Quilting Fabric Quality: Is More Expensive Always Better?

Photo by: Hank Hession (own work), [CC BY 2.0], via flickr

Photo by Hank Hession

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.

Thread Counts

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.

Photo by: Rachel Booth (own work), [CC BY 2.0], via flickr

Photo by Rachel Booth

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!

Related Videos:

How to Choose a Quilting Fabric

How to Choose Fabric for a Quilt Using Fabric Value

Interaction of Color with Quilt Fabrics

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32 Responses to “Quilting Fabric Quality: Is More Expensive Always Better?”
  1. Kate

    I think beginning quilters should work with fabulous, gorgeous fabrics that they love. I can’t think of a better way to get enthused and strive to do the best sewing possible. I’ve been quilting for 35+ years and I never think my projects are going to be perfect but I sure enjoy the entire process, including selecting and using wonderful, quality fabrics. Baby and children’s quilts may be used and washed more: all the more reason to sew with quality fabrics. Lastly, our quilt shops need our business if we’re to keep them around. The service, classes, programs, tips and help provided by local quilt shops is invaluable. Quilt shops often have sales on fabric and notions which help bring costs down and some track what you spend and offer discounts your purchase after a certain amount. I always try to shop bargains for my fabric but I won’t use my time and energy sewing with low quality materials.

  2. Marie

    I would appreciate the logos for Facebook, Twitter, etc. to be positioned somewhere else on instructional written words. It covers up part of the reading and has to be manipulated to read all.

    • National Quilters Circle

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    • National Quilters Circle

      Hi Sherri, What kind of help did you need with this?

  3. petquiltgirl

    Thank you for this information. I never knew what good quality cotton fabric thread count should be, now I know what I am looking for and which is best for my project.

  4. Paula Bowcock

    I always use good quality fabric for my quilts. I sew the quilt together by machine but I do all the quilting by hand. Still old fashioned. I figure if I am going to put such effort into my quilts, I want good quality.
    I just wanted to touch on your suggestion that beginners use fabric that may not be of good quality due to mistakes etc. I tend to tell beginners to buy good quality fabric because when you are finished you will be proud of you accomplishment even if it has mistakes. Another reason is if you are ripping pieces apart, the cheap fabrics tend to really fray, stretch etc. I don’t want my friend to get discouraged and disappointed never wanting to pick up another piece of fabric as long as she lives. Quilting is becoming a scarce hobby in many places so I don’t want to scare anyone off on their first project. Just a thought. What do you think?

    • National Quilters Circle

      Hi Paula, I like to purchase the best I can afford, there is a difference in quality between fabrics in say Walmart and your quilt shop. With that being said, if quilting is your therapy, and you have financial pinch, less expensive fabric will have to do. Remember that much of the vintage quilts were made from old clothing. Cared for properly they too can last a lifetime and more.
      I would hate to deter people from quilting because they can’t afford the best quality. But the best you can afford and use quality thread. If on a tight budget, buy just for your current project and build a stash slowly from the left overs.

      • Paula Bowcock

        Oh my, please don’t get me wrong. I did not mean to be disrespectful at all. I would never discourage someone from quilting due to finances. I think it is Amazing when someone wants to learn or continue on this wonderful journey. As you say the best you can afford is great because you are still going to get to quilt! I do not own a quilting store…. I would be fabric broke. Haha. So, everyone enjoy quilting for years to come!

      • Jeanne Anderson

        Actually, Walmart has some good quality fabric as does Hobby Lobby. I haven’t bought quilting fabric from Joann’s because the quality just is not there, especially in their fat quarters. I did notice that they have a premium line, but I haven’t seen it. What I don’t like is quilt shop personnel that look down their noses at people who don’t buy fabric from them.

    • Rose

      I agree. I didn’t realize fabric quality varied and I bought cheap fabric to start out and didn’t get great results. I love the feel of good quality fabric and choose that unless I’m doing a wall hanging.

    • Susan

      I agree with Paula about her reasons for a beginner using good quality fabric.

    • National Quilters Circle

      Hi Rita. Chose a backing that is both visually pleasing and pleasing to the touch. I don’t worry about it being extra wide, piecing a backing isn’t a big deal. You should chose equal quality fabric to your quilt top. My favorite backings are flannels and minkee.

