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

There used to be but as of two years ago, that has all changed. Hoffman and South Seas Imports always had awesome fabrics.

The economy has dropped, especially in the quilt industry. Overall, sales in the quilt industry peaked in 2002. Sales started going downhill about four times faster than they went uphill. The fabric industry felt it first.

I’m not saying quilting is dying. The quilt industry is dying sales-wise. We’re all quilting just as much or more. It’s just that we have all the rulers, fabric cutters and huge fabric stashes that we need.

It used to be that we would buy something at every booth at the show. Now, we’re more careful about what we buy so the industry is feeling it, fabric companies mostly.

They’re taking a lesson from the depression in the 1930s when fabric industries almost went bankrupt. They discovered if they dropped their thread counts even one strand per inch, they saved money in the overall construction.

Back in the ’30s, fabric companies basically wiped out half the thread count, making fabric that was 68/50 thread count. Women were able to start buying fabric again because it reduced the cost. It saved the industry.

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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