Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Trial and Error Tuesday - A Practical Guide to Fabric for Beginners

Welcome to Trial and Error Tuesday!

I have rewritten this post at least 3 times.  Let me warn you, it really should be titled, "Jen's advice about fabric".  I am not an expert after all, I am a novice at best! Tip: #6 below should be what you take away from this lengthy post. Yes, #6 and that you shouldn't hold onto any guilt when making your choices.  Let it go!

If you are a beginner quilter, chances are you either took an introductory quilting class at a quilt shop or you are trying to teach yourself.  Either way, there is a lot of fuss out there about fabric and it seems like no one can avoid it.

First, let me tell you that you can search the Internet for how to distinguish quality fabric and you'll get multiple stories.  "Quilt store quality is the only way to go", "there are still quality fabrics at (insert discount chain here)", "Don't buy online unless you know what you are getting".  A beginner can have his/her head spinning rather quickly.  I will try to keep it simple.

Use Cotton Fabric - great for beginners

For beginners, most seasoned quilters recommend that you start out using 100% cotton.  You have to look at the end of the bolt to see what the fabric is made of.  Why is this important?  Wear and tear, for one.  If you use multiple types of fabrics in your quilts, they will wash and wear differently (even if you prewash).  You could end up with a misshaped quilt after a few washings.  Plus, other fabrics have more stretch than the typical 100% cotton.  If you are striving for perfectly lined up seams, you don't need a stretchy blended fabric mucking up your fine work!  (See knits vs. wovens below)

Do you need to pre-wash?  It is your personal choice.  Some swear by it, others swear against it.  If you think your fabric might bleed dye, I say prewash.  I haven't prewashed yet, and I've used plenty of dark fabrics, batiks, etc.  Fingers crossed - so far no problems.  I do wash in cold water when it comes time.

Now for the cream...What about the quality question?  Do you have to buy fabric only from quilt shops?  Here are some things to consider:

  1. How does the fabric Feel?  For the most part, quality comes down to FEEL.  Is it soft to the touch? Developing the "Feel" for fabric can take a while and I have found that it can sometimes be deceiving.  I have bought marvelous feeling fabric from many sources, including Joann's.  Most of my fabric purchases have resulted in no problems.  But....some marvelously feeling fabric from an online source turned out to fray easily.  I have also bought great feeling fabric from a quilt shop and the fabric actually smoked a little the first few times I pressed it.  The bolt said 100% cotton, my only guess is that it had some kind of coating on the fibers.  My point is, that you will have to have some trial and error.
  2. Can you see through it?  When making quilts, you are looking for a weave of fabric that isn't too tight and isn't too loose.  This is were that thread count thing comes in.  If you can see through it, the thread count is probably too low.  On the other hand, sheets can have too high of thread count.  Rumor has it that your needle may actually break the threads as it punctures the quilt, resulting in holes in your quilt.  I have not personally tried to use sheets on my tops or backs, but I have read about some quilters who use vintage sheets for their backings.  My guess is that "vintage" sheets were made before the high thread count craze.
  3. Look at the printing - is it crooked?  This might be important, depending on the design, when cutting on the grain.  If it is tiny white polka dots on a red background, chances are that you won't need them to line up perfectly.  But, I have seen some stripes and damask prints that have been way off!  Consider how big and what size you will be cutting and whether it is important for the design to be straight.  If you have to fussy cut everything just to get a 3 inch square, it is going to take you a while and the grain of the fabric will be different in some of your pieces.
  4. Look at the weave - do the threads look uniform?  If there are big threads and little threads throughout the weave, it is not high quality cotton and will probably not last long.
  5. Look at the cut end - does it look like it will fray easily?  Obviously this is hard to do online, but it is something new that I have just started doing when I shop in a physical location.  Even if the store has used a sharp rotary cutter for the last cut, you can usually use your fingers and gently rub the cut portion.  One or two threads coming loose is one thing, but if the threads really start moving, it is an indication that it will probably happen at your house too. There's nothing like buying a $12/yard fabric only to have it fray away in your project.
  6. MOST IMPORTANTLY - What are you going to use the fabric for?  Is your first quilt going to be something you plan on wrapping yourself up with while you watch TV or is it going to line the trunk of your car in case of emergencies?  Now, if you are making a baby quilt for a toddler, who you know is going to snuggle it to death - you want it to be soft!  A baby playmat might be a different story.   Maybe you aren't making a quilt at all.  Seriously, if you are making reusable grocery bags and don't expect them to last forever, you probably don't have to buy the best "feeling" cotton out there.  A stiffer cotton, whose weave looked good, is likely to be alright (and cheaper).   Make-up tote?  Pick a print you like, quality can be less.  Rug or floor mat?  Stinky feet will be on it.  Dog bed?  Well, there are plenty of people that would argue that it needs to be soft, but for the dogs I know I'm thinking lower quality is OK.  Here's a tough one - Making something for a swap?  I say, you want to put your best foot forward on something like that, so go for the quality stuff.
  7. What is your budget? - Let's face it, you have to consider cost in this decision.  You want to get the best quality you can afford.  Sometimes, it might be $12/yard quilt shop fabric.  Sometimes, it will need to be $3/yard red tag plus 50% off fabric, or thrift store finds.  Keep in mind what you are making, who you are making it for, and let go of any guilt.  You are still making something handmade and with love put into it.  Isn't that what is most important?
That leads me to a story about the first 2 quilts I made.  I was excited to begin my class at the LQS.  Day one was choosing fabrics (from the store, of course).  We were told to choose one "theme" fabric, and four or five complementing fabrics, and a background fabric.  The yardages were calculated out depending on what size you were making.  Fair enough so far.  $150 later, I had my fabric for a baby quilt TOP, another $100 for supplies.  Ouch!  Seriously, I know many people who would have quit right there!  Yes, I had some fabric left over, but it was really painful nonetheless.  During the course of the class, I realized that I needed some additional practice putting some of the blocks together.  I was already doing plenty of ripping apart seams, I decided perhaps making additional blocks was the way to go.  So, I went to Joann's, bought the same amount of fabric for a second quilt. About $50 later, and I had a second quilt top.  Granted, this was before I knew anything about quality, but only one of the fabrics I choose seems a little coarse.  It has gotten a little softer over time. Both quilts have been washed repeatedly, and so far, they have held up about the same.  If I had to do it all again, I would let practicality reign.  They were my first quilts, not perfect, destined to be given to my kids who were going to puke, pee, wipe chocolate on them, and snuggle with them (when they were clean!).  I would have made both quilts and practiced my techniques with reasonably priced fabric.