      • Marlene Clausen

        IMHO there is no better backing available than a very high quality muslin. It is a dream to hand quilt (if you want to go that route) and the silky feel is lovely when you lay under it. That being said, however you quilt it SHOWS!! It is great if you do beautiful handwork or machine work. I never use it when I enter a quilt in a show. Too much can go wrong. I always use it when I hand quilt. I certainly agree with the comment that piecing is no big deal. I quilt . . . a lot . . . and I have NO scraps or orphan blocks. Anything 1/8 yd+ goes back in my stash and everything else is pieced into the backing. Hey, it matches the front, makes the back more interesting, doesn’t waste fabric, and I don’t have to store anything else.

    • Jeanne Anderson

      I like to use Kona premium muslin and I do buy the extra wide. The problem is it only comes in white or black, nothing else. It does come in colors in the regular width. I usually embroider my quilt label on the back so white works for me. It is a 200 thread count and I like the feel of it and it holds up well on the frame.

  5. Vivian D.

    Great advice. I started with inexpensive fabric and learned to quilt. Now I only use high quality fabrics. I received two of my quilts back and inherited four of my Aunt’s quilts that have damage to the lower quality fabrics. All are in my repair cabinet. Takes time and expense to repair. Decide what is best for you.

  6. Cheryl

    I patronize both high end quilt stones and online stores and box stores. One thing I have noticed is that there is overlap between the two at disparate prices. It is always frustrating to pay a premium for fabric that you can buy heavily discounted if you watch the weekly coupons but the range and selection at the quilt stores is undoubtedly better.

    • Dianne

      Hi Cheryl, It may appear there is an overlap, but the quality of the greige goods (the fabric the design is printed on} is usually of a lower thread count. It’s not always noticed until the fabric is sewn on and has been laundered. There are usually products applied to the inferior cloth to make it look more like quality fabric, but they are washed out, leaving you disappointed over time. The manufacturers are creating different qualities for purposes other than an heirloom quilt or something that will not receive heavy wear or lots of washings, even though they look the same.

  7. Linda

    Good information. I just did a class on this subject and it helped a lot for beginners. My question is, why can’t be manufacturers come up with an idea to make a fabric that doesn’t fray so much. It seems the more I pay for fabric, the more it frays. ???

  8. Melody Hibbitts

    I like to buy the best fabric I can afford, but most of my quilts are made from remnants that I pick up on sale everywhere. I also like to pick-up vintage fabrics from antique stores, thrift stores or flea markets. If I see something that I love, can afford, and know I will use it somewhere, I get it. Periodically I go back through my stash and see inspiration from a remnant I forgot I bought.

  9. Kris

    I have been quilting for around 30 years and I have come to most of the same conclusions but I disagree on the beginner. Buying a cheap fabric that may be off grain, raffles easily and possibly stretches can be very frustrating if you don’t know how to handle it. But there are lower cost alternatives that are still decent fabrics. You just need to know where to look.

  10. Susan

    My second quilt made over 40 years ago was low quality cottons and cotton blends. It is A Dresden Plate design and it has elaborate embroidery in each middle. It is a terrible shame that I did not know about quality fabric back then because there is extensive fraying and thinning and holes in a lot of the pieces today. Another reason for this is I was always afraid to wash it too much because I thought that would wear it out and did not know that body oils contain salt and that also deteriorated it. You live and learn.

  11. joyce

    NB Ticket#20163 Is it ok to use cotton for one side of quilt and flannel for the other and what is a good quality flannel

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  12. Elaine Adair

    I just cannot afford to make a quilt of high-end qualify fabric. And, the styles change so frequently, whatever I make today will look out of date next year, so I am tending to use less expensive fabrics. I still want to quilt, but cannot keep up with the cost and/or quickly changing styles so I MUST buy less costly or clearance fabrics.

  13. SalluBC

    You can also check by holding a single width to the store lights. The better you can see those lights, the lower the quality is.

  14. Reggie

    I enjoyed your comments about quilt fabric. Personally, I always use fabric from a quilt store. The first quilt I made, I used quilt store fabric on the top, and since it was a queen size I thought I’d save money buying the backing at a general fabric store. It was awful. The fabric was on an angle. A lesson learned. Reggie