Okay…let’s have a moment of complete honesty here….
How many of you purchased fabric during the Covid lockdowns? Can I see a show of hands?
How many of us have sewn all that fabric up? Again, a show of hands, please.
How many of us have more fabric than we probably won’t sew up in the remainder of our lifetimes?
I’ll be the very first to admit, I bought quite bit of fabric during 2020. And in the spirit of complete honesty, I didn’t need any of it. I purchased it because I wanted to do something to help keep quilt shops up and running during lockdowns. The quilting arena had already lost far too many brick-and-mortar shops before Covid, and I didn’t want to see any more of those, or the web-based shops, close. I did what I could to hopefully keep their bottom line in the black.
I sewed a lot during Covid. I made hundreds of masks and eight quilts (completed – down to the last stitch in the labels). But did I make a dent in my Mount Stashmore?
The answer to that is a hard no. No, nope, not a chance, didn’t happen. So, I thought for this blog, we’ll take another look at our stash – what it is, how valuable is it, how to manage it, and what does it need to look like. I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but that blog was written several years ago, and truthfully the subject needs to be discussed again.
In general, “stash” means a back-log supply of something – money, clothing, craft supplies. It’s an inventory of items you may need for future use. Quilters often refer to their “fabric stash” (or just “stash”). This is the extra fabric we have left over from projects or fabric we’ve purchased because we liked it, or it fulfilled one of the “basic” needs for quilting. The guidelines for procuring a fabric stash vary, but one very important idea to keep in mind is your stash should be compatible with your fabric storage space. In other words, your house shouldn’t look like an episode of Hoarders with fabric filling every room in the house. I know some quilters whose stash is limited to a couple of dresser drawers and other quilters who have floor-to-ceiling-come-to-Jesus stashes. The amount of stash you have may also depend on what generation you fall in. Boomers tend to have more stash than Millennials. I’m Generation Jones. Besides being tech-savvy, adaptable, and more ignored than Generation X, our stash seems to fall somewhere in the middle. And despite the fact most quilters made or started numerous quilts during lockdown, it seems our quilt output did not keep up with our stash input.
In other words, most of our stashes are fairly large. And this begs the question, just how much is all this fabric worth? In 2014, the National Quilting Association surveyed hundreds of quilters about this very question – how much fabric did they have on hand and on average how much did they spend a month on material? After crunching the numbers, the NQA stated the average quilter’s stash was valued at $6,000 in 2014. Allowing for today’s inflation, the average 2022 fabric mini-hoard is worth $6,472.26.
That’s a nice chunk of change. While you may think nothing about adding a yard (or two) of fabric here and there, it’s important to keep in mind your stash’s overall worth and how to make it work for you. Here’s where it’s very important to understand what kind of quilter you are because this will not only affect what kind of fabric you will add to your stash, but also affect how much.
The first question to ask yourself is, “Are you primarily a piecer or an appliquer?” I realize many quilters (including myself) are quite comfortable working in both categories. It may be difficult to decide what kind of quilter you are because you like making both kinds of quilts. The easiest way to discover which quilting camp you fall into is: 1). Look at the quilts you’ve made and those under construction. Are they primarily pieced or appliqued? And 2). Look at your quilt patterns and books. Are they primarily for pieced quilts or appliqued ones? Whichever technique has the most patterns, books, and quilts – that’s the kind of quilter you are. For me, it’s applique. And how I keep, purchase, and manage my stash will be diametrically different than that of a piecer.
Piecers tend to need and purchase larger pieces of fabric. It takes yardage to produce pieced bed and wall quilts. Between the borders, neutrals, focus fabrics, and additional lights, mediums, and darks, several yards of fabric are actively involved in a pieced quilt. Piecers can use a variety of different fabric forms for the yardage. Jelly rolls, layer cakes, and fat quarters may be part of a piecer’s stash, as well as traditional yard cuts. Inevitably, once the quilt is cut out, there are leftover scraps. How the piecer handles his or her scraps depends on if this quilter also likes to applique. If they enjoy either machine or hand applique, they may want to keep their scraps. If not, they may be left with large-ish chucks of fabric they’re not sure what to do with. I encourage piecers to ask themselves the following questions:
- Is there enough leftover fabric to make a smaller version of the quilt – a wall hanging, cuddle quilt, or miniature – and would they actually do this?
- Would they make an “after quilt?” An after quilt is a quilt made from the scraps. This quilt may not look anything like the original quilt, but it uses up the leftover material. These make great charity quilts or gifts. The trick with after quilts is to make them immediately after the primary quilt is completed – otherwise the leftover fabric may languish in their Mount Stashmore for months.
- Can you use it to sew a quilt back? The back of a quilt can be just as creative as the front. It can incorporate leftover blocks as well as leftover fabric. It just needs to be four to six inches larger than the front of the quilt.