Now, when I am ready to make my heirloom pieces for each child, I will likely buy from a quilt shop or reputable online retailer.  And when I make my first "show piece", eh, who knows?

Knits vs. wovens

Most knits are a blend of at least 2 different types of fiber.  They might be cotton/spandex blends, polyester/spandex, etc., but there are a few 100% organic cotton knits out there.  READ the bolt! Knits are stretchy and need to be stabilized with some form of interfacing if you are going to use them.  Some people have mastered working with them, but I have had difficulty with accuracy due to the stretch.  I wouldn't mix them with a woven fabric for the reasons outlined above.  T-shirt quilts are a good example of a quilt made from knits.

Flannel - probably not for beginners

I have seen some lovely looking quilts made of flannel.  I imagine them to be super soft, warm, cuddly, etc.  I have not tried it yet.  It seems a little unruly for a beginner, like me.  BUT, I have some tips for you should you decide to try it:
  1. Prewash - evidently flannel shrinks more than cotton so prewashing makes sense.
  2. Use pins when piecing - flannel will stretch a bit.  If you want your seams lining up, etc., use pins!
  3. Using sizing when pressing - again, flannel stretches, be careful not to stretch while pressing.
  4. Consider adjusting your seam to 3/8 if your flannel seems to fray - some fray more than others
  5. Choose a simple pattern - between shrinkage and stretching (did I mention the stretching already?) complicated patterns will warp.


Evidently fleece can be used as batting or backing.  It is stretchier and will shrink more than cotton woven fabric, so prewash it.  Also, whether you use it as a backing or batting, baste your sandwich very well so the fleece doesn't move around on you.

Other Fabrics

Wool - I have seen beautiful projects made out of wool, but once I start reading the directions on how to prepare the wool for use, it doesn't seem beginner friendly.  However, I am not writing from experience.  I hope to complete a wool project by the end of the year so I CAN write from experience.

Crazy quilting - seems to use all manner of fabrics, and in combination.  I have seen some with velvet, lace and suede.  Heck, I don't even think leather would be out of the question.  But, while I think the crazy quilting method is alright for beginners, perhaps using the multiple types of fabric could be left for a time when you are more confident.

OK, to sum up the important stuff:

  • What are you making?
  • What do you want to spend?
  • FEEL the fabric
  • Look at the fabric
  • Do you need to take any additional steps to prepare the fabric?

I am sure someone out there could write an encyclopedia on this subject!

Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. I always prewash, but I read on Amy Butler's website that if you cut a diagonal corner (small) at each corner of your fabric it reduces the loose threads. Also makes it much softer! But, personal opinion and what my Mom taught me. Takes longer, but I'm a fan.


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