How to Build a Workable Fabric Stash (Without Breaking Your Budget)

I think one of the most helpless moments I’ve ever had as a quilter was at the Paducah AQS show.  I went with a group of quilty friends on a tour bus.  Our local quilt shop was coordinating the trip.  I had dreamed of attending a Paducah show for years.  And it did not disappoint.  On the first level of the convention building was every kind of sewing machine and long arm imaginable.  The other floors and the “Bubble” featured beautiful quilts and fabric and notions.  However, as part of the tour, we also got to visit some of the other quilt stores in downtown Paducah as well as the Mothership of All Fabric Stores – Hancock’s of Paducah.  I had ordered from them for years (and still do).  I was kind of anxious to see everything in person.  I left the bus and went in with great expectations.  

And promptly backed right out.  

Hancock’s of Paducah. Defintely worth the trip.

It was overwhelming.  I had never seen so much fabric in one place.  I needed a minute.  It was a cacophony of colors and designs.  I was used to my little LQS which had material sorted by family and then by color.  At Hancock’s it was sorted by fabric house, then designer, then family, and then color.  It truly was an assault on my vision – but in a good way.  Luckily I had a list and a plan and a budget.  However, I saw several people there who didn’t, and they seemed to aimlessly wander around in circles wondering what to buy. I wondered then (as I do on occasion now) if anyone had shown them how to have a foundational fabric stash and how to skillfully add to it? 

I was fortunate to have a beginning quilting teacher who taught me what a good stash is and how to start one that didn’t bust my budget or take over my house.  I’d like to pass this information along to you and add a few things I’ve learned along the way.   The first lesson to remember is not to let your stash exceed your storage space.  If you only have a couple of drawers or a filing cabinet or you’re blessed to have an entire room, keep your stash confined to that space.  You and your family will be happier.  If circumstances dictate your storage space is small, you may have to purchase fabric more frequently.  If you’re fortunate enough to have a large area, be wise about your purchases.    Fortunately, no matter what your fabric storage situation is, if you cultivate your stash correctly, most of the time you can at least begin a new project without hopping on the internet to fabric shop or planning on a quilt store haul with your quilting BFFs.  I think it’s one of the best feelings in the world to plan a new quilt and then be able to pull 99 percent of everything I need from my stash. 

Knowing how to grow your stash also makes shopping for fabric a lot easier.  I live in a small town set between High Point and Greensboro, North Carolina.  If you’re a Keepsake Quilting fan, you realize I am near both Keepsake and Pineapple Fabrics. Several times a year Keepsake and Pineapple have warehouse sales.  The fabric is sumptuous, the prices are awesome, and I get to see a lot of my quilting buddies.  Because I know my stash and what I need to re-supply, it really helps me to get the most bang out of my buck at these sales.  And this information is what I’d like to share with you.   In my quilting world, there are four types of fabric needed in a stash:  Solids, Prints, Blenders, and Low-Volumes.  I don’t really think it matters if you’re primarily an applique quilter or a piecer, I believe these four categories of fabric are the essentials.  Let’s start with solids and work from there.


Zone of truth:  Overall, I’m not a solids type of person.  Not even as background fabric for my applique quilts.  However, solids are the backbone of the quilt world.  Does your quilt need some structure?  Add some solids.  Need to change the “feel” of your quilt?  Again, throw in some solids.  Think of solids as the “Little Black Dress” of your fabric stash.  You may not use them every day, but they can dress up a quilt or dress it down.  For instance, take a look at this quilt.  

It’s really pretty busy.  Every fabric in this quilt is a print.  However, let’s see how adding solids can change the look and feel of the quilt.  First let’s consider a palette of sweet pastels.    

See how adding solids can completely change everything about a quilt?  In this case, it toned it down just a bit.  Relaxed it.  Gave it a more “snuggly” feeling.  This is the type of quilt you want on your bed or slung over the back of a couch within easy reach while you watch TV.   Now let’s repeat this process, but this time our palette of solids will be bold, jewel-tones.   

The same quilt now has an entirely different feel.  It’s much more formal.  This is a quilt you might relegate to the guest room or hang on a wall.  Or even give as a gift on a formal occasion, such as a silver wedding anniversary.    In both cases, the solids completely changed the quilt.   

The next step is to know what solids to purchase.  My rule of thumb is to keep several shades and tints of your favorite quilting colors on hand.  There can be a difference between your favorite color and your favorite quilting color.  For instance, my personal favorite color is purple.  I like all the shades and tints of it.  However, for all my love of all things purple, I actually use very little of it in my pieced quilts (applique quilts are different – I’ll throw in some purple flowers every time!).  My favorite colors for pieced quilts are (insert drumroll here): 

Orange and pink.  I love how pink can brighten almost any quilt and a touch of orange (from the orang-iest oranges to the deep lemony ones) can make a quilt sparkle.  Pair that orange with some gray or beige fabric and it’s absolutely yummy.   

