Quilting Cottons and Color Issues

So…after the two blogs I wrote about fabric stashes, I had a few questions from a few readers.  These concern types of fabric, the differences between cotton fabrics, and why some colors of fabric are so hard to match up.  I wanted to answer these questions before we moved on to a few other topics before our end of the year wrap up.

The first question wanted to know if there is a difference between cotton fabrics and quilting cottons.  The short answer to this is “Yes.”  Quilting cottons and regular cotton fabric are very different, but in order to understand why, you first need to look at how the manufacturers turn cotton into fabric, because that’s where the differences come into play.  The first step is harvesting the cotton.  The cotton plants are defoliated and harvested primarily by machine.  These machines really perform a “two-fer”:  They harvest the cotton and remove large pieces of trash, twigs, etc., from the cotton and then form it into bales.  From there the cotton is ginned – the seeds and smaller contaminants are removed.  Then it goes to a textile production plant where the cotton is carded.  The process turns the cotton fibers into long strands and the strands are spun to create yarn. 

This process is the same regardless of what kind of cotton fabric will be produced.  However, once the strands are spun into yarns (think of a fiber more like thread and less like something you knit or crochet with), the yarn can be dyed and then woven into cloth, or the yarn can be woven and then dyed.  It all depends on what kind of fabric the textile manufacturer wants to produce.  And here’s where the differences between quilting cottons and regular cotton fabrics show up. 

Quilting cotton yarns are not dyed.  The raw yarn is woven into fabric which can have at least a 60-thread per inch thread count or higher.  This means an inch of quilting cotton will have 30 threads running vertically and 30 running horizontally.  This is called 60-square and is generally considered the average count for quilting cottons.  I have seen quilting cottons with thread counts higher than 70, but those are the exception and not the rule.  The higher the number, the stronger and denser the fabric.  Cotton fabric manufactured for garment construction has a lower thread count. 

So…how can you tell the difference between regular cotton fabric and quilting cottons?  If you’re shopping at your LQS, chances are they will have quilting cottons marked as such either on one of the ends of the bolt or some other location on the fabric.  If you’re shopping online, it is more than likely this information will be in the fabric description.  However, if you’re shopping for quilt fabric at an establishment which sells all kinds of cotton material (such as some big box stores), it may be a bit more difficult to find this information.  Sure, you could take a magnifying glass with you and count the threads per square inch, but there are easier ways to determine what kind of cotton fabric is on the shelf.  First is the price itself.  Quilting cottons are more expensive than other cotton fabrics.  Second is the feel of the fabric.  Quilting cottons feel heavier than regular cottons.  And third are additives sometimes listed on the sales tag.  Let’s take a look at each of these and compare those to cotton fabrics produced for garment making.

The higher thread count in quilting cottons can make it feel denser and sometimes heavier than garment cottons.  It’s this high thread count which makes quilting cottons perform so well when sewed into a quilt.  Quilting cottons will allow a quilt to last for decades and be handed down for several generations before becoming worn.  Garment cottons generally don’t have as high of a thread count.  If you hold apparel cotton up to the light, you will likely see some light through it.  This is due to the lower thread count and thinner material.  You normally can’t see light through quilting cottons – the high thread count makes the fabric opaque. 

The feel of quilting cottons is different from garment cottons not only due to the higher thread count, but also the additives sprayed on the raw fabric.  Quilting fabric is created to resist shrinkage and other wear and tear.  It’s designed to maintain its color and print.  If you’re a pre-washer like me, it’s good to know these additives aren’t washed out of the fabric.  However, quilting cottons are also more than likely treated with a softener, a stain and sun guard, and sometimes even a stiffener.  These make the fabric look pretty as it sits on the shelf and protects against fading.  These additives can be washed out, which is why pre-washers sometimes have to press starch or a starch substitute into the back of their material to make them stiffer.

