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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23 Responses to “Quilting Fabric Quality: Is More Expensive Always Better?”

  1. Simone

    Thanks for this information, this plus all of the replies help get the ball rolling. I am a beginner and hopefully going to start my first project with beautiful fabrics that keep me motivated!

  2. Vanessa

    So I started my quilting journey two years ago thinking I would start “cheap” and work my way up. After buying poor quality cloth products and better quality from a quilt store or quality designers I quickly realized there was a HUGE difference! The junk is junk and if you start there you will be discouraged and turned away. The better option is to visit a local quilt shop, talk to the owners and begin with a small project - maybe a table topper or placemat. Good fabric leads to a good finished project and encourages you on this wonderful quilting journey!

  3. Linda

    What about mixing fabric qualities if I can only find a print I’m needing in another quality.

  4. Susan Turner

    I REALLY don't agree with the article on "Quilting fabric quality. " I've never used less expensive fabric on any of my quilts. You, as a beginner quilter, should always use the best that you can afford. Crooked seams, ripped-out seams, etc. don't matter. When you work very hard on a quilt, it is always worth using the best. As a matter of fact, your less-than-perfect quilt made from beautiful fabric looks 100% better with beautifully manufactured fabric. Our local quilt shops and online quilt shops need us to stay loyal to them so they stay in business. It's hard to believe National Quilters Circle would promote using "cheap fabric" even as a beginner. I believe all quilts that are handmade with love should be treated with respect and that means using good quality fabric, thread and batting.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. joyce

    <strong> 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

  9. 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.

  10. Marianne Lerner

    Fabric has gone up so high I can't always purchase it.