If you’re not sure what your favorite quilting colors are, there are a couple of activities to help you. First, look at the quilts you’ve made.  Not the fabric in your stash, not the quilts you want to make.  Look at the completed tops.  Discounting the quilts made from a kit, what colors do you tend to gravitate towards in most of your quilts?  Those could be your favorite quilting colors.  If you’ve just started quilting and don’t have a lot to chose from, let Pinterest and Instagram help you out.  What quilts do you tend to pin on your boards or like on Instagram?  Why do you like them?  If the answer is the quilt’s colors, then analyze what colors especially appeal to you.  Don’t be surprised if your favorite quilting colors are different from your personal favorite colors.  

After you’ve nailed down a couple of your favorite quilting colors, I strongly recommend you get this little tool:  

This gadget is kind of like a small notebook of solid color paint chips.  You can easily zero in on one of your favorite quilting colors.  Besides having your favorite quilting color prominently displayed, it will also show tints, shades, and contrasting colors.  When you go shopping for solids, take this with you (it’s small enough it easily can fit in the back pocket of your jeans or shorts or in your purse or bag).  When you purchase solids in your favorite colors, you can use this to find other solids (or prints) which work well with the solids.  The 3-in-1 makes shopping not only easier, but also helps you make wiser fabric purchases.  What you don’t want to do is buy fabric simply because it’s on sale or you think it’s something you “might” use in the future.  Purchasing fabric should be done with the same thought process as stocking a wardrobe — buy quality things you will use, not fabric which will end up sitting in the bottom of a drawer or closet. 

  Another handy-dandy tool to use when buying solids is the selvedge off a print fabric you want to use in your quilt. 

Selvedges are a valuable source of information and it’s a good idea to keep them until you’re finished with a project.  If you run short of fabric, the selvedge will have the name of the fabric house, the designer, and the collection on it.  This makes it super easy to find more of it. It will also contain a series of colored circles or other images.   These are the colors of dyes used in the printed fabric.  You can use these dots to help you find a solid color which will work well with the printed fabric.   

As a quilter who has always been far more comfortable with prints than solids, I had to start small.  I would buy fat quarters or half-yard cuts.  As I became more at ease when using solids, my cuts would become larger.  However, I still don’t purchase a great deal of yardage (with the exception of black).  I tend to use solids almost as lattice work.  They’re the part of the quilt every other piece attaches to. The solids give it good bone structure, but my prints and/or applique are what give my quilts movement. This quilt style is neither right nor wrong, but it’s what works for me. 

While every quilter needs solids in their stash, how much or how little they’re used is up to the quilter.  Some quilters use a lot of solids.  Some don’t.  It’s up to you to discover your own quilting preferences and style.  

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!  

Love and Stitches,


6 replies on “How to Build a Workable Fabric Stash (Without Breaking Your Budget)”

Another perspective on the whole idea of “stash-building” for quilters: Our local quilt guild is absolutely overwhelmed and flooded by enormous quantities of outdated fabric and quilting supplies accumulated by quilters and then left for their heirs to deal with. A single donation might consist of 20 or more giant Rubbermaid tubs full of outdated fabric plus books, patterns, gadgets and tools — typically the family is trying to get rid of the entire contents of the craft room. We try to use as much of this fabric as we can for our charity quilting, but simply cannot make enough of even the simplest donation quilts fast enough to keep pace with the rate that donations keep pouring in. For quilters who still want to cultivate a working assortment of fabrics at home, it’s important to remember that tastes and preferences for colors, prints vs solids, what constitutes a “staple blender” fabric versus what looks ugly and outdated change cyclically, just as fashion and home decor trends change. Just as we shake our heads at the clothing trends we were wearing a decade or two ago, many of us end up feeling the same way about the fabrics we were most excited about earlier in our quilting journeys and that leads people to go out and buy the new trend fabrics instead of working with the ones we already have at home. One thing I’m seeing with the younger quilters coming into our guild is that they have a totally different attitude towards fabric shopping and “stash building” and are much more likely to purchase only what they need for each project, and they are asking more uncomfortable questions of the quilting industry about the environmental impact of textile manufacturing, exploitative labor practices in the supply chain, and calling out the “she-who-dies-with-the-most-fabric-wins” mentality as wasteful and irresponsible.

My local guild and the groups I quilt with have experienced the same thing. I now encourage quilters to purchase digital patterns if at all possible and to be cautious about “novelty” rulers — if you can only use the ruler for one techique or one quilt block, do you really need it? I have seen the same mind-set you have among younger quilters, however, I’m also seeing a similar one in us older quilters. I’ve quilted with the same group of friends since 2010 or so. We’re older now and downsizing. We are shedding fabric, notions, and patterns like crazy. The free table on at the guild meetings are full and we’re giving things away left and right in this downsizing exercise. I think it’s a good idea to go through your sewing room once a year and make decisions about what to keep and what to repurpose and rehome.

Thank you; such good information, I’m glad I read it all. Wish I had had it three years ago when I started quilting. I will certainly share it.

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