Sunday, April 24, 2016

You get what you pay for in fabric...

"You get what you pay for" is one old saying.  A better one may be "quality in - quality out."

I have been quilting for almost 35 years, so I've seen a huge improvement in the quality of quilting cottons.  Those first calico's I bought in the 1970's weren't great and there were so few from which to choose! 

I recently pulled out the first quilting project I started in 1982 to take as a humorous "ice breaker" for the guild talk I was giving.  It is a hand-pieced Grandmother's Flower Garden partial top...Y seams (no English Paper Piecing)...pretty ambitious project for a beginner.  I will share a judgin'...LOL!

My grandmother had just given me her last quilt, finished with hand-quilting help from community ladies before she passed away from cancer.  That quilt consists of flowery scraps from my dress sewing (I thought she wanted my scraps for her community quilting bee!).  Apparently, she started hand-piecing it about the time she got the diagnosis.  

Here's a photo of that quilt...Weasley thought I was staging a photo session for him and he was looking for his "spot"...

After that, of course, my first quilt was going to be a Grandmother's Flower Garden!  Doh! (head slap)

Like my Grandmother, I used mostly scraps I had that were leftover from sewing clothes and craft projects.  The electric blue was a remnant cotton/poly blend that was left over from making my dorm room curtain at Auburn University.

Ahhh...the shiny sheen of an overly-processed, seemingly artificial poly/cotton blend...that takes me back to college (War Eagle!!)...

I've kept that old top for years, thinking I would finish it some day for fun.  But now, I find that I am a FABRIC SNOB...and proud of it!  Let me explain...

There are two reasons I want to work with the best fabric possible. First, I want almost everything I make, especially things I hand applique and hand quilt, to be heirloom quality.  I want them to be around in a hundred years.  I take weird pleasure imagining a quilt of mine on a bed or wall in the year 2116!

I spend a lot of time making them and it makes sense to use the best materials possible to ensure their durability and beauty.

Secondly, and maybe more important to me, I want to enjoy the process.  Poorly milled fabrics with low thread count unravel easily and are the least colorfast.

I chose a black repro fabric recently to make this small, hand-appliqued music clef for one of my 6-inch finished blocks.

It is hard to photograph with my crappy camera, but in corners where I've clipped my turn-under allowance, I get these stray, unraveling, fuzzy, fat threads that make me nuts.  This makes me use more glue than I like to use to tame the beasts, then I am taking extra stitches through excess glue, which makes me cranky.

And when I make really tiny pieces with turned under a kitty cat nose...

...I don't want my scant turn-under allowance to unravel like a bad knitting project.

Fabric companies choose the greige goods (gray) that their fabric designers work with to make gorgeous fabric.  "Greige goods" is what fabric is called when it comes off the loom, before it is bleached, screen-dyed and given a finish.

Two things determine the quality of the greige goods...the thread count and the length and number of cotton filaments in the yarn (thread) used to weave the fabric.

You are probably most familiar with thread count concerning bed sheets.  Thread count is determined from looking at one square inch of fabric.  Most muslins have a thread count of 150, 75 threads going side-to-side and 75 threads going up-and-down.

The industry minimum standard for the thread count of good sheets is 180 (90 threads in each direction), but we can all tell the luxurious difference when we are sleeping on 400-count bed sheets.  

Higher thread count gives the fabric a silkier, softer hand or feel.  It is also preferred by fabric designers who draw more intricate, sophisticated designs.  When multiple screens are used to dye the fabric, the design is crisper with a higher thread count greige good.

Some lower end, cheaper fabrics only have a thread count of 120 (60 fabrics in each direction).  They can feel course and when cut, the edges ravel badly.

And don't be fooled by someone claiming 600 or higher thread count bed sheets.  Consumer Reports has "unraveled" this mystery and determined that there is some funny math going on in the industry.  There are only so many threads you can cram into a square inch of fabric.  C.R. thinks the claimed higher number is determined by the number of strands or fibers going into the yarn. 


The courser yarns are also harder to remover excess dye, etc. from in the finishing process, therefore they run like crazy!!

I certainly don't want fabrics to run at this point in my process...when I am soaking out the glue, pressing and trimming my background to my desired size.  I wash or at least soak and spin all my new fabric...and dry on high heat.  I want to give them a chance to bleed and shrink before I start fooling with them.

