Quilting 101: Fabric selection

Time to talk about fabric — all the pretty, pretty fabric!!  I think addiction to fabric is one of the traits most of us quilters have in common.  I don’t know about you, but I can actually feel my pulse speed up as soon as I step into a quilt shop or a fabric store and see the bolts and bolts of color and texture all on display.  It’s magical! However, some people can get a little overwhelmed by all of this variety, so I’d like to break down fabric selection a little bit and hopefully help those quilters out who are looking for a little bit of guidance.  

Probably the easiest way to avoid fabric confusion is to buy a quilt kit.  Many quilt designers will sell a complete kit that includes the pattern of the quilt top as well as all of the fabric needed to piece it together.  You simply follow the instructions and your quilt will look just like the one pictured on the front of the kit. Along similar lines, if you just have the pattern but not the kit, you can do your best to find the fabric that most closely resembles the fabrics in the picture of the pattern.  If that is something you find difficult, you can always ask for help from the fabric store employee.  

If you want to take matters into your own hands and buy the fabric yourself — which I HIGHLY encourage — you’ll need to go to a store or order it online.  There are a few things you should know when buying fabric. At most quilt shops or fabric stores, you will have the choice to buy yardage from the bolt, or you can buy precuts.  

First, let’s talk about buying yardage.  Quilting cotton is usually about 43 or 44 inches from selvage to selvage.  This is known as the width of fabric (WoF).  The selvage is a very densely woven strip of threads where the fabric was attached to the industrial weaving machines that created the fabric.  The name of the designer, manufacturer, the title of the design, and the colors used in the design are all printed on the selvage, which can be very helpful information.  Because the selvage is a very different texture from the rest of the fabric, most quilters will cut it off and not use it in their quilts. That said, there are some quilters out there doing really creative, fun things with their selvage scraps.  If you decide to play around with your selvage, just be aware that it behaves differently than the regular fabric of your yardage, so you’ll need to experiment with it before using it in one of your actual projects.  

Before the fabric is wrapped around the bolt, it is folded in half.  So when you buy, for example, 2 yards of fabric, you’re buying a length of 2 yards at the width of fabric.  When you buy yardage, you will be sub-cutting it yourself into whatever shapes and sizes are required for your quilt pattern.  As I said, most bolts of fabric will have a 43- or 44-inch width of fabric, but there are also wide back fabrics that have a 104- or 108-inch width of fabric.  This is specifically designed to be used for the backing of your quilt so that you don’t have to piece the back of your quilt.  

You can also buy packages of fabric that have already been cut into varying sizes and coordinated with each other.  These are known as pre-cuts.  There are packs of 5-inch squares, 10-inch squares, 2.5-inch wide strips that are the length of the width of fabric, and fat quarters, which are generally 18-inch by 22-inch rectangles — my favorite kind of pre-cut!  You’ll hear different terms thrown around to describe these precuts such as charm packs, layer cakes, or jelly rolls. Those are actually trademarked terms from Moda, a very popular fabric company, but many people use these terms the same way we say, “I could use a Kleenex,” rather than tissue.  

One of the great things about precuts when it comes to fabric selection is that they’re already coordinated for you.  When a fabric company releases a collection of fabric, it will consist of several different prints that have all been designed to coordinate with and complement each other.  The precut bundles will have all of the different designs packaged together, and you can rest easy knowing that they’re going to work great together in your quilt.  The picture below is a charm pack of the 1930s Revival collection by Boundless.

Another thing to think about when making fabric selection is prints versus solids.  A print is any fabric that has some sort of design on it.  Solids, obviously, will not have any designs printed on them.  That said, some solids might have a little texture depending on how they’re dyed, or they might have an ombré effect, which is where the color starts out very saturated at one end of the fabric and gradually lightens towards the other end of the fabric.  

When looking at prints, you’ll want to keep in mind which prints are high volume versus low volume.  These terms describe the density of the printed design on the fabric.  Using different volumes of prints will create different visual effects to the overall quilt design, so you want to keep that in mind when you’re thinking about what parts of your quilt design you want to stand out and what parts you want in the background.  A very common quilt design will use a variety of prints for the part of the quilt block that the designer wants to stand out. Then they will use neutral solids or very low-volume prints as background fabrics.    

Everything at this point has been centered around the kind of cotton fabric you generally find at a quilt shop.  Once you’re ready to start getting really creative, feel free to start experimenting with other kinds of fabric such as silk, jersey knit, fleece, denim, or whatever you want to play with.  Just keep in mind that you will most likely have to make adjustments to the tools you use such as changing the type of needle for your sewing machine and/or specially preparing the fabric in order to make it work for a quilt.  

As an example, a really popular type of quilt is the T-shirt quilt.  People cut up old T-shirts that have sentimental meaning and stitch them together into quilt blocks.  It makes a really great gift, and because it’s jersey knit, it’s super, super comfy. However, if you’re using your normal sewing machine, jersey knit needs to be prepped with fusible interfacing before you start piecing it together.  There are TONS of tutorials online about how to make T-shirt quilts, so you should check them out if that interests you.  

That concludes my very basic introduction to fabric selection.  If you’re someone who has difficulty with colors, please stay tuned for my VERY BASIC color theory blog post which will hopefully give you the confidence to start picking out fabrics that will always look amazing together.  Please let me know some of your favorite tips when it comes to fabric selection in the comment section below. And feel free to let us all know what your favorite prints and who your favorite designers are! Happy quilting!!

Published by Andrew Ve Hansen

I live in Brooklyn with my husband. I'm obsessed with all things quilting! Some of my other interests include taking advantage of all of the culinary delights this city has to offer, hanging out with my friends, board games and tabletop RPGs, reading, watching movies and tons of TV, crafting, and going to the theater (especially musicals).

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