- Do you have an active scrap sorting system? By this I mean, do you take the leftover fabric and sub-cut it into blocks, rectangles, or strips? The most common sizes are 5 ½-inch squares, 6 ½ -inch squares, 4-inch squares, 3 ½-inch squares, 2 ½-inch squares, and 2 ½-inch strips. These are the sizes used in most quilt patterns. You can use these to make four-patch units or half-square triangles or quarter-square triangles. When you have enough of these, you can make a scrap quilt…which brings us to this question…
- Is there a scrap quilt in your future? If there is, save those scraps and plan to purchase some white quilt fabric in the future when you can find it on sale. In my opinion, white fabric makes all the different colored scraps play nicely with each other.
If the answer to these questions is “No,” and you’re not into appliqué at all, honestly you may need to periodically clean out your stash and give some of it away. This can be difficult. It’s hard to give away fabric you’ve spent your hard-earned cash on. On a small scale, there are quilt guilds. If you are a member of a guild, there’s a good chance there may be a “Freebie” table at guild meeting. You can leave your fabric there with the peace of mind knowing it will find a good home where it will be loved and used. If you don’t belong to a guild, try Googling sewing and quilting groups where you live. If the group has an active charity program, they may eagerly take the left-over stash off your hands. If neither one of these options appeal to you, there’s always Facebook Marketplace and Craig’s List, which may allow you to recoup at least some of your money.
Applique quilters are different. While, yes, they do need yardage – there’s always background fabrics and borders to deal with – smaller amounts of material are needed for the applique pieces. Like piecers, applique quilters can (and often do) work with pre-cuts. The difference between the two quilters starkly shows in the yardages purchased. Most applique quilters have yards of background fabric in their stash. For some appliquers, this means creams, ecrus, grays and blacks – the true backbones of the neutral category. However, we know the definition of “neutral” has changed completely in the last 10 years or so. This means there may yards of other fabrics (solids, tone-on-tones, and low-volume prints) which can be used as backgrounds. But by far, the majority of the stash consists of fabrics for the applique process. This means an applique quilter’s stash will have every color of the rainbow and then some. And speaking from personal experience, I can tell you as an applique artist, I look at fabric a bit differently. For instance, all green material has the possibility of becoming stems and leaves. This means even unattractive greens may find their way into my fabric mini-hoard. I can see the possibility in even the ugliest of fabric. Take for instance this one:
This fabric – as much as it may make your eyes bleed – has wonderful potential for flower centers and petals. This is both a blessing and a curse. All the unattractive, unsellable material on the clearance table for a $1.99 a yard? That can be where I do my best buying. I can get great bang for a few bucks. It all has potential if you know how to look at it. However, here’s where the dark side is – we don’t need a great deal of fabric for applique. This means we can purchase one yard of material at a time and use it for several quilts. Instead of our stash being limited to larger pieces of yardage like the piecers, quite often ours is full of one-yard and smaller cuts – and there’s a lot of them. It’s difficult to manage. I know most quilters tend to sort their stash either by color or designer. As an applique artist, I sort by texture and then by color. Those fabrics which can be used in flowers go in one stack and then are sorted by color. Material which can be used for landscape quilts are in another area and are sorted by fabric for pebbles, bricks, roofs, water, walls, etc. My Feedsack reproduction fabrics are kept separate, as are my Civil War Reproductions. Holiday fabrics (which is my smallest stack) are in another area.
Like piecers, applique quilters have scraps, and these can be our biggest downfall. Every scrap has the potential to be used in another quilt. My first applique teacher encouraged us to keep every scrap.
Since I was a newbie and didn’t know any better, I did. By the end of my third year of quilting, I had a pillowcase full of scraps of every size and color. I had so many scraps, I honestly did not really know what I had. So, one day I dumped them all out on my dining room table and took a hard look at my scrappage. My eyes fell on a slightly-less than one-inch square of green. And I thought to myself, “What are the chances I will make one leaf out of one color of green?”
Answer: Slim to none.
I came to the decision I wouldn’t keep any scraps less than 8-inches square. I could get several applique pieces from a piece of leftover fabric this size. I do sort my scraps according to color. Each color is kept in a separate bin, with special bins for busy fabrics with several colors, landscape fabrics, and border prints.
Applique quilters need to ask themselves these questions:
- How small is too small? What is the tiniest piece of scrappage you’re willing to keep? Decide what that is and stick to your guns – don’t keep any smaller than you’re able to work with.
- How much background fabric do you realistically need? If you’re a typical applique quilter, chances are the number of applique quilts you’ll complete will be fewer than a piecer, because applique (either by hand or machine) takes longer than piecing. If you can complete two or three quilts a year, then chances are you don’t need yards and yards (and yards to infinity) of background fabric.
