Are you really getting a bargain buying fabric at bigbox stores?
Once upon a time, making your own clothes from scratch cost less then going out and buying brand new retail clothing. I remember growing up in the 90's (back in my day rant warning) my mom use to drag my sisters and I all over to tiny little hole in the wall shops. We were living on a tight budget during those years, and a deal was worth the effort. Once at these shops, she and a gaggle of older ladies, would paw at display after
display of fabric, zippers, and buttons. Soon after a weekend of feverish sewing, she'd have all sorts of items made. She made play quilts for park outings, matching dresses with hats, doll clothes, totes, anything she could manage on her tiny domestic sewing machine. At the time, my 7 year old self hated the matching outfits with a fiery passion. My sisters and I are all relatively close in age, so whenever we'd go out in these perfectly sewn matching ensembles, we'd always get the "Oh your triplets are so cute" line. Thirty years later, I've come to really take a deeper appreciation for all the hard work and effort my mother put into all that she made for us on such a tiny budget.
Now with kids of my own, I have taken the opportunity to sew an outfit or two,
and of course make plenty of quilts! However, I've noticed a huge difference in how much it costs to make these precious items. It seems that the days of cheap make it yourself clothing are far behind us, at least if you want them to last longer than a season of play. Don't even get me started on the "50 dollar quilts from Waliworld, so why are your quilts so expensive" argument. Making any type of clothing now feels more of a special occasion type outfit than an everyday play one.
But why? What makes it so much more expensive now? Simply put, it's all in the fabric. The types of fabric available today have more variety and range of quality than those from past generations
Quality over Quantity
First things first, let's talk about where you're most likely getting your fabric from, and what you can expect.
Joanns/Micheal's type store
dedicated quilt shops/ sewing apparel stores
Unexpected results I know. However, the real question becomes why? Why does fabric range so greatly between retailers? The long and short of it simply put, is that fabric producers make three distinct tiers of fabric depending on which supplier their product is headed for. Walmart gets its own special quality level at the bottom of the stack because that's what they are willing to pay to supply their shoppers "with the best deal possible".
The way it's Made
To understand why fabric splits into three tiers of quality, let's break down what makes quilting fabric so special and why it's made the way it is.
Quilting cotton is specifically made to
handle more washing. This helps quilts that are well loved, last the test of time and the harshness of the washing machine. Quilt fabric in general is made with long staple cotton. This means that the fibers of cotton that are spun into
threads for weaving the fabric are longer, stronger, and more durable. Average cotton, however, is made with short staple cotton.
Thread count also plays a large role in what the quality level of the fabric will be. A good quality quilting fabric will have an average of 60-70 threads per inch both crosswise and lengthwise. This gives the material a 'finer' texture to the touch. It will also feel smoother and last longer. Also, the design printed on this level of fabric will have a high level of detail. The range of the thread count can vary greatly depending on the type of material and what it'll be used for. For example, PFD (prepared for dying) & Batik fabrics can range from 200-300 thread count. This allows the fabric to absorb more of the dye, keeps the edges from unraveling as easily, and generally won't shrink or warp as much as lower thread count material.
The general rule of thumb when it comes to the behavior of thread count in fabrics is:
too high of thread count- higher difficulty to get a needle through (ex. have you ever tried needle turn applique with a batik?!)
too low of thread count- the fabric is too loose and falls apart easily, as well as easily stretching out of shape as you sew (t-shit quilt anyone?)
The last major factor to consider is the finishing that a fabric gets. Quality quilt fabric goes through a multi-step finishing process that sets the dyes and makes the fabric softer. Inexpensive fabric skips this process, giving the fabric a stiff feel. This fabric will also wrinkle more easily and be more susceptible to dye bleeding and sun fading.
Exception to the Rules
Like with everything, there are always those that go outside the rules and and play their own Game.
This fabric brand has an unconditional rule they stand by. They will never produce their fabric at a lower quality than that of quilt shop tier fabrics. So no matter where you find this fabric, it will always have the same feel and quality. This is why I will typically search this fabric out when I shop at bigbox chains. (A gal's gotta save where she can ya know?!) However, don't expect to find as robust of a color selection that you would see at a local quilt shop or online seller.
SpoonFlower / Print to order shops
Where do shops that offer print your own fabric like Spoonflower fall in the line up? That's a tricky question to answer. In recent years places like spoonflower (and now Joann's) who offer printing fabric services had made a huge wave for indie designers. I personally haven't used these services and/ or fabrics, so I can not give a fair opinion on them. However, I do know from my research, is that Spoonflower offers 4 different types of quilters fabric (as well as nearly a dozen more). Perhaps I'll do a deep dive into spoonflower down the road.
Getting what you Paid for
Are you really getting scammed by those big box stores? It all depends on you! Honestly, it does. Now you know what you're looking at when you go to these different places to purchase your fabric. When my Mother made clothes for the family, she wasn't looking necessarily for the best quality of fabric. It boiled down to how cost effective making those items would be compared to retail stores. The same holds true today. If you are looking for the least expensive option to try and be frugal, then go for it! No judgement here. But, I do hope you'll give your local quilt shop a visit too! There's a wonderful world of fabric out there just waiting to be made into something fabulous
Best Stitches Quilty Crew,