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Fabric 101~ How to Choose Fabric ~ (she: Amy)

Hello, my name is Amy Smart and I am a fabriholic. Okay, there’s a lot more to me than that. I’m also a wife to a busy, smart husband and a mother to 4 (mostly) charming kids.  During my spare time (which during summer vacation seems to be next to non-existent) I love to sew – especially to make quilts – and to blog about it at my blog Diary of a Quilter.  I also like to do lots of other things that I don’t blog about like: read books, eat delicious food – especially the kind that I didn’t have to prepare – go for walks, get excited when my kids eat the food I put on their plates, and wear flip-flops.

Recently I was with a group of women from my new neighborhood and they started talking about their fear of fabric stores and how intimidated they felt to go in one.  It was interesting for me to hear their thoughts because I occasionally work in a fabric store – something I don’t think any of them knew.  I began to wonder if a lot more women felt intimidated as well.
So today I am going to share some tips and insider knowledge to help anyone else out there who might be feeling the same fabric-store-phobia. I must also openly disclose the fact that I work mainly with quilting fabrics and I am not an expert in apparel fabric, but I think some of these tips still apply.
(image here)
Finding the right fabric store 
First: Not all fabric stores fill the same needs.  My own experience is that the bigger chain outlets are going to be a little more overwhelming and a lot less personal.  There are fewer employees per customer, so they can’t feasibly hold your hand through the process of picking fabric or get you started on that first sewing project. But the pluses are cheaper prices, coupon availability and larger selection.  I also like their selection of Home Decorator fabrics. I definitely get most of my notions, batting, pillow forms, etc. at these stores.
Finding a smaller, independently-owned store you will increase your chances of finding employees who can answer questions, contribute opinions or explain techniques. An independently owned store will also carry higher-quality fabric options in most cases and therefore have higher prices. There is a reason you pay higher prices at independently owned fabric stores – the are more likely to carry the well made goods.
Choosing Fabric
Yes, it is true: all fabric is not created equal. There really is a difference in fabric: the thread count, the dyes that are used, the way the fabric is produced, all affect the quality of the finished product. Frankly, you get what you pay for. The bigger box stores are going to carry cheaper, not as well-made fabric – especially in the quilting cottons.  There’s no reason why you can’t use the cheap stuff.  If you’re making something like a Halloween costume that is only going to be worn a couple of times, or a carseat cover that is just going be thrown-up on or be a home for smashed crackers, then I personally would not invest in super expensive fabric. But if you are making a wedding quilt that you hope to become a family heirloom make the investment in high-quality products. You won’t regret it – especially considering the time you’ll invest in a project like that.
Gorgeous Amy Butler fabric I scored for 50% off
You can often get good quality fabric on sale as well. I always check the clearance sections at my local quilting shops and often find really great stuff!
How to pick the right thing – asking for help
I find the next great dilemma for most newbies is picking the perfect fabric. When people are beginning a project and are paralyzed by the thought of starting a new project, I encourage them to walk through the shop and pick at least a couple of bolts that “speak to them.”  As the humble fabric-store employee, I have no idea what your individual tastes are, but if you can give me a place to start I can help you build around those favorites.
 This collection is my current favorite: Firebird by MoMo for Moda fabrics
Another really great thing about designer, high-quality fabric is that they come in collections that are pre-coordinated. Colors, patterns, scale – everything is gathered together for you.  One note about designer collections they are released only once, so if it’s something you love get it when you see it.  We frequently have people come in and ask if we still have a fabric they bought last year, or if we can order more.  The fabric companies generally print one run of the fabric collection. The store owners order the fabric months before it arrives in the stores and by the time it does arrive it is usually difficult to order more of that collection.  A few months later, it’s generally impossible to order more.  Just remember, you wouldn’t ask The Gap why they don’t have the same pants that coordinate with the outfit you bought last year. Generally the same thing applies to independent fabric stores.
On recent innovation by the bigger fabric companies (like Moda) is the creation of pre-cut fabrics.  These little bundles of fabric come in strips, squares or triangles and contain a sample of each fabric from then entire collection. For example the picture above is of a Charm Pack.  This charm pack contains 42 pre-cut 5″ squares.  Another product called a Jelly Roll contains 40  2.5″ x 42″ strips. These pre-cuts are a great way to get a great variety of prints with out having to buy a lot of yardage.
What the heck is a Fat Quarter?
Craft stores and quilt stores both carry pre-cut pieces of yardage called Fat Quarters.  A Fat Quarter is a quarter of a yard of fabric, but it is cut in a different shape than a regular quarter yard of fabric.  When cutting a quarter yard of fabric off the bolt, you are getting a piece 9″ wide x the width of the fabric (around 42″-43.) Four of these cuts, create a yard.  A Fat Quarter is a piece of fabric cut 18″ off the end of the bolt, and then cut in half on the fold.  Four of these put together still make up 1 yard of fabric.  Imagine a piece of paper cut into four equal horizontal strips compared to a piece cut once horizontally and once vertically to get four equal square-ish pieces.
One is not better than the other but one size might be more useful depending on the pieces needed for a particular pattern.
To wash or not to wash
If you are making garments or items that need to be preshrunk I would wash all cottons first.  If you are going to be cutting fabric for piecing a quilt I would wash any cheap fabric you buy (i.e. from the bigger chain stores) but most of the more expensive yardage is going to be fine cutting into it before washing.  I personally would not wash any of the pre-cuts before sewing.  Deep reds and blacks, however, you may want to wash first. I love Shout Color Catchers.  I throw them in with every quilt I make during it’s first wash, just to be safe.

