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How to Choose the Best Fabric for Quilts

Choosing fabric for quilting can make you feel a bit like Goldilocks in the three bears’ house. You want something that’s not too heavy and not too light, not too stretchy or too stiff. But while it’s important to keep these things in mind, there are lots of ways to incorporate unexpected fabrics into your quilts as well. Check out these tips and tricks for choosing and using quilting fabrics!

Know Your Terminology

Beginning quilters (and sewists unfamiliar with quilting) often confusing “quilting” and “piecing.” Piecing is the process of creating those beautiful, colorful patterns by stitching together different pieces of material. There are lots of techniques, from complex shapes created with paper piecing to string quilts to simple patchwork squares. For piecing, you want fabrics that hold their shape well, which typically means a woven rather than knit fabric, and that are lightweight enough that you can sew over the points where many shapes join together and seam allowances start getting bulky. You also need fabrics that can hold up to high heat, as pressing is a regular part of creating the shapes in a pieced quilt and managing the bulk of seam allowances.

Quilting, on the other hand, is the process of sewing together a “sandwich” of backing, batting, and quilt top. The top, backing, or both, may be pieced, though it’s commonly only the top. Quilting can be done either by machine, or by hand. Again, your choice of quilting method will affect your choice of fabric. Heavier fabrics are tough to quilt by hand, so even if your piecing design calls for simple shapes that allow you to easily sew a heavy material together, you may run into problems if you’re planning to hand quilt. On the other hand, lightweight, loosely woven materials could pose a problem for machine quilting because they tend to pucker and lose their shape, even when thoroughly pinned or basted into place.

The Basics: Quilting Cottons

Many chain fabric stores are really geared toward quilters. Sure, they’ve got a few racks of fashion fabrics, and maybe even some upholstery material, but the bulk of what they carry is quilting cotton. This is a woven fabric that’s lightweight enough to sew multiple layers without needing to switch to a heavy-duty needle, but sturdy enough to put up with years of wear. Quilting cotton is, as the name suggests, the staple fabric of quilting. It comes in thousands of colors and patterns, including holiday themed options, and is the perfect fabric for basic quilting projects, from placemats and table runners to bedspreads and wall hangings.

Quilting Kits

If you’re just getting into quilting, a kit can be a great way to take some of the guesswork out of your early projects. These contain all the fabrics you need to create the piecework top of your quilt (typically, you’ll need to add batting and backing yourself). Most come with all the pieces already cut out, and a guide for assembling them. This can be especially great if you want to try out piecing and quilting without investing in the equipment you’d need to cut out complex shapes: rotary cutters, cutting mats, clear rulers and cutting guides, etc.

Fat Quarters and Fabric Packs

Quilting cottons are like a jewel box of colors, and you’re going to want to play with them all. Thankfully, there ways to do this without breaking the bank. Fabric shops that cater to quilters will sell fat quarters. These are quarter yards of fabric cut differently from the traditional cutting-counter method so that they’re squarish in shape instead of a long narrow strip. This makes them ideal for cutting into pieces to be used in quilting, and they’re reasonably priced. A regular quarter yard cut off the bolt may be even less expensive, though, so if your design doesn’t call for large areas of a fabric, look into buying it off the bolt instead.

Another option for quilting fabric is fabric packs. These fall somewhere between quilting kits and fat quarters, as they include lots of different colors, and some are cut into strips or squares that are ready to be sewn, but often they don’t include a map for how to lay out the pieces. These can be a great choice for sewists who want to focus on sewing rather than trying to design a color scheme.

Extra Wide Fabric

For quilt backing, extra wide quilting cotton is an excellent choice. It minimizes the number of seams, and allows you to quickly create a backing large enough for even the biggest quilting projects. It isn’t available in as many colors as regular quilting cotton, and is typically only available in solid colors rather than prints. You can also use this extra wide fabric for the top of your quilt, if you want to showcase your stitchwork against a solid colored background.

Quilting with Knits

Typically, knits are too stretchy for quilting easily, as they tend to warp out of shape, but there are ways around that issue. This comes in especially handy for projects like t-shirt quilts, which are very popular graduation gifts. The easiest way to handle quilting with knits is to use a stabilizer. This can be a fusible product that you iron onto the back of your t-shirt material before you cut out your shapes, or a liquid starch that dries leaving your fabric temporarily stiffened. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Fusible interfacing leaves your quilt slightly stiffer than a regular t-shirt, but it does ensure a perfectly flat, non-stretch surface that’s easy to measure, cut and sew. Temporary stabilizers don’t have quite as much staying power, but, once your quilt is complete, they wash away and leave a soft, t-shirt-like texture that’s very appealing. If you’ve never quilted with knits before, start with a fusible stabilizer to get the hang of things, then start experimenting to see what you like best!

Working with Found Fabrics

One of the joys of quilting is being able to include fabrics that have special meaning, like a snippet of a wedding or christening gown, a bit of an old uniform, or a favorite baby blanket. This is also one of the challenges of quilting, since it can be quite difficult to join a delicate bit of wedding gown material with a bit of tough denim coverall. So how do you create a quilt that includes all these memories without needing regular repairs? There are several techniques you can try.

Use supporting fabrics
When you’re working with delicate materials, like lace, chiffon, or other lightweight fabrics, always use a layer of sturdier fabric beneath them. Not only does this help provide support to the fabric throughout the life of the quilt, but it also makes it considerably easier to piece and quilt the project. The method you use will depend on your design choices. You can simply use a fusible product to bind the fabric to a cotton layer, if it can handle the heat of an iron. If it’s more delicate, layer your fabric over a layer of cotton and stitch around the edges in the seam allowance. This allows you to treat the fabric as one layer, with the look of the delicate top fabric, and the strength of the cotton underneath.

Experiment with sashing
Sashing is a narrow band of material in between other, larger blocks. Think of it as a border. If you’re using different weights of fabric, sashing can help bridge the gap between soft and flexible and stiff and unyielding. Sewing a delicate fabric to a tough one is a recipe for damage along that seam. Cotton sashing can provide extra support that’s not too rough, and makes it easier to join disparate materials.

Try appliques
If you’ve only got a few pieces of fabric that don’t match the weight of the rest of your project, consider creating appliques with them instead of trying to use them for piecing. This can work especially well with very lightweight or very heavy material, since this method limits both bulky seam allowances and the wear and tear of being placed on a structural seam. For delicate fabrics, you’ll again want to use some kind of supporting material underneath it to make your applique easier to attach. With bulky materials, especially those cut from clothing or other existing projects, try to avoid including seams, as the extra layers can pose a challenge in creating and attaching your appliques. For a basic tutorial on making and attaching fabric appliques, check out this great resource!

With patience and the right techniques, you can quilt with all kinds of different materials. Keep in mind, though, that practice makes perfect, and if you’re just starting out, it’s best to work with basic quilting cottons to hone your skills before trying something more advanced. When you’re ready to move on to more complex materials, keep these basics in mind:

  • Woven fabrics are easiest
  • Make sure it won’t melt when pressed!
  • If it stretches, stabilize it
  • If it’s too delicate, add support
  • If two fabrics are too different, try applique instead of piecing

With these tips and tricks in your back pocket, your next quilting project is sure to be a success!

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