Choose the Best Quality Fabric for a Quilt

We Carry
by Sara Snuggerud in Archives

How do you choose the best quality fabric for your quilt? Quilt shops, magazines and patterns will always recommend “quilt shop quality” fabric, but what does that mean exactly?

To understand the term “quilt shop quality” fabric, is to learn how fabric is made. The number of threads, the quality of cotton used in the weaving process, and how the fabric is finished makes the differences in fabric quality.

Quilt shop quality fabric has a thread count of 68 threads per inch or more. It is made with long staple cotton, meaning the fibers of cotton that are spun into the threads used for weaving are longer, stronger and more durable in the long run. The more threads per square inch means the fabric is denser. This prevents the fibers of the batting in quilts from poking through the fabric, or “beard”. If you have ever seen this, that is a clue about the quality of the fabric.

Higher thread counts make fabric feel a little softer and accept dye better. It will shrink a little in the wash, but not as much as lesser quality fabrics. PFD (prepared for dying) and batik fabrics can have up to a 200 thread count and generally don’t shrink at all
Average cotton cloth has a thread count of 60 threads to the inch, and use short staple cotton.

The fabric may be thin or feel stiff, and it shrinks a lot in the wash. Expect the batting to beard through these wider spaced fibers over time.

The printing process manufacturer’s use can be quite complicated. Fabric designers work about a year in advance to come up with the concepts, which are then converted into colorized designs. The first time a mill prints cloth, they will usually do so on lesser quality goods in order to test the colors and the placement of the designs. Look at the selvage of purchased fabric and you will see color dots. Quilters like to use them to help choose coordinating fabrics. Their real purpose was for the manufacturer to make sure the color and alignment of the print was correct.

In the 1920’s – 1940’s, mills would test their prints on low quality fabrics. These low quality goods later became feed sacks. In today’s market, these first run tests often become the flat folds that are available at discount stores. These flat folds may be printed on lesser quality fabric, which will not last, or they could be printed on good fabric but the colors and/or designs were not up to the manufacturer’s specifications. Some fabrics are printed as deliberate knock-offs of popular designs. If compared to the original design, you may see that the colors are bit off, or a part of the design, like a leaf or a vine, is missing.

Quality quilt fabric also goes through a multi step finishing process, which sets the dyes and makes the fabric softer. Inexpensive fabric skips the last couple of steps, resulting in stiff fabric that wrinkles easy and is very susceptible to bleeding and/or sun fading. Fabrics that are quickly printed to take advantage of a trend often skip those last few steps making it is less expensive. Manufacturers believe people would buy it without planning on a long term use.

When you go to a quality quilt shop you will not have to ask whether the thread count of the fabric is 68 or higher. A quality quilt shop will only carry the best quilting fabric. You will not have to wonder if the batting will beard through in time. You will know that there will be minimum shrinkage and you may not even have to pre-wash to shrink the fabric. Do not frustrate yourself by using second or third best fabric. You will be happier with the process and prouder of your quilt knowing you cared enough to shop for the quality at a quality shop.