Greige Fabric

Now let’s go back and re-visit what I said earlier about the yarn which produces quilting cottons.  This yarn remains undyed through the weaving process and called griege (pronounce “gray”), grey fabric, gray fabric, or loom-state fabrics.  And the use of the term “gray” can be somewhat deceiving.  Sometimes the raw fabric is a light gray, but at other times it’s cream or ecru.  It depends on the type of cotton used as well as the additives mixed in with production.  It’s the raw, griege fabric which can throw us the first hurdle when we need to find a true hue.  If you add a true blue dye to a griege fabric, most of the time the process will conclude with a really nice true, blue hue (remember a hue is the color in its truest form).  As a matter of fact most colors do well regardless of the color of the griege fabric.  However, I have found three colors in my quilting world which give me issues on a consistent bases:  white, teal, and black.  Let’s talk about the most difficult color first – white.

Scientifically speaking, color is an expression of light.  Certain materials absorb and reflect specific wavelengths of visible light, which results in objects taking on a certain color to the human eye.  Revisiting the blue mentioned above – a blue object reflects and disperses blue light back at us while absorbing all other wavelengths of light, so you see only blue.  When all light is reflected back, we have the color white.  So a true, white hue reflects all the colors back at us.  However, if you’ve ever tried to purchase white fabric, it’s amazing how many shades of white are out there.  Strictly speaking, a shade is a hue mixed with black, so gray technically is a shade of white or a tint of black (tints are formed by adding white to a hue).  Other shades of white include cream, eggshell, ivory, Navajo white, and vanilla.  If this isn’t complicated enough, there are achromatic whites – whites which have red, green, and blue added equally.  There are also chromatic whites, which are whites that have red, green, and blue added but they are not added equally.  And if you’re talking about paint instead of fabric, keep in mind Benjamin Moore has 152 shades of off-white, Behr has 167, and PPG has a whopping 315. 

No wonder purchasing anything white or white-ish is so confusing and befuddling.

To add to the white dilemma, as a quilter, you must keep in mind three things when purchasing white fabric.  First, the indoor lighting can alter how the white material looks.  Overhead florescent lighting is brutal to any color.  Remember this blog?  You really want the overhead lighting to be as close to natural daylight as possible.  With many quilt stores, this isn’t possible, so carry your white fabric to a window and give it a serious look over.  Is it the shade of white you want?  Second, remember the fabric placed next to the white can pull out other colors.  For instance, if you purchase a chromatic white that has more red than blue or green, and you place it near a red fabric, your white may appear pink.  Likewise if you purchase a chromatic white with more blue and it’s placed near blue fabric, it also may appear blue or even gray.  So it’s a good idea to take some fabric swatches with you when you pick out your white fabric and audition everything close to a window. 

The last thing to keep in mind when purchasing white fabric has to do with on-line sales.  Let’s say you’re making a scrap quilt and need five yards of white fabric (white fabric works wonderfully with scrap quilts – it makes everything play nicely together).  You place your order and in a few days, five yards of white fabric shows up on your doorstep.  Now let’s say something happens – you need to pull a yard of it for another project or you make a cutting mistake.  Now you need to buy some more of the white fabric, but you can’t find your original order.  You go back to the online establishment and begin to peruse the site only to discover there are at least 15 different white fabrics.  You take the white fabric you have and hold it up to your computer screen, comparing the fabric to each online swatch carefully.  When you think you’ve decided on the correct one, you add two yards to your cart (just to be sure you have enough) and check out. A few days later it shows up and you tear open the box only to find…

It doesn’t match the four yards of white you have.

I can tell you from experience how frustrating this is.  My third piece of advice concerning purchasing white fabric is to hold on to all the paperwork.  This way if you need to reorder, you can go by the SKU number.  I realize many quilting websites will keep your order available to you online in case you need to reorder.  But if the website you’re ordering from doesn’t or the original website is out of the white needed and you must order from somewhere else, you have the SKU number in hand to make sure it’s the right white. 

Now let’s take a look at teal.  If you think white is a confusing color, teal can push you right over the quilting edge.  And if you want to blame someone or something, here’s your target:

See that stripe of greenish-blue on the top of its cute, little head?  Well, evidently around 1917, this color became the Pantone Color of the Year (that is sarcasm…Pantone didn’t have a color of the year until 1999).  Everyone fell in love with this color they called teal.  By 1927 it was showing up in clothing.  Between 1948 and throughout the 1960’s, teal was used in interior decorating.  It fell a bit out of fashion until the 1990’s when it was re-birthed as a fad color.**

The issue with teal is where it falls in the color wheel. 

