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.

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.}

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  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks for the picture of the fat quarter/quarter of a yard. Finally a light bulb has gone off in my head!

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    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

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing all of this – I&#39;m starting to get more into sewing and feel a little lost in our Joann&#39;s at times.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    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

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    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

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    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

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    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.

  • Reply
    Sharon Kay
    September 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    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

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    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

  • Reply
    Sarah Craig
    September 11, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    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!

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Great tips Amy! You do a great job of covering the basics…sometimes we all need reminded of those.<br /><br />AnneMarie @ Gen X Quilters

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    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.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    these are a great tips even for someone that has been buying fabric for awhile and probably all too often!

  • Reply
    September 11, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    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.

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 8:14 am

    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

  • Reply
    Aunt Spicy
    September 12, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Excellent post! I am going to start sending a link to people who I know are starting out!

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 9:38 am

    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.

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 10:01 am

    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;.

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 10:17 am

    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!!

  • Reply
    Anita V
    September 12, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Great tips again! I love the pictures of the bigbigbig stores, in Holland we don&#39;t have it like that.<br /><br />Thanks,<br /><br />Anita V.

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    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

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    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

  • Reply
    September 12, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    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.

  • Reply
    Stray Stitches
    September 13, 2010 at 7:10 am

    What a great tutorial for a beginner!

  • Reply
    September 13, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    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

  • Reply
    December 17, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    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.

  • Reply
    January 9, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    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

  • Reply
    Rebecca Grace
    October 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    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

    • Reply
      December 29, 2015 at 4:38 pm

      thats what I did. Bought a lot of fat quarters but what can you do with that?! Ugh! Now I’m buying off the bolt and adding to my collection solids and been doing a lot of flannel rag quilts with and without batting. Boy that batting runs out fast and I bought it at Joanns and I bought the remaining batting that was on a roll. Talk about $$$. Expensive hobby.

      • Reply
        Amy Smart
        December 30, 2015 at 1:34 pm

        There are lots of patterns written specifically for Fat Quarters. If you’re having a hard time knowing what to do with them, search “Fat Quarter friendly quilt patterns” and I’m sure you’ll find a bunch. And I hear you on how fast that battings goes!

  • Reply
    July 29, 2013 at 11:40 am

    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

  • Reply
    July 29, 2013 at 11:42 am

    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

  • Reply
    Linda Brown
    August 10, 2015 at 10:46 am


    I haven’t made a quilt yet, just little things. My sister-in-law made a quilt for my older son when he earned Eagle Scout. I made a deal with her that I would buy the Boy Scout fabric if she would make the quilt for my younger son when he earned Eagle. Now I can’t find Boy Scout fabric anywhere. I know there are places I can go to ask if anyone has different fabrics, but I don’t know where to go. Can you please help me.

    Thank you so much.


    • Reply
      Amy Smart
      August 11, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      It’s tricky because stores are at the mercy of what the fabric manufacturers are printing and boy scout fabric may come and go. There are a lot of online fabric store options – I’d try the magic of google: Search Boy Scout fabric. I bet you’ll be able to find something!

      • Reply
        Linda Brown
        August 12, 2015 at 7:42 am

        I have and it seems that every place I get to leads to a place that has nothing. I was so naively self-assured when I thought that I could just get on-line and get Boy Scout fabric with no problem! The only place I haven’t tried is e-bay. They might have something- -I just hope the cost isn’t sky-high. I want to be able to spend anything for a quilt celebrating achieving Eagle Scout, but i don’t know if my pocketbook can stand the prices.

  • Reply
    The Quilting Process: The fun bit! – Alice Samuel's Quilt Co.
    March 11, 2016 at 6:38 am

    […] Amy Smart of diary of a Quilter gave excellent fabric shopping advice, see that post here […]

  • Reply
    Choosing Fabric for Quilt
    January 4, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    […] I have more detailed information on fabric stores, quality, collections, and lingo at this Fabric Shopping 101 post. […]

  • Reply
    Sharon Taylor
    January 26, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    Great info. How much fabri should I buy for a king size quilt using one of the farmer’s wife blocks?

  • Reply
    Maddison Patrick
    March 26, 2018 at 2:44 pm

    If I am looking to buy a large continuous square for a wall hanging large enough to cover basically the entire wall….How would I go about doing this? I would ideally not like to have seams in it.

    • Reply
      March 27, 2018 at 7:13 pm

      Hmmm… You can find yardage that is 120″ wide, but that’s the widest that I know of… Just search 120″ wide fabric.

  • Reply
    Diana Yancey
    July 26, 2018 at 11:34 pm

    Well, without a doubt, I buy too much. But then not enough. Originally I was just buying a 1/2 and then I started thinking, “what can you make for just a half?” And then I’d buy 1 yard. And then I’d think, “shoot, I need 1/2 a yard more.” Now it just depends on what I think I’ll need it for. I have a TON of fabric but can never seem to find what I “need.”

  • Reply
    robyn rihanna
    March 27, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    Great post!

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