Most beginning quilters have one of two competing mindsets about fabric: either they want to be frugal (like our quilting ancestors) and plan to use the least expensive fabric they can find, or they want to create something that lasts centuries (like our quilting ancestors) so they use the most expensive fabric in the store. Both viewpoints are valid, but neither one should take hold of any quilter’s entire quilting career. It all depends on each quilt’s final destination.
What’s the difference between fabric sold in the big box stores and that sold in online catalogs and dedicated quilt stores? There really is a quality difference, and it starts out before the fabric was even designed. All cotton quilt fabric begins with cloth called greige goods (pronounced gray goods). This is basic cotton fabric, unbleached and untreated. It’s the very base on which every quilt fabric is built, and the quality can vary greatly. It all depends on thread count.
Look at a piece of quilt fabric and you can see threads running horizontally and vertically. The number of threads per square inch makes up the thread count. Counts of close to 70 are ideal for quilting – easy to needle, yet solid enough to withstand normal usage. Higher thread counts make it difficult to get the needle through, especially when hand sewing and quilting. Anyone who’s tried to use a sheet for backing fabric discovers this fact. Get a thread count lower than 60, though, and the fabric will be too loose, falling apart easily and stretching out of shape even as you sew.
Fabric in the big box stores are less expensive, so they tend to be made with a lower thread count. Fabric bolts don’t usually carry the thread count on the end along with the fabric content and width, so you have to look carefully at the fabric surface and estimate the count. It helps if you carry a small fabric swatch of high quality quilt fabric to compare the bolt with. If the thread count on the bolt looks similar to your swatch, the fabric should be good for most projects. If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to create something, this may be a good choice.
Fabrics sold in quilt stores and online catalogs tend to have a higher thread count, as these places pride themselves on selling high quality goods. You’ll find fabrics from major designers and looks in the latest trendy color values. You’ll also find prices about twice the cost of the big box bolts. The fabric will feel wonderful and will work like a dream, but you’ll pay for the difference.
Making the Choice
The right choice of fabric depends mostly on your skills and the eventual destination for your quilted project. First, are you new at quilting or have you had a decade’s worth of experience? It makes no sense to use hyper-expensive designer quilt fabric as a learning piece for a beginner. Between misplaced seams, torn-out stitches, and crooked piecing, a beginning quilt is rarely a thing of perfection. (And that’s all right – it’s how we learn!) But using expensive fabric for this learning process is a waste of money and cloth. Experienced quilters, on the other hand, have enough practice to make sure they use the fabric wisely. They won’t waste fabrics, they make fewer mistakes, and their design choices will meld the fabrics together into an attractive look.
Even the most experienced quilter doesn’t always have to use the high end fabric, though. Your choice of fabric quality depends on why you’re making the project. If you’re creating an applique heirloom you’re hoping to pass down to many generations, it makes perfect sense to use the best fabric you can find. Even everyday quilts, and those for gifts, can be enhanced by the larger range of pattern and color you’ll find in quilt shops. Less expensive fabric, on the other hand, is ideal for quilted crafts such as wall hangings, pot holders, Christmas tree skirts, and table runners. Good quality store fabric will hold together through repeated washing, but won’t break the bank for these basic projects.
One final project that calls for less expensive fabric might be one you’re tempted to use something of higher quality: quilts for babies and children. A quilt is an elaborate gift, a labor of love for a small person in your life, and you want to give them your best. The fact is though that the best baby and toddler quilts are those that have been loved to death, turning into a bundle of rags in a couple of years. This is the sign of a quilt that’s close to a child’s heart. Try using the money you save by buying the less expensive fabric and make two identical quilts. Once the first one is past the point of no return, you’ll have a fresh one to replace it with.
In the end, your choice of quilting fabric comes down to personal preference. Decide what is best for your skill level, budget, and the specific project you are making, and go from there. Either way, you will be creating a quilted treasure that will be loved for a lifetime!
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