Beginner Fabric Shopping Advice

Recently I was with a group of women from my new neighborhood and they started talking about their fear of fabric stores and how intimidated they felt to go in one.  It was interesting for me to hear their thoughts because I occasionally work in a fabric store – something I don’t think any of them knew.  (Nor did they know how much fabric I have in my own basement!) I began to wonder if a lot more women felt intimidated as well.
So I am going to share some tips and insider knowledge to help anyone else out there who might be feeling the same fabric-store-phobia. I must also openly disclose the fact that I work mainly with quilting fabrics and I am not an expert in apparel fabric, but I think some of these tips still apply.
(image here)
Finding the right fabric store 
First: Not all fabric stores fill the same needs.  My own experience is that the bigger chain outlets are going to be a little more overwhelming and a lot less personal.  There are fewer employees per customer, so they can’t feasibly hold your hand through the process of picking fabric or get you started on that first sewing project. But the pluses are cheaper prices, coupon availability and larger selection.  I also like their selection of Home Decorator fabrics. I definitely get most of my notions, batting, pillow forms, etc. at these stores.
Finding a smaller, independently-owned store you will increase your chances of finding employees who can answer questions, contribute opinions or explain techniques. An independently owned store will also carry higher-quality fabric options in most cases and therefore have higher prices. There is a reason you pay higher prices at independently owned fabric stores – the are more likely to carry the well made goods.
Choosing Fabric
Yes, it is true: all fabric is not created equal. There really is a difference in fabric: the thread count, the dyes that are used, the way the fabric is produced, all affect the quality of the finished product. Frankly, you get what you pay for. The bigger box stores are going to carry cheaper, not as well-made fabric – especially in the quilting cottons.  There’s no reason why you can’t use the cheap stuff.  If you’re making something like a Halloween costume that is only going to be worn a couple of times, or a carseat cover that is just going be thrown-up on or be a home for smashed crackers, then I personally would not invest in super expensive fabric. But if you are making a wedding quilt that you hope to become a family heirloom make the investment in high-quality products. You won’t regret it – especially considering the time you’ll invest in a project like that.
Gorgeous Amy Butler fabric I scored for 50% off
You can often get good quality fabric on sale as well. I always check the clearance sections at my local quilting shops and often find really great stuff!
How to pick the right thing – asking for help
I find the next great dilemma for most newbies is picking the perfect fabric. When people are beginning a project and are paralyzed by the thought of starting a new project, I encourage them to walk through the shop and pick at least a couple of bolts that “speak to them.”  As the humble fabric-store employee, I have no idea what your individual tastes are, but if you can give me a place to start I can help you build around those favorites.
 One of my recent favorite collections: Freebird by MoMo for Moda fabrics
Another really great thing about designer, high-quality fabric is that they come in collections that are pre-coordinated. Colors, patterns, scale – everything is gathered together for you.  One note about designer collections: they are released only once, so if it’s something you love get it when you see it.  We frequently have people come in and ask if we still have a fabric they bought last year, or if we can order more.  The fabric companies generally print one run of the fabric collection. The store owners order the fabric months before it arrives in the stores and by the time it does arrive it is usually difficult to order more of that collection.  A few months later, it’s generally impossible to order more.  Just remember, you wouldn’t ask The Gap why they don’t have the same pants that coordinate with the outfit you bought last year. Generally the same thing applies to independent fabric stores.
One recent innovation by the bigger fabric companies (like Moda) is the creation of pre-cut fabrics.  These little bundles of fabric come in strips, squares or triangles and contain a sample of each fabric from then entire collection. For example the picture above is of a Charm Pack.  This charm pack contains 42 pre-cut 5″ squares.  Another product called a Jelly Roll contains 40  2.5″ x 42″ strips. These pre-cuts are a great way to get a great variety of prints with out having to buy a lot of yardage.
What the heck is a Fat Quarter?
Craft stores and quilt stores both carry pre-cut pieces of yardage called Fat Quarters.  A Fat Quarter is a quarter of a yard of fabric, but it is cut in a different shape than a regular quarter yard of fabric.  When cutting a quarter yard of fabric off the bolt, you are getting a piece 9″ wide x the width of the fabric (around 42″-43.) Four of these cuts, create a yard.  A Fat Quarter is a piece of fabric cut 18″ off the end of the bolt, and then cut in half on the fold.  Four of these put together still make up 1 yard of fabric.  Imagine a piece of paper cut into four equal horizontal strips compared to a piece cut once horizontally and once vertically to get four equal square-ish pieces.
One is not better than the other but one size might be more useful depending on the pieces needed for a particular pattern.
To wash or not to wash
If you are making garments or items that need to be preshrunk I would wash all cottons first.  If you are going to be cutting fabric for piecing a quilt I would wash any cheap fabric you buy (i.e. from the bigger chain stores) but most of the more expensive yardage is going to be fine cutting into it before washing.  I personally would not wash any of the pre-cuts before sewing.  Deep reds and blacks, however, you may want to wash first. I love Shout Color Catchers.  I throw them in with every quilt I make during it’s first wash, just to be safe.

