How To Buy Cotton Quilting Fabric?


Buying quilting fabric seems like it should be pretty simple. And, frankly, when I began quilting, it was simple. At least I made it that way. I wandered through the fabric store and found fabric I liked – the pattern, the color, the design. But generally, I bought fabric just because I liked it.

As a result, my quilting fabric stash included all types of fabrics – 100% cottons, 100% polyesters, cotton/polyesters, rayons, and even some wools.

After a few quilting experiences (some of which were pretty bad), I learned the advantages of different fabrics. Now I look at a few different things when I consider fabrics to buy.

Now that there are many more fabric options, generally I prefer natural fibers. It’s probably a sense of connecting to quilters of yesteryear. Or it may be that a comment made to me years ago about “wrapping a baby in plastic (polyester)” just stuck with me – in a negative sense.

While I prefer natural fibers, I have made some fun quilts that include lame, and an occasional polyester or poly/cotton blend, because it offered some design benefit that I couldn’t find in cotton – like a sports logo.

This is one of a series of articles about different types of fabric quilters use in their quilts. For simplicity, I will focus on the natural fibers cotton, wool and silk. I have used them all (although not in the same quilt). So you will get my firsthand experience and observations. Personal opinion as it is.

Since you can go online and find plenty of articles and websites that describe the fascinating way fabric is made and dyed, I’ll let them do the describing about that, and I will focus just on what quilters want to know – how will it be working with that type of fabric?

Since 100% cotton fabric is clearly the most popular quilting fabric, let’s start there.

There are several specific reasons quilters prefer 100% cotton:

  • Cotton is easy to work with. After you sew a seam, you can easily finger press your seam allowances in the direction you want them to go. (That means that your fabric will stay put without pressing it every step along the way.)
  • Cotton sticks together while you sew your pieces. Polyester tends to slip and slide, requiring pinning or basting, lest your patches end up being sewn all cockeyed.
  • Cotton has a little “give” to it that synthetics don’t have. This allows you to pull and tug a bit (as well as bunch it up a little) in order to get the seams to match and make your corners square.
  • Cotton breathes. Whether you are making a baby quilt or a bed quilt, 100% cotton fabric will allow air to circulate while capturing the warmth. How this works is just a mystery to me, but it seems to be true.
  • Cotton absorbs the dyes better. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that the colors are more vibrant and the patterns have more depth.
  • Cotton is durable. It has stood the test of time and constant use.
  • Cotton can be torn (or ripped). Although this can be a benefit or a drawback, it means that you will be able to determine exactly how the fibers line up. You will be able to “square up” the edge just torn, since it will not rip across the threads.

Not wanting to get too technical here, I’ll spare you all of the details, but suffice it to say that even with 100% cotton fabric, there is variety.

Weave

Poplin, chino, chenille and velveteen can all be 100% cotton. These fabrics are generally heavier than traditional quilting fabric, and may have a particular texture in their finish – like the fuzzy velveteen.

They are great used in large pieces, but you wouldn’t want to try to make 1/2 ” strips from any of these fabrics. The other thing you need to look for is how tight the weave is. Looser weave fabrics tend to fray and fall apart more easily than fabrics with a tighter weave.

Good Quilting Fabrics

Broadcloth or plain-weave cotton – this medium weight fabric can be sewn easily, without slipping and sliding, and allowing smooth (and not bulky) seam allowances.

Homespun – this fabric is woven with already-dyed threads. Generally these fabrics are solids, plaids, stripes, or checks.

Flannel quilting fabric is woven using a bulkier cotton thread, and can seem kind of fuzzy. (Nice quilting fabric for a baby or a cold winter night.)

Chintz – this fabric has a high thread count and a glazed finish. Although it adds some interest to your quilt, the thread count presents some challenges to hand quilting, it may pucker as you sew, and pins and needles may cause permanent holes – not too attractive in a finished quilt.

Pima – this fabric is a very high quality cotton, ranking right up there with Egyptian cotton. It has a special, elegant feel to it, and the Pima cotton I have used has a high thread count. Many batiks are made with Pima cotton or a fabric very similar. Because of their high thread count, they can be a little more difficult to quilt. However, once quilted, they are wonderful quilts.

homespun fabricbatik fabricflannel quilt as you go project
Homespun Fabric often has a loose weave. They are beautiful and soft, but may fray and fall apart in your quilt.Batik Fabric – Many Batiks have a Pima cotton weave, making them difficult to hand quilt.Flannel is great for a Quilt as You Go project as well as a traditional pieced baby quilt.

Thread Count

You could get very familiar with all of the thread count numbers and learn all about statistics. Then the numbers on the end of the bolt would mean something to you – if the numbers are there. I have found that often those stats are not on the bolt ends.

Or, you could do a 10 minute study in a fabric shop and see the difference. Some fabrics have more threads per inch than others. If you hold a single piece of the fabric up to the light, some can be easily seen through. Those have a loose weave. They may be really pretty, but they usually do not make a pretty quilt. Often they will fall apart easily.

I always stay away from fabric with a loose weave. Flannels and homespuns are the most guilty of that behavior. Some of them have such a loose weave, that it feels like they will fall apart in my hands. If the weave is too loose, the quilting stitches cause the threads in the fabric to break, leaving holes in your quilt.

Another possibility is that the batting will “beard” – fibers of the batting will start migrating to the outside of your quilt through the threads. This results in a quilt with hairs (a beard). There’s not much to be done about that.

On the other hand, fabric with high thread counts tend to be more difficult to hand quilt. They are fine for machine quilting.

Front and Back of the Fabric

Most fabric is colored using a printing process – kind of like printing a newspaper. If you look at the wrong side of the fabric, it could be completely white. I will not buy fabric like that, since [to me anyway] that tends to be cheap quilting fabric that will remain stiff or will fall apart in a quilt.

Sometimes the dye on printed fabric actually goes through to the back, so it is difficult to tell which is the right side and which is the wrong side. I like that kind of fabric!

Then there is batik quilting fabric. The process for batik involves dying the fabric in vats of dye, and the fabric threads absorb the color (except where wax is applied to prevent the color from absorbing).

Since Homespun fabric is made from already-dyed threads, it looks the same on the front and back.

You can see examples of homespun and batik fabric in the pictures above.

striped cotton quilting fabricflannel fabric
This fabric looks the same on the front and the backThis fabric is almost white on the back – compared to the red front

Consider the Quilt

In choosing your fabric, it helps to consider the quilt you are making. A quilter asked me once whether she should use only homespun fabric to make a rag quilt, since both sides of the fabric will show in the exposed seam allowances.

This is certainly a consideration. If that makes a difference to you, then you should use only homespun fabric. It could be that the white of the back of the fabric will add some interest to the fringed seams.

Above all, remember this is your masterpiece – make it your way!

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