which come in my email) give me 40- 50% off on a single cut of fabric…a great deal. To sign up for Joann’s account and receive updates and sale coupons, go here.
There are many, many wonderful on-line quilting shops (some have a physical store and also sell on line, others are completely on line). It seems that almost every week I am finding a new one. But, I do have my favorites which I will share with you in a minute. First, let me talk about the benefits and drawbacks of online shopping:
- Ease of shopping
- Often great prices (if you sign up for some shops’ newsletters, you will get advance notice of sales and coupon codes) and it is easy to cost-compare with other shops
- Variety of fabrics (many of the more “modern” fabrics and designers cannot be found in local stores, or the store is stocking limited prints from a collection – on line shopping allows you to find and purchase exactly what you want)
- It is sometimes hard to gauge color from on-line photos
- It is difficult to color-match fabrics if you are mixing lines and collections
- There is typically a shipping cost (although many shops offer low shipping rates or specials where they ship for free or at half cost)
- You can not physically touch the fabric which may take away from your shopping experience
- Depending on where your fabric is shipping from, there can be a little bit of a wait to get the fabric you want for a project
I liberally use the on line stores for fabrics I cannot find in my local stores, or when there is a fabric collection I want and see it on line on sale. Here is a small sampling of the stores I use most often:
Hawthorne Threads – This is a terrific shop with a wide variety of modern, high quality quilting fabrics. One benefit of shopping here is their color matching program. Not only can you search for fabrics using the color grid, but you can also select a fabric and then ask to see fabrics which match a specific color within the fabric. For example, check out this print – scroll to the bottom and try the color matching by selecting a color within the print you would like to match. The other thing I love about Hawthorne Threads is their tiered pricing – the more you buy, the deeper the discount, and they give a nice break to their loyal customers (*note: you must register an account with them and be logged in for discounts to take effect). Their shipping rates are also very reasonable.
The Quilted B – I love this shop which I only recently discovered. The owner, Barb, is very customer service oriented (she always packages fabric beautifully and writes a personal note on the invoice). The Quilted B carries a lot of Moda fabrics and what I like to refer to as “sweet” fabrics – small prints, shabby chic look, soft colors. Barb offers deep discounts during customer appreciation sales (make sure you sign up for her newsletter to take full advantage), and shipping is reasonable.
The Fabric Shack – The motto of this shop is “Where everything is on sale all the time.” If you are looking for Kona Cotton Solids, this is the place to go. They have pretty much every color of that line that is made. In addition to solids, they carry a huge variety of other fabrics as well. And right now they are offering half price shipping (if you purchase any fabric up to $75 the rate is a mere $2.50 – which is exceptional).
The Fat Quarter Shop – Another shop with a huge variety of fabrics and a very easy to navigate site (especially if you like to shop by designer or manufacturer). You can also take advantage of a ton of free patterns through their links to manufacturers. Here is an example of a free pattern for a table warmer using charm squares. This is another store where you should sign up for newsletters – they offer sales often. Shipping prices are average to reasonable depending on the quantity of fabric you are purchasing.
Above All Fabric – I really like the cozy feel of this shop. Shipping is always a flat rate $5.00, there are frequent sales, and registered customers are rewarded through a rewards program. This is a great place to buy pre-cuts – there is not a lot of variety, but what is there is discounted (for example, most shops sell a charm pace for $10, but at Above All Fabric right now, charm packs are selling from $8 to $9.50.
Pink Chalk Fabrics – I love Kathy’s store. She carries lots of the designers I adore and her pricing is competitive. Make sure you sign up for her newsletter to get the latest information about new fabric and sales. The shop’s site is one of the easier sites to navigate and you can shop by color, style, designer, and fiber content. When I’ve ordered from this shop, my fabric has arrived quickly and beautifully packaged.
Etsy – Etsy is a wonderful place to browse. All kinds of things are sold there and if you don’t watch out, you can spend hours clicking around. To find fabric on Etsy, do a search under the category “supplies” for quilting fabric. Over 69,000 “hits” pop up! You can narrow your search by putting in a designer’s name or the name of a collection. When I first started quilting, I shopped from Etsy a lot. Often the shops will “bundle” fabrics in either quarter yard or half yard cuts and you can purchase fabric by the bundle. The benefit to this is that a person is physically combining fabrics for you which blend with each other. Be aware that if you shop from more than one store, you pay shipping at each shop. Before ordering, make sure to read the comments/recommendations for shops (I never had any issues with getting what I ordered). I also recommend shopping with Paypal while on Etsy – I think it is more secure.