I hope all of this makes everyone a little less scared of the fabric store.  Also please feel free to leave any favorite tips or suggestions of your own.  The goal is to remove all fear of choosing your fabric – although I will tell you now, fabric addictions have been known to take over people’s lives and storage space. Consider yourself warned.

{This post was originally posted at Or So She Says. . . but I wanted to re-post it here as a resource on Diary of a Quilter.}


  1. says

    Great, great post. I never thought about someone being intimidated but that makes sense.<br /><br />I think you really covered it all. I like the idea of picking two bolts of fabric that talk to you or you could pick a couple of colors and there is also narrowing things down if you like:<br />~Traditional (calicos)<br />~Reproductions (Civil War era type prints)<br />~Fresh Modern (like your

  2. says

    What an awesome post! I never knew people were in fear of going into a fabric store. I just closed my own quilt shoppe this year after having it open for 5 years. It was in an old brick home, and each room had its own color theme to help people choose their fabrics.<br />I never was a pre-washer either until a vendor at a show told me how when they ship these fabrics from overseas…they plaster

  3. says

    Hi Amy.<br />Thank you {so much} for taking the time to share this information with us. I am still very new at quilting and fabric selections. Your post really helped me have a clearer idea about what to look for in fabric selections. A very small quilting store moved in, about 45 minutes north of us. They have a very limited selection, but I noticed a couple of charm packs and even some Amy

  4. says

    It&#39;s great to see the stuff us more experienced sewers take for granted explained. I had a really tedious conversation with my other half recently all because he asked what on earth a &#39;Fat Quarter&#39; was. After explaining about quarters and yards v. metres he made me promise never to expect him to buy me fabric as a present lol

  5. says

    Great tips . . . thanks. My biggest concern is how much to buy if you don&#39;t have a specific project in mind but just want to stash? Starting to feel the frustration of those designer fabrics being all out when I need just a bit to finish a project, but I think if I was stashing and combining different lines, it wouldn&#39;t matter as much. Thanks for the awesome blog.

  6. says

    Thank you so much for this! Yes, it is true that some of us are reluctant about buying fabrics. You have answered so many questions. Sadly, I never knew there was such a difference in the cotton fabrics until recently a good friend of mine sent me a layer cake she had bought and never used because I mentioned I was delving into quilting and needed to start building a stash. Every day I look

  7. says

    I must say that with most of my quilt tops I have gone with a particular fabric line because I found it too daunting picking different fabrics in those beautiful fabric shops and I felt too shy to ask for help. But on Friday I went in and picked out various tangerine and aqua prints that I liked from different ranges for the first time. For me I think it has just taken a little time to build my

  8. says

    Great post! I&#39;m going to bookmark it to share with the women I&#39;m teaching to sew! Someone asked about how much to buy to start a stash. I usually buy half-yards of fabric I intend to use for quilting; 1 1/2 yards of fabric for children&#39;s clothing. If it&#39;s something I think I&#39;ll use for multiple projects, I&#39;ll buy 3 yards. <br /><br />Thanks for sharing!

  9. says

    This is a great post. Thanks for putting into words what a lot experienced quilters take for granted. If stumped it&#39;s also good to find a &#39;focus&#39; fabric and build on that.