I hope all of this makes everyone a little less scared of the fabric store.  Also please feel free to leave any favorite tips or suggestions of your own.  The goal is to remove all fear of choosing your fabric – although I will tell you now, fabric addictions have been known to take over people’s lives and storage space. Consider yourself warned.
~ Amy



Owner & Author at Or so she says...
Mariel (mahr-eeee-elle) is a mother to six, wife to one. Loves homeschooling, golfing, cupcakes, traveling, cuddling, non-fiction books, gardening, James Taylor, and family time. This is her blog. Enjoy!
14 Comments On This Topic
  1. T
    5 years ago

    Hey, I met Amy!!!

    My family always jokes that the women are card carrying members of the “she who dies with the most fabric wins” club… Now if I could just find the time to USE the fabric I have purchased (or inherited from other relatives trying to help me in my eternal quest) things would be wonderful!! Good tips!

  2. Mariel
    5 years ago

    My sewing skills are lacking. I can make a pillow! Whoo! But, I sure love fabric stores…one of these days I’m going to sign up for sewing lessons.

    Thanks for the post, it’s so helpful…especially for gals, like me, that are clueless.

  3. Belinda
    5 years ago

    That was a very informative post and one I needed. I am just a beginner quilter and I need all the help I can get! Thanks!

  4. Jodi
    5 years ago

    This is great! Me and my two sisters recently started quilting together and we are ALL out to lunch when it comes to coordinating fabric – so we drag along my daughter who is a big help, but she gets overworked, trust me! So thanks for all that, and the Shout Color catcher info, too!

  5. Susan
    5 years ago

    Thanks for the post. As a beginner quilter this helps out a lot!!

  6. live a colorful life
    5 years ago

    I’ve been buying quilting fabric for over fifteen years but it’s always fun to read posts like this because you can always learn something new. This was well written and informative.

  7. Quiet Quilter
    5 years ago

    I appreciate the hints and suggestions. I love buying fabric!

  8. DJ Rose
    5 years ago

    Great post. I love fabric and am always buying it. I never knew the deal with fat quarters. I’ve bought lots of them and enjoy working with them, I just never knew the difference. You explained it so well. :)

  9. pinksuedeshoe
    5 years ago

    Wonderful post. Love it. One thing I’d add is that sometimes if you know who designed your fabric and/or what line it is from you can find it online. Sometimes even a year later. There are a lot of online fabric stores, as well as Etsy and ebay where I have found a little bit more of a well loved fabric.

  10. nikki
    5 years ago

    thanks, amy. i love love love buying fabric as well and look forward to the day when i have more fabric shop options, ie. bigger city! i didn’t know that about the one time printing of a fabic line-thanks. if i’m heading to the big city and want to find a non-chain fabric store, i’ll go to a favorite designer’s website and use their store locator.

  11. angela
    5 years ago

    I probably have a masters in fabric buying – these are fabulous tips for somebody just starting out!

  12. amy smart
    5 years ago

    Great point, Erica (pinksuedeshoe) – yes! Keep track of that collection information! Online is an AWESOME resource for finding that elusive fabric you’ve been trying to hunt down – I’ve done it many times myself.

  13. Jessica
    5 years ago

    Awesome post Amy!!!

  14. Shelley
    5 years ago

    Great article Amy! Some good thoughts and suggestion for dealing with quilt customers!

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