If you are reading this article and have a favorite shop on line to buy fabric, please leave a link in the Mr. Linky. To to this, click on the button below, enter the shop name in the “your name” box and the direct link the “your URL” box.
How Much to Buy?
If you have a pattern you have downloaded or purchased, it will tell you exactly how much yardage you need. But, if you are like me and are creating a stash of fabrics for use in a later project, you will not know exactly how much fabric to buy. Don’t let this deter you. I generally buy half yard cuts of fabrics I love. I like shopping collections. So I might buy 6 different prints in half yard cuts for a total of 3 yards – I can always pull fabrics from other lines to go with this collection to make a good sized lap quilt or throw. If a fabric I love is on sale, I might buy a yard of it, or I might even buy 3 or 4 yards of a single fabric to use in backing a quilt. Remember I mentioned you will be drawn to certain colorways? You will find that many of your fabric purchases will blend with each other without even trying.
A word about fat quarters: When I first started quilting I used to buy a lot of fat quarters – they always looked so pretty rolled up and tied with a piece of yarn…and they seemed like an inexpensive way to create a stash. BUT, I find that I hardly ever use them because there is not really enough fabric in a fat quarter unless I am doing a small project. Yes, if you have enough of them, you can make a scrappy, full-size quilt…but I actually prefer purchasing larger cuts of fabric. You will have to make your own decision on that one!
A word about pre-cuts: Pre-cuts are exactly what they sound like – they are pre-cut squares or strips of fabric, usually of every print in a specific collection.
- Layer Cakes are collections of 10″ x 10″ squares of fabric which were originally by Moda Fabrics. Layer Cakes are available by collection and typically include 42 pieces of fabric, though the number may vary.
- Charm Packs are collections of 5″ x 5″ squares of fabric. They are affordable, easy to use, and the size is commonly used in quilting. They are also often referred to as Charm Squares.
- Jelly Rolls are collections of 2.5″ x 44″ strips of fabric. Jelly Rolls typically include 40 strips of fabric but can vary.
Layer Cakes, Charm Packs and Jelly Rolls are the most common types of pre-cuts and are wonderful because you save time in the cutting part of the quilting process. There are many patterns available which use these pre-cuts. The Moda Bake Shop is a great place to get quilt ideas using pre-cut fabrics – and they provide free tutorials for their patterns. The quilt in the button for this series is made up of a Layer Cake of Kaffe Fassett prints – these squares of fabrics were just simply stitched together – easy peasy! And it demonstrates how simple construction can be just a gorgeous as something more complex:
Color and Value
There is a ton of information on the Internet about coordination of color – warm vs. cool, color wheels, etc… I know a lot of people who stress about this part of the process. Personally, I find this the best part of quilting. Most of us know instinctively what looks good in terms of color combinations. But, if you are nervous about choosing colors for a quilt, you only have to look in nature to see what looks right. I found a terrific site that helps with color inspiration. Design Seeds uses photographs and then breaks down the predominant colors in them to give you a palette which works together.
Another great source of color inspiration is Flickr. If you join Flickr (it is free to join and is part of Yahoo), you only need to do a search for quilts to find thousands of images. Here are my favorites which not only help me with design, but help inspire me with color.
And finally, Pinterest is a terrific site that will give you more inspiration about color than you will know what to do with – joining is free and very addictive! If you are interested, here are my boards.
One thing to keep in mind – quilts are a combination of light, medium and dark fabrics which help highlight or form the design of the quilt. Value is another way of talking about the use of light, medium and dark colors. Here is a fantastic article which explains the idea of value and color much better than I can (this is part of a larger series of posts which is called the “Skill Builder Series”). One thing that this quilter explains about value really hit home for me:
Not only does value change create movement in the quilt, you can create all sorts of designs just by watching your value placement. The color of the fabric literally does not matter.
If you don’t consider value in a quilt, it will become very apparent, very quickly. Here is a block I made recently which does not have change in value. The colors work great together, but there is not adequate change in light and dark fabrics:
Do you see how the upper right part of the star just disappears into the background? The value on the left upper side is much better. But overall, this block does not work. Here is a photo of another block I made for the same quilt where I got the value perfect:
So, when you are purchasing fabric, remember to consider value – don’t just buy all dark toned fabrics. Make sure that you also get light and medium toned fabrics. The other consideration is print size – you will see fabrics with very tiny prints, and ones with large scale prints. Consider having a mix of both small and large scale prints on hand. The star block above uses a large scale print in the center and a small scale print for the points which makes this an interesting block. When using large scale prints you have to consider what the fabric will look like when it is cut – you do not want to lose an essential element of the print by cutting it into components that are too tiny. Makes sense, right?