  10. says

    Definitely a great post that helps to sort out those basic fabric questions.<br /><br />I agree with Soni, that the next big problem is how much to buy when it&#39;s not for a specific project. I&#39;m over the moon for Nicey Jane and have a 1/2 yard stash of it, but am nervous of it going out of stock. Just for an example.

  11. says

    Thanks so much for this post. I am very new to sewing, and have had major fears of the smaller fabric stores. Funny, considering I can go into Joann&#39;s and fill up my buggy. I have been into my local quilt shop twice and walked out with nothing. EEK! My problem is there is so much I want I never know where to start. I am going to have to take Sarah Craig&#39;s advice and start getting a half

  12. says

    Great post! When you wash a quilt for the first time, what washer and dryer settings do you use? I just made a nicey Jane runner, and I&#39;m about to start the binding. I&#39;d cry if I wrecked it now! But I also like that crinkly look.

  13. Anonymous says

    This post is great!! Wonderful tips.<br />I will usually add several fabrics that are not part of the line, to add some interest. I love to include a dot, stripe and/or plaid, and ideally one where the color is just a bit &quot;off&quot;.

  14. says

    I am one of those people! I love fabric stores but become so overwhelmed that I just wander around. I now have a shelf full of fabric and just didn&#39;t know where to start. Thank you for such an informative post! It cleared the cobwebs!!

  15. says

    Thank you so much for all your tips! Although I am a frequent fabric shopper, it&#39;s always nice to read up on this kind of thing and see other&#39;s tips. ;)<br /><br />I appreciate your comment about washing the fabric. I always wash fabric for clothing, but was uncertain about it for quilting (I am a beginner). :)<br /><br />Someday I&#39;ll get the time to make your quick method table

  16. says

    Well Mrs. Smart, you certainly live up to your name:)<br />I am one of those woman of which you speak! I love fabric and fabric stores and feel like I am finally learning the ropes. I agree completely about the quality of fabric, I do shop at the big box for some things but there is nothing like a lovely quilters only shop.<br /> Since we both live in Utah we probably visit a few of the same ones

  17. says

    P.S. I cannot believe your good fortune in finding the Grandmothers Flower Garden quilt top!<br />Chalk it up to divine intervention:)<br />A lovely little quilter in heaven was steering you.

  18. Heidi says

    I don&#39;t normally comment (just lurk) but I had to speak up for this post. When I plan a new quilt or project, I usually have a certain type of fabric pattern (stripes, stars, etc) or at least a color in mind. Sometimes it&#39;s just what comes to mind, other times I&#39;m inspired by what I&#39;ve already seen in the store. <br /><br />So when I shop for fabric, I build off of what I see in

  19. says

    I wish I had read this when I first set foot into a fabric store – it&#39;s definitely intimidating. Almost two years later I&#39;m definitely addicted to fabric – my little stash is definitely growing.

  20. Anonymous says

    Thank you for addressing the issue of pre-washing or not – most quilting experts hedge and it&#39;s never clear what people REALLY do. <br /><br />On the subject of pre-cuts, I have found them to be slightly too short- I suppose it depends on how you treat the &quot;pinked&quot; edges (zig-zag scissors cuts). I tent to cut more generously as I am concerned about durability, but if you cut on

  21. says

    Ooh, I know this is an old post, but I just read it for the first time today. One more thing I wanted to add, after learning the hard way — if you&#39;re trying to build a versatile stash, DON&#39;T just buy all the gorgeous prints that jump out at you. You need some neutrals and solids to mix in with those &quot;divas&quot; in order to really appreciate them. This bit of wisdom comes from a

  22. says

    I, too, just found your tutorial today, and love it. I&#39;ve made a couple of beginner projects, but so far have avoided patchwork, because of my fear of not getting the seams to match! I also didn&#39;t realize that you have to mix in some solids, so I&#39;ll keep that in mind.<br /><br />But my biggest problem – and I live in a fairly large suburban city – is that I can&#39;t find many charm

  23. says

    I, too, just found your tutorial today, and love it. I&#39;ve made a couple of beginner projects, but so far have avoided patchwork, because of my fear of not getting the seams to match! I also didn&#39;t realize that you have to mix in some solids, so I&#39;ll keep that in mind.<br /><br />But my biggest problem – and I live in a fairly large suburban city – is that I can&#39;t find many charm

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