There are some reds I've treated with some vinegar...and I do like those color catchers, but for the most part I've been pleased with washing before using.  I also seem to be sensitive to the chemicals used in the finishing process of making fabric.

It is also true that batiks have a high thread count, which is why a lot of people who do raw edge applique in traditional and art quilts like to work with them.  When doing the tiny keys and rods in my music blocks, I employed some batiks...especially on the woodwinds.  They are a little harder to needle when stitching, either applique or quilting (due to the tight weave), but worth it to me in some cases.

On my last post, I used a new kitty block to demonstrate some of the finer points of the applique method I use (now all stitched except for some embroidery details...).  I had named the new block "Strange Fruit," totally ignorant to the fact that name also belongs to a Billie Holiday song concerning lynching and other horrors of our past.  I appreciate being alerted by a couple of you, and I am terribly sorry about this.  I did not mean to offend anyone and I have changed the name of the block to "Still Life With Cat."

In stitches,
Teresa   :o)


  1. my first quilt was grandmother's flower garden - hand pieced and the Y seams were horrible - I didn't know what I was doing and you could sure tell!

  2. And my first quilt was a cotton and courderoy (yep--you got that right!! courderoy ;--000) one with the stars being cut from leftover dark navy blue cords...because I liked the color...--this ended my quilting career for a while...ya think? I didn't even get it together...I had only ever sewn children's clothing before. I sure didn't know what I was doing either....hugs julierose

  3. Uh, 3016??? Wouldn't that be a thousand years instead of 100 years? 2116 would be a hundred years from now.

    Yeah, I knew about the Strange Fruit song but made no nevermind to me. I still can't imagine the little pieces you make. And I am totally amazed when I look at the first quilt I made and wonder how on earth did I do something like that? But, I'm keeping it as is just for posterity and to remind me how far I've come. It has some of that low quality fabric in it, too.

  4. I haven't been quilting for even 10 yrs, but I get a lot of these 'early' fabrics in gifted scrap bags. I guess that I, too, have become a bit of a fabric snob as in learning about quality of fabrics - you want even those charity quilts to last. I would hate to think that a gifted quilt fell apart in the first wash.

  5. This is a good info about fabric. When I managed a fabric store I had quilters in the late 70's come in with a jeweler's eye piece to count threads. They were the real snobs about fabric. Even today the quality of the printed fabric is questionable at times. I think fabric printers will sometimes make more than one grade of fabric when printing to supply different stores. Fabric from a good designer from Joann's to a Quilt shop can be different grades. Same prints and the quality is really different. Chris

  6. I agree that the stray threads in corners are a pain, but someone showed me a trick with a glue stick. When you get to the corner put your needle into the glue stick a little way and sweep the threads under and hold with your thumb as you do that.. the threads will stay in. The holding is just for a second and keeps you from sweeping them out again. It works like a charm. I agree with using the best you can get and I love appliquing with batiks. Also if the fabrics come from overseas, most are sprayed with insecticides before they go into the sea container. That combination combined with the chemicals used in processing can cause lung issues, allergy attacks and in my case asthma attacks. I am a prewasher all the way.

  7. First of all, I love your new header! I wish I had a nickle for every time I said "you get what you pay for" to people who think they are getting a bargain at the discount fabric houses. I thank you so much for posting this. I usually tell people how lucky we are now to have fine quality fabrics and how important it is to support your local quilt shops. As for your wonderful hexagon top, I think I recognize a few of those fabrics! I think it is no wonder that we see so many unfinished tops from days gone by. I'm just thankful you kept going as you are such an amazingly talented designer and quilter. Thanks so much for sharing. And, I think I spy a "Sheepscot Pottery" bowl from Edgecomb, Maine, the town I grew up in!

  8. Interesting bit about the thread count on sheets! Good quality fabrics in my quilts? Yes!!

  9. What an interesting and informative post! Thank you for all the time it takes to research and write for us. I laugh everytime I look at my first quilt, at the time I treated it with kid gloves and wouldn't use it for ages. Ha! I bought some very high thread sheets and although they are silky and lovely to sleet in, they are very wrinkly.

  10. I'm pretty sure I have the bright yellow green flowered fabrics in my stash still! Sometimes diving right in not knowing something is supposed to be difficult is the best way! And yes, even today you can get some pretty craptastic fabrics, especially in chain stores. I recall that CU report on sheets, yet another trick they pull to try and fool us, like shaving the size of packages and keeping the price the same.


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