A Love/Hate Relationship at its Best (and Worst)

I want to talk about relationship issues today.

Before we start, you need to know something about me.  I’m pretty much a black-and-white person.  And by that, I mean I either like something or I don’t.  I don’t do “maybe” very well.  I like yes or no answers.  Numbers are my friends (because the raw data doesn’t lie), but statistics are my sworn enemy (that’s just a way to twist the numbers to make them say what you want them to say).

Thus, my relationships with pre-cuts.  For those of you who may not recognize the term, a “pre-cut” is fabric which is cut into measurable units before it is sold – such as fat quarters, jelly rolls, and charm packs.  These are generally packaged and sold as part of a line of fabrics.  I love these things, and at other times have a difficult time accepting them.  We definitely have a love-hate relationship.  And I blame our rocky friendship on fabric manufacturers. 

As with most relationships, my affair with pre-cuts began innocently enough.  It started with fat quarters.  In my early days of quilting, between kids, job, and grad school, I mainly completed small quilt projects and fat quarters fit into my schedule (and wallet) nicely.  I loved them and they made it possible for an entire fabric line to come home with me, take up comparatively little space, and didn’t break the Fields family budget.  They were high quality and most of the time held the true measurements of a fat quarter – 18-inches x 22-inches.  Add to those facts there were plenty of fat-quarter friendly quilt patterns, and I was a happy quilter.

Then jelly rolls entered the picture.  While perusing a quilt shop at Myrtle Beach, SC, I came across this roll of fabrics, comprised of 2 ½-inch strips.  It was lovely – all the colors of the fabrics could be seen through the top and the prints were visible on the sides.  When I asked what this was, the salesperson told me it was “A jelly roll –  forty-two 2 ½ inch strips of fabric.”

I was duly impressed.  “But what do you make with this?” I inquired.

“A quilt!  You sew them together and make a small lap quilt,” was the answer.  To give a point of reference, jelly rolls were introduced to the sewing population in 2006.  This could not have taken place long after that.  So at this time, there were no “jelly roll races” and jelly roll patterns were few and far between, if not non-existent.  But the roll I had in hand was pretty and I figured if nothing else, I could use it in my applique.  It came home with me and sat on a shelf for several months before I unwrapped it and tried to sew it together.

Only to be completely underwhelmed.  The strips were not all the same width (some were 2 ½-inches, others 2 1/4-inches) and more than a few were cut crooked.  I sorted them according to color and tossed them in my scrap fabric bins.  I didn’t believe another jelly roll would ever be in my future. 

Which was completely wrong, of course.

In the ensuing three years, I either won or was given a total of eight jelly rolls.  All of which sat on the shelf for a long time.  Once bitten, twice shy.  I didn’t know what to do with fabric strips which were probably cut crooked and not uniform in width.  Since that particular time in my life, I have seen the quilting market flooded with pre-cuts and patterns designed specifically for them.  And this is the topic I want to discuss in this week’s blog – pre-cuts.  I want to touch on what they are, how they fit into our quilting world, and what to do with them. 

Let’s talk about Fat Quarters first.  These pre-cuts were the first ones introduced to the quilting public back in 1980.  These are made by cutting a ½-yard of fabric, and then cutting the half-yard in half on the width, so you have an 18-inch x 22-inch piece of fabric.  Generally, there is a selvege one end, so the quilter is aware what is the lengthwise, crosswise, and bias grains of the fat quarter.  The edges are not pinked (this is important and will be addressed a bit later).  These are sold individually and in bundles.  These bundles may have a fat quarter from each line of fabric in a family or may only have selected ones.  Single fat quarters average costing $3.00 each and a typical bundle of fat quarters (about 26 pieces of fabric) runs about $78.00.  Solid fat quarters are more expensive more than prints. 

For a long time, I’ve believed fat quarters are the most versatile of the pre-cuts and I still believe it’s true.  A fat quarter can be cut into two 10-inch squares (layer cakes) with extra fabric for four 5-inch charm squares.  It can be cut into twelve 5-inch charm squares and a 22-inch jolly strip. It also can produce fifty-six 2 ½-inch mini charm squares, seven 2 ½-inch x 22-inch jelly roll strips, or eight 2 ½-inch x 18-inch jelly roll strips.  If matched with another fabric, you can sew a nearly endless array of half-square triangles or quarter-square triangles.  When you purchase a typical fat quarter bundle of 26 cuts, pair it with a few yards of a neutral and an additional yard or two of your focus fabric, you have a quilt.

Those are the pros of fat quarters.  Now for the cons.  Usually with a fat quarter bundle, you get an array of prints from a line of fabrics.  The collection will include solids, small and medium prints, and at least one large print (which for most quilters is the go-to focus fabric).  This is where you can run into problems.  Sometimes the print is too large for the fat quarter.  You may only get one full rendition of the print or sometimes just parts of the print.  If you’re counting on using all your fat quarters as part of the fabric requirements, that one piece can give you serious issues.  If your fat quarter bundle is a recent purchase, chances are you can find yardage of the large print at your LQS. 

However, if you purchase your fat quarters on-line, you actually may have better options.  Most (not all) fat quarter bundles in a brick-and-mortar store are wrapped in cellophane to keep them clean.  Which means you can’t always determine what fabrics are in the bundle because you can’t see the surface of the material.  When purchased on-line, generally the website will give you tiny thumbnails pictures of all the fabrics in the bundle and list the available yardages which coordinate with the fat quarters. This really helps you make wise purchases.  Most large on-line quilt stores have fat quarters available.  My favorite sites are Pineapple Fabrics, The Fat Quarter Shop, Shabby Fabrics, Stitch Party Studio, and Missouri Star.   However, one selling point the LQS and some big box stores have over on-line establishments is single fat quarter sales.  Most brick-and-mortar stores have individual fat quarters for sale, so you can pick and choose what you want.

My second-favorite pre-cut is layer cakes.  A layer cake is a precut pack of fabric, generally consisting of forty-two, 10-inch squares (although that number may vary). These fabrics are grouped together by designer line, color, or theme. The edges may or may not be pinked. 

Layer cakes are almost as versatile as fat quarters.  One layer cake can produce a twin-sized quilt and two of them make a queen-sized.  They can be cut down into charms and mini-charms, if needed.  They can be sliced and diced to make half-square and quarter-square triangles.  A yard or two of a neutral and a focus fabric can be added and only one layer cake may be needed to make a quilt. 

The problems encountered with layer cake purchases are the same as those with fat quarters, except the large print issues are even worse for a 10-inch square.  However, for whatever reason, many layer cakes are usually not wrapped.  This means you can thumb through the fabric and see what prints are repeated and which ones have large repeats.  This makes purchasing layer cakes in a brick-and-mortar store easy.  And let me throw in this observation – most layer cake pieces are true-to-size.  Overall, they do tend to measure 10-inches square.

Jelly rolls are third on my list, and they have come a long, long way since 2006.  I recently purchased a Boundless ombre jelly roll from Ebay and every one of the strips was 2 ½-inches.  The quality of cutting has greatly improved.  I also think these pre-cuts are packaged wonderfully.  While most of the time they are wrapped in cellophane, they’re arranged so it’s easy to see the colors and prints. 

The strips are generally 2 ½-inches wide and cut the length of the fabric – between 44 and 45-inches.  The edges are pinked, and larger prints are lost in the narrow width – something manufacturers realize and often opt not to have the larger prints in a jelly roll.  Be aware there are rolls out there which are 1 ½-inches wide and these are called Honeybuns (and we’re not discussing them today because I’ve never used one but I have seen them used as sashing and they’re wonderful).  Jelly rolls usually have 40 strips in them.  One roll can make a twin-size quilt and two will make a queen.  I honestly was not crazy about these pre-cuts until I discovered this ruler:

Which allows you to make half-square triangles from the strips.  Now I’m slightly in love with them.  There are hundreds of patterns for jelly rolls and almost every fabric line offers these pre-cuts.  And they make four-patch and nine-patch construction super, super fast and easy.

In fourth place are charms and mini-charms.  The charm packs consist of forty-two 5-inch fabric squares.  Anyone who has pieced even a short amount of time can attest to the fact that 5-inch squares are used a lot.  Mini-charms are 2 ½-inch squares and these packs also have 42 pieces of fabric in them.  The 2 ½-inch measurement is also a pretty common one in quilt patterns.  With both of these, it’s usual to find most of the fabrics from a theme or a line of fabrics.  What you probably won’t find (especially with the mini-charms) are any of the large prints from the fabric line.  I like both of these pre-cuts because they make half-square and quarter-square triangle production fast and easy. 

Can you actually make an entire quilt from just these small pieces of fabric?  The answer is yes, but it takes a lot of them.  It takes 12 packs of the mini-charms to make a baby quilt.  Five-inch charm packs are a larger cut, and they break out like this:

Baby quilt – 1 pack

Crib  quilt – 2 packs

Lap quilt – 3 packs

Twin quilt – 5 packs

Queen quilt – 8 packs

Of course, like the other pre-cuts, when you add a few yards of a neutral and a focus fabric, the number of packs needed lowers somewhat. 

Now that we’ve described the pre-cuts, I’d like to give some over all great things about all of them – even the ones we didn’t discuss.  For me, the best thing about pre-cuts is they are time-savers, which in my world breaks down like this:

  1.  The colors/fabric selections are already made.  This means I save time looking at bolts of fabric either in my LQS or on-line.  And while shopping is fun, I don’t always have the luxury of time.  When I find a pre-cut I like, I can purchase it, maybe a yard or two of focus fabric and a neutral and I have a quilt I know will look nice.
  2. I’ve minimized my cutting time.  Of all the steps involved in making a quilt, I like cutting it out the least.  Even if I have to slice and dice my precut, I’ve still saved time by not having to cut out 2 ½-inch strips, 10-inch strips, 5-inch strips, etc., and then sub-cutting.

Another wonderful thing about pre-cuts I mentioned earlier:  It’s an affordable way to have most, if not all, of a line of fabric.  Obviously, unless you’re a fabulously rich quilter or a fabric designer, it’s impossible to have major yardage of an entire line.  Pre-cuts give you a taste of what you want with the possibility of purchasing more of your favorite.  

The last absolutely wonderful pre-cut attribute is the patterns available for them.  The pre-cut patterns have gone from an absolute wasteland in the early to mid-2000’s to an overloaded abundance.  And many of these patterns are free.  They either come with the precut (Pineapple Fabrics gives you a selection of free patterns to choose from with every precut order) or they’re available for immediate download from the manufacturer’s website. 

Now for the not-so-great precut attributes.  I mentioned the pinked edge earlier.  Many of the pre-cuts come with a pinked edge, which looks like this:

Samples of colorful cotton fabrics with zig zag edge row arranged

The idea behind this zig-zaggy edge is to prevent fraying.  Which is a good idea, except  two things happen with the pinking:   The pre-cuts become terribly linty and there is a lot of confusion about what should be considered as the fabric’s raw edge – the peak or the valley?  Let’s deal with the lint first.  I don’t open any pre-cuts in my house except fat quarters, which generally are not pinked.  With the others, I grab my lint roller and step outside.  I open the precut outside and run the lint roller all over the top, bottom, and sides of the jelly roll, charm pack, etc.  This does not eliminate all the lint, but it does a really good job in reducing the amount of lint that can get on your floors, furniture, and clothes.

As far as what is the edge of your fabric, most pattern designers agree it’s the valley, not the peak.  However, it’s more important you remain consistent.  If you begin construction with the peaks as your fabric edge, piece the entire quilt that way. Don’t switch back and forth between the two. 

Another possible drawback with pre-cuts concerns those with stripes, plaids, or checkered prints.  If any of the pre-cuts you purchase have those types of prints in the bundle, make sure they’re printed straight.  The lines should be at 180-degrees and where they cross (as in plaids or checks), they should make 90-degree angles.  If you’re sub-cutting those pieces into smaller units, sometimes you can make do with an off-print.  However, if they’re used as a unit or as a large piece in a block, and the lines aren’t straight, it will be obvious no matter what.

Another drawback to all pre-cuts is the fabric itself.  While yes, there is no worry about the colors harmonizing, you have no choice about the fabrics chosen in each package, and I’ve found there usually is no true dark among them.  When you lay them out, take a picture with your phone, and then view the photo through the black and white filter in your app, all the fabric tends to look gray.  If you’re purchasing additional yardage of neutrals and a focus fabric, you may want to add a yard of a true dark. 

The final issue to consider is price.  Overall, pre-cuts are more expensive than yardage.  When you take the price of the precut and the price of a yard of fabric and break it down, pre-cuts are several cents higher per inch than a regular yard of fabric.  There is a formula you can use to discern if you’re getting a workable value in a precut.  Take the usable inches of a width of fabric (for this example we’re using 40 inches) and multiply that by 36 – the number of inches in a yard – and this gives you 1,440 usable inches in one yard of fabric.  This means:

A forty-strip jelly roll has 4,000 square inches or 2.78 yards of fabric (40 x 2 ½ = 4,000 then 4,000 / 1,440 = 2.78)

A layer cake of 40 squares also is 2.78 yards of fabric (40 squares x 10 x 10 = 4,000 then 4,000 / 1,440 = 2.78

A 40-piece 5-inch charm pack has .69 yards of fabric (40 x 5 x 5 = 1,000 then 1,000 / 1,440 = .69)

A 40-piece 2 ½-inch charm pack has .17 yards of fabric (40 x 2 ½ x 2 ½ = 250 then 250 / 1,440 = .17)

Let’s zero in on jelly rolls to continue this example.  I looked at five random fabric sites and took each of their mid-priced jelly rolls and came up with an average price of $37.17.  When we take the yardage of a 40-piece jelly roll (2.78) and divide the average price ($37.17) by 2.78 this gives us an average cost of $13.37 per yard for a jelly roll.  So, price point per yard, pre-cuts are a little more expensive than yardage. 

The last couple of points I want to make are not necessarily drawbacks to pre-cuts, but they are points of interest you need to be aware of.

  1.  If you purchase a pre-cut and it’s really off-kilter – not cut accurately, off-print, or super off-grain, let the manufacturer, on-line store, or brick-and-mortar store know.  Usually they’ll either refund your money or replace the pre-cut.
  2. This second point concerns prewashing.  By now most of you know I’m a dedicated pre-washer.  But pre-cuts make this process a little tricky.  Most of the patterns for pre-cuts assume you’re not prewashing.  So if you do prewash and there is some shrinkage, just know your finished project may be slightly smaller than the dimensions given on the pattern. 

Now let’s talk about the prewashing itself.  I don’t advise doing this in a washing machine, even if you put the pre-cuts in a lingerie bag.  Although most of the pre-cuts are pinked to prevent fraying, the agitation in the washing machine will still cause some unraveling.  And that can be a real pain to deal with when you’re trying to pull them apart to dry them.  I’ve found it’s best to simply allow the pre-cut to soak in a sink of warm water which has some laundry detergent or blue  Dawn dish detergent in it.  Agitate by hand, rinse in cool water, and lay flat to dry. 

Pre-cuts are wonderful tools for quilters to have in their studio.  If you see a precut and you love it, go ahead and buy it.  The price points aren’t enough to beat yourself up over.  The additional cost may be made up in the time and trouble it shaves off in cutting. 

Until Next Week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

2 replies on “A Love/Hate Relationship at its Best (and Worst)”

Thanks for this overview. I want to offer one of my experiences with pre-cuts, in this case, a Boundless jelly roll. My sample had some very nice darks in it. It was a batik group, and the darks had deep blue and black backgrounds. I didn’t try to prewash it.

Not all precuts lack a true dark. However, I have several, several jelly rolls that do. Seems to be a pervasive issue with precuts, but it’s not necessarily across the board with every fabric manufacturer.

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