- When looking through your applique stash, is there one color you seem to have a great deal of? Is there a color you need to add to? If this is the case, you may be able to swap some scrappage with another applique quilter. She may need at least 25 of your 50 blues and you may need 30 of her brilliant oranges. A fair swap can usually be worked out.
- Like the piecers, can you use some of your leftover fabric for a quilt back, an after quilt, or a smaller version of the quilt you just made? Any and all of these will help you shrink your stash and manage it better.
- Do you need to Marie Kondo some of your stash? If it no longer brings you joy, if the fabric is hopelessly outdated, or you honestly can’t see yourself appliqueing it in a quilt, it’s time to move it to a new home. Leave it on the free table at guild, give to an organization that may use it for charity sewing, or see if you can sell it.
So why all the reflection about my Mt. Stashmore? There are several reasons. First, I am concerned about quilting’s carbon footprint. It can take up to five months for cotton fabric (as well as other all-natural, plant-based fabric and silks) to decompose. Meanwhile, as it’s gradually transitioning to this final stage, it’s taking up space in landfills when it could be used elsewhere. It’s super-easy to just toss scrappage — even what I would consider salvageable left overs – in the trash and just keep moving. There may be another quilter who can use what you have. The good news is that if you can get your cotton scraps down to small enough pieces, they work well in a compost pile. If you don’t compost, maybe you have a friend who does. Bonus in this – if the compost pile is outside in the open, birds may decide your scraps are just what they need to make the inside of their nests all nice and cozy.
Secondly, we’re transitioning – my husband and myself. We’re both sixty. Our children are in their thirties and show no signs of returning home other than to visit. We live in a 3,200-sf house on about four acres meant for a family of four. We have no desire to spend our free time mowing the grass, tending the flowers, or cleaning the house. We’re downsizing. We haven’t found a new home, but we’re looking…which means we have to move. If you’ve read my older blogs you know my quilt studio is the largest room in my house and it has an adjacent, large, walk-in closet. And while my next studio may be just as large as this one is, I have no desire to move all my fabric. I’m working through my stash as fast as possible.
Inevitably, the last question is “Will all this stash management hurt my LQS?” Let’s have another moment of brutal honesty here: Unless the establishment is a huge fabric only retail outlet, the answer is no. True fact – fabric stores of all types make the least money on fabric itself. Generally, most LQS’s are lucky if they break even on quilting cottons. Patterns, machines, notions…it’s this sort of merchandise or the side gig of long arming or classes which produce more income. In the future I would really like to see the culture of quilt shops change a bit. I believe (and this is just my opinion), the quilt community may be better served if shops could see the quilter through to the end of the project. For instance, a new quilter enters a shop and wants to make a quilt. She or he is still fairly new to the quilting world. The salesperson tells the new quilter about their beginner classes, which charges a nominal fee. The quilter signs up, pays the fee, and purchases all the needed supplies from the quilt store. He or she shows up, takes the classes, and makes the quilt top. Then the salesperson mentions the store has longarm classes so the new quilter can quilt the new top. Excited because the top is finished and looks lovely, the new quilter signs up for the long arm class, pays the class fee, and purchases the needed backing and batting. The quilt is quilted with an easy pantograph design. Now the salesperson tells her new quilter about a binding class or quilt group who can show the new quilter how to bind her quilt.
Within a period of a couple of months, the new quilter has a completed, beautiful, new quilt in which they’ve put in every stitch. If the quilting bug has bit – and it usually does by this point – the quilter will sign up for additional classes, purchase additional supplies, show up to add to his or her stash, rent the long arm, and the LQS has become the new quilter’s touchstone for his or her quilt world. This would help the shop build a strong customer base and produce quilters who can handle every quilting step.
I know lots of us quilters decide not to buy any more fabric. We may make New Year’s Resolutions about it or come to this conclusion after purchasing a large haul from a fabric sale. We believe our stash should go on a diet and reduce itself. I can say
largely from personal experience the decision to completely stop purchasing fabric doesn’t work. I think the easiest way to deal with your stash is to learn how to manage it. Determining if you’re a piecer or applique quilter is the first step. This determination gives you the mental freedom to feel okay about how much yardage you’re purchasing and the ability to not over purchase. Don’t exceed your stash storage capacity. If your fabric mini-hoard is growing too large, give some of it away or sell it. If you need smaller chunks of fabric, see if you can’t do a fabric swap with some fellow quilters.
Like Mt. Rushmore, your Mt. Stashmore is truly a beautiful sight, as long as you don’t let it get out of hand. Learn to manage it. The last thing I want to see on an episode of Hoarders is a quilter whose stash has taken over her entire house.
Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam