All Fabrics are not Created Equally


When I first begin quilting in October 2000, I would only purchase fabric from the major chain establishments. I swore that I would never spend 10$ a yard on fabric. Truth be told, had I had to spend that much back then, I would have quickly abandoned the quilting hobby. I simply could not afford to spend that much back then.

Then, my dear best friend (aka DBF) discovered a Local Quilt Shop (aka LQS), and we both started swapping, and quickly discovered that LQS fabrics afforded us a more luxurious and vibrant fabric. Oh to feel a good Moda under your skin. Yum Yum! So, by the end of 2002, I had amasses close to 2000$ in quilting fabrics.

Should I buy Retail or LQS?

Yet, the age old question, "Should I buy retail or LQS?" continues to permeate the minds of new quilters. The most simplistic and realistic answer is "Buy what you can afford." So, if the only way that you can maintain the hobby is buying from Retail, do it. Quilting is too important of a hobby, too relaxing, and too creative, to simply abandon because your budget doesn't support the higher end fabric.

Are all fabrics created equally?

Which brings about the next question, "Are all fabrics created equally?" The quick answer is "NO!" I have found some scrumptious fabrics at LQS as well as some below mediocre fabrics. Read that again, "Below mediocre." Yes, it is true. Just because you spend 9-10$ a yard on fabric does not mean that it will be a better quality than the 3$ a yard retail fabric. Now, don't send the Quilt Police (aka QP) after me. I know that the big vendors will try to convince you otherwise. They snub their nose and insists that you cannot purchase quality fabrics at retail establishments. Those same fabric snobs probably avoid all major warehouse shops and such as well. You wouldn't possibly consider that the television you purchase at your major warehouse shop to be lesser quality than the one at your high-end retail store when it is in the same box, model, etc. Of course not! We know that the warehouse shops can afford to take a lesser markup on their products because they deal in volume. Yes, volume. Volume dicates price in the retail shops.

Volume over Pricing:

Think about it this way. If you owned an electronics shop. You may sell some 1000 items. But the major warehouse shop may sell some 20,000 items. Well, you have to make more money off of each of your items to be profitable than that major warehouse. Likewise, the major retail shops, who sell much more than just fabric, can afford to sell big ticket items cheaper. Not only do they have more items to sell, and thus, make less off of each item, they bank on the idea that you will go in there for one item, and end up mosying over to the crafts area and buy other items. (Not to mention they usually sell all of those very high profit seasonal decorations and candies!) So don't discount the retail shops simply because they are retail shops.

LQS vs Retail, Myth vs Reality:

Now, that brings me to the real discussion. Are the fabrics at the LQS better than at the retail shops? The simple answer again is No. I have purchased many yards of fabrics at the LQS that not only washed up poorly, but did not hold up just through the assembly and quilting process, let alone actual usage. And, I have purchased retail fabric that has held up well to the constant beatings it receives while being used in a tote bag or pot holder. I like to dye fabric. I have purchased fabric from retail that dyes up beautifully. The same fabric is often sold at the LQS for 2$ more a yard. For real! You can tell by the bolt end cap.

Now, there seems to be an age old "story" that Fabric Manufacturers sell knock-offs to the retail shops. The story goes like this: XYZ Fabrics makes fabrics based on Quilt Designer 1's designs. Quilt Designer 1 wants her fabrics to be exclusive. She thinks that by selling to only LQS it will help maintain the exclusivity-ness of the fabric, and encourage quilters to spend more on it. So, XYZ Fabrics sets up the mill to run a "test" sample of the fabric. They want to ensure that the fabric lines up well, the design looks good, and the colors are right. Once this "test" sample is done, they sell it to Retail, under a different fabric name, and then set the mill up to make the "REAL" designer fabric.

Let's be a myth buster and blow some holes in this supposed real-life story. First, Quilt Designer 1 is just fooling herself that she will make more money by being exclusive. We have already determined that volume beats price. Next, I have never worked at a mill, but I can presume that the amount of time and labor it takes to set up a run of fabric is immense. It would seem quite an extravagant, and wasteful, process to do a test run of every fabric. Really, some lines come out with 5 or more color ways. You normally see at least 5 prints in each color way. That is 25 separate fabric bolts. You really think that they are going to do 25 seperate runs of test fabrics? I don't think so either. In addition, would they have to do another test run each time to get the setting correct? In this day of computer technology, do you really believe this myth?

Next, the second story I hear is that the fabrics are printed on lesser "greige" good products and then sold to retail. "Greige goods" are the base fabric used in creating the quilt fabric we all cherish. Concentrating on the possibility of the first myth, does this follow logical sense? As a dyer, I know that different fabrics take the dye differently. A sateen saturates much more different than a broadcloth. Likewise, in printing, different fabrics will take the print in different manners. This could result in not only an off-grain printing, or the fabric having a different appearance than the designer wanted. I don't buy this story either.

