Are there specific brands of fabric that are better than others for quilting?

There was a time when there was, but all of that has altered as of the past two years. Wonderful textiles were usually available from both Hoffman and South Seas Imports.

The economy as a whole has suffered, particularly in the quilting sector. 2002 was the year that saw the industry’s overall sales reach their highest point. The rate at which sales began to decline was almost four times quicker than the rate at which they had been increasing. The fabric sector was the first to feel its effects.

I’m not suggesting quilting is dying. The quilt industry is experiencing a decline in sales. We are all quilting around the same amount, if not more. The difference is that we already possess all of the necessary rulers, fabric cutters, and enormous fabric stashes.

When we first started going to the event, we would make a point of purchasing something at each and every booth. Now that we are more selective in what we purchase, the industry as a whole, and fabric producers in particular, are suffering the effects of this shift.

They have learned their lesson from the Great Depression of the 1930s, which nearly caused the fabric industry to go out of business. They found that even a one-strand reduction in the thread count per inch resulted in significant cost savings across the board for the construction project.

Fabric manufacturers in the 1930s essentially eliminated half of the thread count, resulting in the production of fabric with a count of 68/50 threads per inch. Due to the significant reduction in price, women were able to once again begin purchasing cloth. It was the industry’s saviour.

The industry took a lesson from when they did that in the ’30s and started again as of two years ago, but haven’t dropped their overall retail prices. They dropped their cost in order to survive with higher profit margins.

It’s similar to the airline industry. They locked themselves into contracts with pilots, then 9/11 happened and they were still obligated to those contracts. They had to find a way, legally, to get out of them.

The fabric industry is locked into contracts with designers and artists, but they don’t actually construct their own fabric. They buy greige goods from overseas and then put prints on them that they’re known for.

Hoffman used to have a policy that when they sent someone to Taiwan to buy greige goods, he would say, “We want an 86/86 thread count.” This was a dream come true thread count. He would get the best price he could for it. That’s why their prices would vary. One year it might be $12 a yard and another year it might only be $10 a yard because they got a better deal.

As of two years ago, everybody is sending their buyers over for greige goods and are only willing to pay a certain amount. If you are the guy in Taiwan who has a pig for a garbage disposal and dirt floors, you’re not going to give the buyer the most expensive, time-consuming fabric for a rock-bottom price.

The buyers are getting the uneven thread counts, thinking it doesn’t make a difference and no one will notice. I’ve actually had a president of a certain company tell me that quilters are simple-minded and don’t really care about that sort of thing and I need to get off my high horse.

We learned about this years ago during classes in high school. Home Ec classes taught women about thread count, construction of fabric and how it applied to garment construction. These days, no one is learning it. We have a whole generation of quilters that don’t know any of this.

So we’re back to trying to figure out the thread counts of the fabrics. I have tried to convince them to mark it on the bolts for many years. The biggest reason is liability issues. If they say their thread count is 80/80 and it’s off by a couple of strands, they can be sued with the truth in advertising laws in the US. They’re not going to do it, which leaves us having to figure it out on our own.

As a crazy 19-year-old and youngest in the industry, I carried my microscope to the quilt shop. I would measure the thread count before I spent money on it.

I found that I might fall in love with a beautiful yellow, carry it home and the thread count would be so horrible that I would be miserable quilting on it. I would end up never finishing the quilt. What was the point of the beautiful color if no one would ever see it? I just cared so much that I went to that trouble.

About three years ago when Jenny Byers’ contract came up with RJR, she specified that she wanted all of her prints to be on an 86/86 thread count. They wouldn’t renew that section. Her fabrics are no longer great quality. You can imagine how devastated she was.

She and I decided that if the manufacturers weren’t going to listen to us, then we needed to start educating our students. At least our students would know how to solve the problem.

We decided all our students needed to be able to have something lightweight in their purses at all time because you never know when you’ll go to a quilt shop. We developed a tool called the “ROSE” which stands for “rock sand optimal strand estimator.” Once you learn how to use it, it takes 30 seconds to know exactly what the thread count of any fabric.

Author: Dierdre McElroy

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