Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Stitch Your Life: How to Buy Fabric

So, you have a sewing machine, a little help and some ideas... you're next step is to buy fabric!  Buying fabric is the most expensive part of sewing, so take it slow. Here are some ideas for new shoppers.

Concept First.
Before you shop, work to pin down some sort of concept.  Shopping freestyle is often wasteful.  Figure out a color concept - vivid jewel tones, soft vintagey pastels, lots of contrast or maybe two complimentary colors (blue/green or red/purple).  Imagine how you'd like the finished project to fit in your home.  Is it to be a stand-out piece or part of a cohesive whole?  Are you going for classic, nature-inspired, bold, artsy, ultra-feminine, what?  Unless you like the idea of investing in fabric that you may not use for years, don't buy without a concept in mind.

Watch for Scope & Color.
I'll admit that there's a place for buying fabric "just because."  But it can be tough to know which fabrics will be useful somehow and which will linger in your stash untouched.

My first fabric purchase was about a year ago.  Here are a few yards from that initial order that I've still not used.  Some of those prints are really large.   I didn't realize that large prints can be quite limiting.  Othertimes my cuts were too small for projects I eventually dreamed up.  Also I found that prints with a wide range of colors were less useful than more monochromatic prints.  For example, I've used Filigree in sooooo many projects, but this Alexander Henry Birdsong print has yet to find a home.

Smart Cuts.
How much should you buy?  Of course, the answer depends.  Assuming you do not know yardage requirements for your project, here are some general ideas.  A yard is a 36" cut along the length of the fabric bolt.  Most bolts are 44 or 45" wide.  So a yard is typically 36 x 44".  A half yard is 18 x 44" and a fat quarter is 18 x 22".  Fat quarters are awful tempting, but I don't really recommend them unless you need very small amounts (like scraps, really).  Remember, your fabric will shrink when you prewash and you could make a mistake when cutting or sewing.  When I buy prints, I generally like them enough to warrant a 1/2 yard, rather than messing with fat quarters.  Solids I buy in 1/2 to 1 yard increments and linen (my favorite neutral) I buy in 3-5 yard cuts.  Here are some examples as guidelines:

Fat Quarters:  patches on projects like this rug or my Christmas stockings; mini quilts; coasters, potholders.

1/2 Yards:  a child's top or skirt (just barely), backing for a pillow or apron, a purse, 5-6 half yards together will make a nice sized quilt top.

1 Yard:  a child's dress, a sleeveless women's top, a large purse.

2-3 Yards:  short curtains or valances, adult pajama pants, backing for a baby quilt or kitchen rug.

4-5 Yards:  backing for a nice sized quilt, floor length curtains.

When in doubt, buy a bigger cut and know that you can make good use of any extra!


  1. This is very useful! Thanks for making it easier for the rest of us.

  2. I so needed exactly this post. I always buy my fabric from the thrift store...but once or twice, I've gone to buy fabric and have felt completely clueless at the cutter station (I don't know what it's called). Now I've got my quilt sitting...and there's no way I'm going to find the perfect backing for it at a thrift store. So, thanks for the great info.

  3. why didn't i run into this info back when i started? would have saved a lot of hassle! thanks for sharing :)

  4. A great post. It does take a while before your personal style and preferences emerge. Large scale prints need more yardage as the motifs are larger. Tone on tones are extrememly useful as are fabrics with a few shades of one colour. Something is bound to match up. 8)

  5. This is full of great useful information -- Thanks Rachel! I love that Alexander Henry fabric, I may have to see if it's available somewhere.

    I started appliqueing and embroidering the first piece for my quilt top and posted about it today. I have planned on using 16 1/2 yard cut prints to make up the main part of my quilt - some is being used for appliques, so there will be a little waste. How big of a quilt will it render if I end up using 6-7 yard of fabric? I was just going to keep adding until I like the size and look of it - or until I ran out of fabric, which ever comes first. : )

  6. wonderfully great advice, Rachel!!


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