What I do believe is that the quilt fabric designers keep the "exclusivity" idea going to keep the prices up. They want to maintain the idea that LQS is superior, whether it is or not. This is much akin to the Ralph Laurens and Tommy Hilfigers who only sell to the more expensive shops. You seldom see these items at Walmart or Target. When you see the same fabric in a retail shop that you see in a LQS, it is because, in my opinion, the big mills send the irregulars to the retail shops, usually using a different name on the label. Why do I believe this? Well, first, I cannot believe that Ms Quilt Designer 1 would allow her fabric to go to LQS if it got printed off slightly at the mill. Secondly, I once purchased a Timeless Treasures print that had "Time less Treasures" printed on the selvage. Obviously a goof. The bolt label did not say "Timeless Treasures," but I know my TT. I even compared the fabric to one I bought at a LQS with a magnifying glass and it was the same fabric. So, that confirms my theory that the off-shots do end up at the Retail shops. Sort of like all of the refurbished electronics used to end up at Odd Lot type shops. (You may have noticed that more and more companies, such as Dell, are no longer doing this with their refurbs. They have quickly realized that they can still make a tidy sum by selling to their own customers instead of sending them off to some off-shop. )

How do you know if the fabric is a good quality?

I have gone on and on about the arguments about fabrics, retail vs LQS, and the like. But, we still haven't discussed how to know if a fabric is indeed a good quality. Well, the answer is, this is a personal issue. Some will say if it is a thin fabric, leave it at the store. But, I have purchased many "thin" Kona Bay fabrics that are truly divine. It is not the thinness. In this case, the Kona Bay fabric uses a finer weave and finer thread. Their fabrics have a sheen to them, ala a sateen. And they are scrumptious. And, I dare argue that one of the biggest, and imo, snobbiest, fabric designers uses a greige good that is far inferior to just about anything that I have ever purchased from the retail shops. We won't mention their name to avoid a slander charge, but lets just say that the name is simply initials. That should narrow it down to you.

The same above mentioned anonymous mill prints fabric that is so off grain, you cannot tear it. I am a tearer. It is much easier. When I do swaps of fat-quarters or such, I always add an inch or two, then tear the fabric. Well, I was almost in tears, no pun intended, when I was at the last minute to package up my swap and went to tear this badly printed fabric only for it to be so extremely off grain that I was left with parallelograms instead of rectangles of fabric. And I paid 9.95$ a yard for that fabric! I purchase fabric from the Retail shops and tear it without the same results.

So, you can see, it can be hard to get a good fabric. In general, I find that if I follow the below steps, I can be assured to get some decent fabric, regardless of the price.
  • If the fabric has an extremely strong odor, leave it behind. It is likely that the fabric has been treated with thickeners and such that will just wash out in the washer.
  • Hold the fabric up to the light. Put your hand behind it. Can you make out every detail of your hand, or a ring or other jewelry? If so, then we can presume that the fabric has either too loose of a weave, or too thin of cotton strands, to hold up to longevity. Leave it behind.
  • When you get it home, tear a strip off. Does it seem to tear evenly? If so, then be familiar with that manufacturer and you will probably have a good likelihood that it is consistent.
  • Rub a piece of white cloth across the new fabric. Does the ink come off on the white? If so, then you can bet a lot of the ink will also run off in the wash. Leave it behind.
  • Are the colors vibrant or dull and lifeless? You will be looking at this fabric for some time. You want to enjoy it. Be sure that the fabric is luxurious to you. The more vibrant the fabric, the more likely that the fabric is deeply saturated with color.
  • If you have time, you can test the thread count. Cut off a one-inch block of the fabric. Then, choosing either the weft or warp first, start pulling out the strands of fabric, counting as you go. Count the opposing fabrics as well. This will give you the thread count of the fabric. For example, a 200 thread count fabric will usually have 100 strands of fabric in the weft, and 100 in the warp. 100 + 100 = 200. The higher the thread count, it stands to reason, the longer the fabric will last.
  • Are there any nubs in the fabric? Feel your hand along closely, and inspect the fabric. Do you see any small nubs of fabric. Nubs are small imperfections which seem to be sort of like fussy knots in the fabric. These nubs will not only cause your rotary cutter to go off kilter, but they just don't look and feel good. (And I have seen them in both retail and LQS fabrics!)
  • Has the fabric started pilling yet? If it is pilling just from being rubbed against people, or other fabrics, you can be sure it is going to pill horribly when you get it in your quilt.
  • Finally, just feel the fabric. How does it feel to you? Is it something you can imagine cuddling up with? Or does it feel scratchy? Purchase some very good fabric just once in a LQS and use it as a "feeling" comparison. Is the texture smooth?

In Summary:

I hope that these guidelines will help you when choosing fabric, whether it be at the LQS or retail. When you are a new quilter, you are not going to have the experience of knowing good fabric. But, start paying attention. If you can only buy a fat-quarter at the LQS, do it. As time goes by, you will begin to have an idea of good fabric. And, just because Ms Designer Fabric 1 has designed the fabric, and you see her name and face all over the media, do not assume it to be a good fabric. Several of the big designer have started designing for the more retail mills for a reason. They can reach more people, and make more profit. Think about it.

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