Teal rides the edge exactly between green and blue.  Because it’s at this midway point, hundreds of shades can be produced, from dark to light, ranging from more green to more blue.  To make matters a bit more confusing, many times teal is used colloquially to refer to shades of cyan (blue) in general.

However for us quilters, our concern is more how the dye is combined before it’s incorporated into the greige fabric.  The color teal is made by mixing blue into a green base. How much of each is used will result in of the shade of teal produced.  If more blue than green is used, the teal will show more blue.  If more green is used, the teal will have a green cast.  It also can be deepened by adding black or gray, or lightened a little by using white.  So the color teal can range from deep greenie teals to teals which almost appear blue.

When purchasing teal fabric, be sure to take the same precautions as you do when purchasing white.  Audition it near a window or a source of light which closely resembles daylight.  Bring the other fabric swatches with you to make sure the teal chosen will work.  When placed near a blue fabric, no matter how deep the green base is, the teal will take on a blue-ish cast, and likewise when it’s placed near a green, it will appear greener.  However, this is the one fabric color I will default to a fabric family every time.  If I’m constructing a quilt and want to use a teal, and there’s a teal available in the same fabric family I’m using, I will default to that teal every time.  Yes, teal is that tricky of a color.

One last word of warning about teal.  Personally, I think it’s a good idea if you can make your initial purchase in a brick-and-mortar fabric store.  Here’s why:  Teal is used to create colors on computer and television screens by reducing the brightness of the cyan used in screen images (both pictures and fonts).  If you’re purchasing teal fabric and you’re shopping for it online through a screen which employs teal, it can be easy for the actual color to be distorted.  Unless you’re purchasing from teal in a fabric family, or you have some of the actual fabric in hand and can pull the information from the selvedge, you may want to make your first teal purchase in a quilt shop. 

Finally, let’s take a look at the color black.  Since white reflects all the colors, it’s only natural that its opposite – black – reflect none.  Black isn’t on the visible spectrum of color.  It’s the absence of light.  Unlike white and other hues, pure black can exist in nature without any light at all.  It exists as a shade (some color theorists will argue that white isn’t a color either, it’s only a shade).  Black fabric is made from the darkest pigmented dyes available, and this is why there are so many shades of black.  Currently there are 134 shades of black, with the new blackest black being Vantablack. 


Black, much like white, can have red, green, and blue added either in equal or varying amounts, which can alter the shade.  Tiny amounts of white can also be added to lift the color a bit, but not so much that it turns the black into gray.  So again, audition your black with other fabric swatches and in natural sunlight or lighting as close to daylight as possible.  Personally, if I need a deep black for a project, I reach for the Amish Black most of the time.  It’s fairly readily available and reasonably priced. 

Amish Black

I hope I’ve answered your questions about fabric and why some colors are more difficult to match up than others.  Color is both fascinating and fun when it comes to quilting.  Choosing fabric is one of my most favorite activities and it’s really amazing what lighting and placement can do to your fabrics. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


  **My favorite color of teal is this:

It’s the color for Cervical Cancer Awareness (as well as some other reproductive cancers).  Many of you remember my daughter’s cervical cancer diagnosis and I want to take the chance to again thank each of you who prayed for her (she is now cancer-free) and to remind you to get your pap smears. I want everyone to stay healthy. We have a lot of quilting years ahead of us!

6 replies on “Quilting Cottons and Color Issues”

Thank you for this informative post!
I know you can’t cover everything about color, but I think it’s worth mentioning that, to add even more to the complexity of the issue, different people see colors differently. And some people can perceive more colors than others. I see colors slightly differently with one eye compared to my other eye.

Great info! Just a note on fabric additives, these can be problematic when using fusible as they make a barrier between the fabric and the glues in the fusible web. This is why many people who regularly work with fusible like hand dyed fabric. My hand dyes are created on a base fabric with no additives so adhesion is very good. Merran at Color Connexion

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