One final word about color – pick what you love, lay the fabrics together and see how they look when placed side by side. And TRUST yourself!! Really, I believe we know what we like, so don’t be scared!
Pre-wash or Not?
I do not pre-wash my fabrics because I hate how they lose their crispness and how the edges fray when washed. Why do people pre-wash? Because they are worried about shrinkage, and they worry about colors bleeding. Here’s the thing – if you buy high quality fabric, shrinkage should be minimal and all the fabric should shrink at the same rate. I have never experienced a problem with shrinkage.
Color bleeding can be a problem. Again, buying high quality fabric should reduce this risk. I also swear by Color Catchers by Shout which I put in every time I wash a quilt. They absolutely work (often I remove the Color Catcher sheet and it is crimson…and yet, there has been no bleeding of color into my quilt).
Pre-washing is a personal choice. Do it if you want, but don’t stress about it.
Trust me – this will become an issue if you grow to love the art of quilting. Stashing fabric is addictive! There are many ways to store fabric, but there are two things you must remember:
- Your fabric needs to be easily accessible so you can see what you have
- Your fabric needs to be protected from dirt and dust
Thanks to my wonderful husband, I now have two large wall cabinets and a base cabinet with drawers to store my fabric…but early on, I used large, wheeled, plastic tubs from Target. They are stackable, slide easily under a bed, and have secure lids which keep out the dirt. They are also the right depth for storing fabric so that I was able to see all my fabrics.
Here are my wall cabinets. On the left, I store my quilting books and small cuts of fabric (quarter yards or smaller), as well as specialty fabrics; on the right bottom shelf are half yard cuts of fabric which do not belong to any collection – they are sorted by color. On the second shelf of the right cabinet are my large (yard or bigger) cuts and all my solid fabrics. And on the top shelf are quilt kits I’ve purchased.
Folding all your fabrics uniformly makes it much, much easier to store. Because I mostly have half yard and yard cuts, it is easy to fold them the same way. I use small bins for my scraps (more about scraps in a future post) and they are on the very top shelf of my left wall cabinet. This next photo shows how uniformity helps. These are my collections, stored by designer and collection, uniformly folded (they are mostly half yard cuts) and arranged in one of my base cabinet drawers. Before I had drawers, this was how I stored fabric within the plastic tubs under the bed. All the fabric is easily seen and accessed…and it stays clean.
I also have an old dresser which I use to store my ongoing projects. There is not room in my sewing room for this dresser, but it sits behind the couch in the living room and I stack books on the top of it. You can pick up an old dresser or bureau at a yard sale, put a fresh coat of pain on it, and have the perfect fabric storage unit.
A lot of quilters store their fabric on open shelving. I don’t like that idea because of dust and dirt. I don’t know how they keep their fabrics clean, but I see that type of open storage all over the blogs.
This post is a lot longer than I intended and I still did not cover everything there is to know about fabric! So, here are some links to articles and sites which talk about fabric which you may find useful:
Have you found other articles about fabric that you think would be helpful to quilters? Please leave me a link in the comments of this post and I’ll add it to the list above!
Sew You Wanna Quilt?
- Visit a local quilt shop (or two or three) and browse their fabrics. See what draws your eye. Make notes in a small notebook about the colors, designers, and manufacturers you love. Pay attention to “value”and print sizes. Start to get a feel of what looks good together and what doesn’t. Look at the quilts hanging on the walls of the store – what do you like? What doesn’t work for you?
- Join Flickr and start a “favorites” collection of quilts you love. Pay special attention to color and value.
- Join Pinterest and start a board (or two) of color inspirations.
- Browse on-line quilt stores and Etsy – bookmark your favorite sites. Some of these stores allow you to create wishlists of fabrics you love – consider doing this! Later when it is time to buy fabric for a project, it will be nice to have some sources bookmarked.
- If you haven’t already done so, start thinking about how you will store fabric – will you use furniture or plastic bins?
Stay tuned for the next article in this series which will post tomorrow on August 20th: Books and Inspiration
Previous article(s) in this series: