All that Fabulous Fabric

In many aspects, quilters can be divided into two groups:  Those who cultivate a stash and those who do not.  Stash – just in case you don’t know what that means – is the fabric accumulated by quilters without a specific purpose in mind.  The quilter either liked the fabric and decided she or he would make a quilt out of it at some future point, or the fabric fits one of the basic quilting needs:  It can be used as a neutral, a background, focus fabric, or is a blender.  However, no matter if you’re a stash builder or a stash minimalist, both types of quilters need fabric.  And that’s what today’s blog topic deals with – what is a good fabric, what’s not a good fabric, and where to find the best fabric.

This blog will also have many “Zones of Truth” in it on my part.  Here’s the first one:  I am a self-professed fabric snob.  I haven’t always been this way, but the longer I quilt the more particular I become over notions, thread, and fabric.  When I began quilting years ago (back when we lived in caves and I sewed with a needle made of bone), I couldn’t afford quality fabric unless it was on sale.  I used the “cheap stuff” because those were the price points my wallet could afford.  However, once I was able to construct a small quilt out of quality fabric, I was amazed at the differences.  The quilt looked better, it definitely felt better, and sewed so much more easily.  A light bulb went off and I decided I would only use quality fabric and purchase it as I could afford to.  This could mean I waited awhile to start a project or only made a small one.  However, the quilting experience was so much better with good fabric, it was worth the wait or the altered size. 

And now, since fabric can be purchased from quilt shops, big box stores, and hundreds of online sites, how can we tell if it’s quality fabric?  There are a couple of different ways.  The first is thread count.  Most of us may be aware of this term concerning bed sheets – the higher the thread count, the softer the sheet.  While quality quilting fabric doesn’t need to have as high of a thread count as sheets, it does need to be somewhere in the 60 threads per square inch category – 60 threads running horizontally and vertically in the square inch.  

So what do you do?  The next time you’re fabric shopping, do you take a magnifying glass and count the threads per square inch before purchasing? 

Nope.  The fabric will have three other characteristics to show it has adequate thread counts.  First, it will be smooth to the touch.  It won’t be super stiff, it won’t feel like sandpaper, and will be soft to both the palm and back of your hand (the back of the hand is more sensitive than the palm).  Second, it won’t fray.  Pull the bolt out and look where the fabric has been cut across the crosswise grain from selvedge to selvedge.  If there’s a great deal of fraying, the chances are pretty good the fabric has a thread count lower than 60 threads p/s/i.   Third, it will have a crisp hand.  This is different than feeling stiff.  A low thread count fabric will feel stiff enough to almost stand up by itself.  A crisp fabric can hold a crease well.  To determine if a fabric is crisp, fold a section of the material and run your nail down the fold.  Open the fabric.  If the crease you just made by running your nail down the fold remains in place, then the material has a good thread count. 

At this point, let me throw in this additional fact:  Good fabric will have a finish on it.  During the manufacturing process (usually towards the end of production, right before the material goes on the bolts), the fabric has a chemical introduced to its surface.  Now this finishing has a lot of pros and just as many cons, depending on what kind quilt your making.  If you plan on fusing any of the fabric (such as in raw edge applique), sometimes the finish can prevent the fusible webbing from adhering properly.  If any type of dye, ink, or paint is introduced to the fabric’s surface, quite often the finishing will interfere with that.  Some finishes will also flake off, so if you have a sensitive nose, it can make you sneeze. However, the finish does help the fabric look great on the bolt.  When a fabric is treated with a finishing chemical, it keeps its shape, and it prevents bleeding.  A super-stiff fabric not only has a lower thread count, but it will also (more than likely) be less colorfast than a finished fabric. 

Most of today’s quilts are made from 100 percent cotton fabrics.  And with today’s consumer interest in all-natural, organic everything, cotton fabric is easy to come by.  However let me add this additional piece of information for you to ponder – Besides having the ability to purchase good fabric to use in quilts, did you know we now can purchase cotton fabrics designed especially for quilters?  These are called Quilting Cottons, and it’s important to note that all cotton fabric sold as quilting fabric may not be Quilting Cottons.  Quilting Cottons are a bit heavier than regular 100 percent cottons, weighing in at roughly four ounces per yard.  So faced with the possibility of purchasing either regular cotton fabric or Quilting Cotton, why should you choose the Quilting Cottons?

First, Quilting Cottons are heavier than regular cottons.  This means there’s less chance of the batting bearding through.  Second, Quilting Cottons are also more tightly woven than regular cottons, meaning they are extremely stable and won’t stretch or warp while cutting and sewing.  The third and fourth reasons are from my Zone of Truth.  If I have to cut a lot of pieces on the bias, or I’m making true bias binding for a large quilt, I try my best to perform those two tasks with Quilting Cottons.  The tighter weave of the fabric gives it more stability and I personally think this keeps the bias from stretching too much.  The fourth reason concerns the quilting itself.  I think Quilting Cottons quilt up prettier than regular cotton fabric (and this reason is completely subjective).

Of course, quilts from the past were not always made from 100 percent cotton fabric.  Many times women had to work with what they had or what they could find.  It’s not odd to find wool used in antique quilts and quilts from the 1970’s have an abundance of double knit and polyester.  Today quilters will often turn to linen and flannel for their quilting needs.  However, with the growing popularity of “upcycling,” many quilters are searching for fabric/used clothing at thrift stores, estate sales, and their own closets.  Which can raise the question (especially if there’s no tag on the item), how do we know if the fabric is 100 percent cotton or not?  Luckily there’s a test we can do to find out.  All you need is a couple of square inches of the fabric and a match.

Place the test fabric in a flame-proof container and use the match to set it on fire.  Let it burn out completely.  If the fabric burns like paper, the flame has an orange to yellow after glow and the ashes dissolve in water, it’s 100 percent cotton fabric.  If the cloth appears to melt, smells like burning hair (or something equally offensive), and the ashes are brittle, it’s not 100 percent cotton. 

At this point, you may be wondering why it’s important to know if the upcycled fabric is all cotton or not.  Remember all fabric have different shrink ratios – even among different types of organic fabric.  Pure cotton fabrics shrink at a different rate than 100 percent linen.  Polyester/cotton blend fabric has little to no shrinkage.  If you make a quilt with different types of fabric before pre-washing them, you’ll get different shrink ratios and this may make the top a bit difficult to quilt and look a little wonky.  Of course you can completely avoid this test by prewashing everything…but I know some quilters don’t like to do this. 

These two photos are of the quilt, “Goodwill To Men” designed by my one of my quilting BFFs, Janet Wells. Most of the paid fabric in this quilt was upcycled from men’s shirts purchased at thrift stores (hence the name, Goodwill to Men). Not only did this upcycled project turn out completely beautiful, Janet snagged two ribbons for it in our guild’s last quilt show.

By now you may be thinking, “Okay…you’ve convinced me to go for the good fabric.  Where do I shop so I know I’m purchasing good quality, 100 percent cotton fabrics?” 

Not  most Big Box Stores.  If you find yourself shopping at Walmart or even Joann’s for fabric, be sure use the touch test to see if it’s good stuff.  You don’t want a stiff fabric.  You want one with a smooth surface which doesn’t ravel a lot.  And this can be a bit dicey at times in these stores.  Take your time as you shop there and be sure the fabric will work in your quilt.  Quilt stores are a different story.  Quilt shops exist to satisfy the quilter’s itch for good fabric.  Noted, it will cost more than the cloth in a Big Box Store, but overall you won’t have to worry about the quality.  Online stores can be a bit of guessing game.  I suggest you try website affiliated directly with a quilt shop, or the well-recognized online names such as Fat Quarter Shop, Shabby Fabric, Keepsake Quilting, Pineapple Fabric, Missouri Star, Stitchin’ Heaven, Hancocks of Paducah, E-quilter, and Fabric Shack, to name a few.  These online stores have an excellent reputation for wonderful fabric and stellar customer service. 

Finally, one last Zone of Truth as I’m rounding out this blog on fabrics — I would like to share my favorites.  I’m asked pretty frequently which lines of fabric I use in my quilts.  My very, very favorite is Fig Tree Fabrics.

Fig Tree Fabrics

I love the sweet colors and prints this fabric house produces.  And added bonus (after hearing me harp for months about most fabric families don’t have a true dark) they will have a true dark in their fabric lines. 

My next favorite is Henry Glass.

A very small example of Henry Glass fabrics. This fabric house is huge!

This production house has Kim Diehl’s fabrics and hundreds of other whimsical prints.  If I need inspiration, I look at their website. 

P&B Fabrics

P & B Fabrics round out my top three.  I began purchasing this line of fabric for their quilt backs. Often backing fabric feels stiff and thin.  P&B’s doesn’t.  It’s thicker and the mottled colors are just gorgeous.  As a matter of fact, I use a lot of their backing fabrics in my tops.  All of their fabric is so wonderful to needle, either by hand or machine.

After these, in no particular preference are: Buttermilk Basin, Hoffman, Cherrywood, Tula Pink, RJR, and Riley Blake.  All of these are great to sew with (by hand or machine) and come in clear, bright colors and with a variety of neutrals and shirtings. All of these fabric companies have produced quality fabric consistently for years.    

One line of fabric you may have noticed is absent is Moda.  When I began using Moda some years ago, it was a really good fabric.  Through the years, it has appeared to me, the fabric has gotten thinner and feels a bit rough.  My complaint is primarily with Moda’s solids.  Fortunately, I have discovered a line of solids which are crisp – Painter’s Palette.  They work well with either machine stitching or hand stitching.  And an added bonus with this line is the consistency of the fabric colors.  They don’t discontinue colors readily and the fabric dye doesn’t change.  For instance, I used their Agave for a quilt I started a couple of years ago.  Unfortunately when I ordered the fabric, I had not planned on using Agave in the borders, but changed my mind as I was completing the top.  I ordered two additional yards, a year later, and everything matched perfectly.  Painter’s Palette also produces a handy-dandy swatch card which is true to color, also, making fabric coordination oh, so easy. 

No matter where you purchase fabric, keep in mind it’s important the material feel smooth, not ravel at the cut edges, and is crisp. Indulge yourself in the colors and prints you love because any sewing project – quilting or otherwise – is a time commitment.  You and those fabrics will be spending hours together.  Make sure it will sew wonderfully and bring joy to your eyes and heart.

And here’s where my standard disclaimer goes:  I don’t work for any of the fabric companies, stores, or websites mentioned in this blog.  They do not supply me with any “freebies” for mentioning them.  My blog is not monetized in anyway by any corporate entity.  The opinions expressed are my own, drawn from over 30 years of sewing and quilting experience.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


8 replies on “All that Fabulous Fabric”

Excellent article, Sherri! I am curious that you made no mention of batiks. I like how tightly woven they are, and especially like them for needle-turn applique (and I know they are controversial for that—some quilters find them hard to needle). One suggestion I have for bias quilt binding is to heavily starch the binding fabric first, then cut the binding. When I sew on the binding, I stretch it just a tiny bit (the starch limits the stretch). The binding lays nice and flat when finished.

I covered batiks in another blog. Personally, I love batiks, and find if I wash them in very warm water before I use them for hand applique, they are much easier to needle. I’m also pretty picky about the hand sewing needle I use with them.

I have to agree about Moda. I always loved the “hand” of their fabric, but lately it doesn’t feel the same. I wonder if “supply chain” issues have had anything to do with it.

I am a beginning quilter. Thank you for your informative blog and thank you for confirming something I was befuddled by. I am working on my second quilt that uses Moda Bella fabric as an accent. The first was part of a kit. It used a white on white background and assorted fabrics, all Moda fabrics. They were fine. The solid frayed way more. Foolishly I bought another Moda Bella as a background this time around. The jelly roll of Moda focus fabrics is mostly fine, but one print in all color ways seems oddly slippery. I sure hope my long armed neighbor doesn’t have a problem.

I recently purchased a kit with Moda snow as the background. It frayed like crazy and it was so thin. I ended up replacing it with something else. I honestly think it’s the solids they’re having trouble with and I’m not sure why. As long as your quilt is securely sewn with a 1/4-inch seam allowance, it should be okay on the long arm. But you may want to check with your neighbor to be sure.

I think it will be fine, but I am really annoyed that I bought the Moda fabric instead of looking for something else. Live and learn.

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