by Pat Sloan
I've had a few people ask me to explain the 'quality' of quilt fabrics. You can feel the difference in fabrics. Run your hand along some bolts in several kinds of store, chains, fashion fabric stores, & quilt shops. Some will feel stiff, some will feel very thin, some and will be soft as silk. Like any product, quilt fabric is printed in different levels which produces different qualities of fabric.
Here are the basics.
- Fabric starts with a base called 'greige' goods. Pronounced 'gray'. This base fabric is the start of the quality of the finished fabric.
- The base fabric has a thread count, and a thread weight. Most quilt shop quality fabric is made with a thread count of 75 and a thread weight of 30 or 34. This the number of threads in an inch of fabric.
- Some fabric is made with less threads in an inch. Some is made with a thinner weight of thread. Sometimes there are more threads on one side than the other of the weave. These changes lead to less expensive greige goods so the final fabric usually will cost less.
- Some fabric, like batiks, are made with a higher thread count. For batiks this is done because the way the batik is made, the dyes need a higher thread count to be able to handle the resist & batik creation process. The batik process has repeated washings and the fabric is shrinking, so a higher thread count will have less shrinkage. Think of very high end sheets for the bed, 200 thread count is more expensive and feels nice to touch.
- After the greige goods are selected and the design is printed, there are finishing chemicals applied. Some of those create a stiffer fabric than others.
- Some dyes make the fabric stiff. If you have bought true Indigo prints you'll notice they are stiffer because of the dye, but will soften up with repeated washings.
- The final process is called 'calendaring' and can be done at different levels. The highest level produces that shiny 'chintz' fabric.
So why do I recommend buying better quality fabric?
- The base goods are made with a consistent and balanced weave. This means you will not have excessive or uneven shrinkage.
- The weave is tight enough and consistent enough to withstand the washing and use a quilt will be given.
- The fabric feels soft before and after you wash it. Often lower priced greige goods will not be soft even after several washings (ask me about my fabrics from the late 1970's!)
- Quality fabric is made to last for years and years
- A high, even count weave will prevent your batting from bearding through the fabric to the outside of the quilt.
- If you are a hand quilter the even weave of good quality fabric will give you a better hand quilting experience. And just a note, very high thread counts (like a batik) are more difficult to hand quilt.
- You are going to spend many hours making your quilt, you deserve to use good quality and have your work last!
Follow up information
Harriet Hargraves wrote a book on textiles called "From Fiber to Fabric". It is like a college text book! Loads of information if you wish to understand the fabric printing process more.
How many people does it take to make a bolt of fabric?
As you might guess by now, there are quite a few people involved in making your quilt fabric! Here is just a sampling of the people who are paid from that yard of fabric you just bought...
The designer (me in the case of my fabrics!), the staff artists, the computer people who work on the systems (at the main office, the printing plant, and even at the quilt shop!), the support staff in the main office & shipping department at the fabric company, the fabric reps, the textile makers at the printing plant, printing plant maintenance people, shipping costs of fabric, all the people who harvest the cotton for the greige goods, the plant that manufacturers the greige goods, the UPS people who deliver it to your quilt shop, the quilt shop staff who stack/ inventory/ and cut your fabric in the store, and a few more I'm sure I've missed!
And my friend Betty gave me a great write up on grain line, another good thing to know about!
Straight of grain (warp) indicates the direction of the yarns and runs parallel to the selvedge very firm with little stretch, great for borders, quilts or garments to hang well, you will have less wave to your borders.
Cross grain (weft) has more give/stretch and fullness. These are the yarns that run back and forth and woven to create the fabric.
Bias is the 45 degree angle to the straight of grain, best for any place you need to stretch for fullness. In quilting we often use this for making bias stems & bias binding.
To straighten fabric before cutting hold the selvedge edge in one hand and the cut edge in the other. Give a pull, this helps to straighten out a piece of fabric.