All About Fabric - How to Choose the Right Fabric

Choosing fabric can be a daunting task for a newbie quilter or sewer.  I know it was for me when I first started.  If you go back to my beginning quilting blog you will read about my horrifying first experience with my first fabric.  The fabric was literally melting as I sewed.  So the first thing we need to understand are that there are different "substrates" or types of fabric. 


The main substrate used in quilting is quilting cotton.  Quilting cotton is different from cotton you would see in clothing because it is meant to outlast you.  It has a higher thread count (think of your bed sheets, what thread count are they and can you tell the difference of other thread count sheets) and is typically of a much better quality then apparel type of cotton.  Quilts are meant to last, clothing - not so much. 

Other types of Substrates, to name only a few, are:

  • Flannel - great for quilts
  • Polyester - not good for quilting because it can melt while ironing
  • Cotton Sateen (used in some 108" wide fabrics for backing)
  • Wovens (cotton that is weaved with two different colors or types of threads to give it a different feel and look)
  • Rayon - used primarily for Apparel
  • Canvas - great for bags
  • Barkcloth - lighter weight than Canvas and softer to touch, also great for bags
  • Cork fabric - great for bags
  • Linen - there are different types of linen.  We sell the linen that is good for bags or quilts. 
  • and so many more!

For the purposes of this blog we will only be talking about Quilting Cotton.  While you can make quilts out of Linen, or Barkcloth, or Wovens, if you are new to quilting I strongly suggest you stick with quilting cotton to start.  I wish someone had told me that on my first quilt.  I had chosen a polyester cotton blend which was a big mistake and incredibly frustrating. 

Making that trip to a real Quilt Shop instead of the big box stores made all the difference in my life AND saved my quilting career. 

The advice I had gotten from the quilt shop was to first pick out my main print.  What print drew my attention the most? Grab that one print and then find prints that compliment it.  We ended up picking a light and dark fabric that complimented in and then another print from the same collection for the border and binding. 

This is all easily said and done when you are in an actual quilt shop and can see and touch the fabric.  Shopping online makes it a little more challenging.  Here are my tips for managing buying fabric online and finding the right match. 

Shop in Collections

Choosing fabrics in collections are the easiest way to ensure you are picking fabrics that will match in color and style.  A collection is a group of fabrics designed by the same designer with the same design elements in different colorways. Think Stay Gold by Ruby Star Society, or Daydreamer by Tula Pink, those are Collections. 

Take this Jungle Paradise collection by Stacy Iest Hsu for example:

The collection comes with a few main prints to choose from in different colors and then some coordinating prints to go with them.  Collections typically consist of the main design prints, coordinating design prints, and then some matching basics (we will talk about each of these later in this Blog)

In the picture above, there are the pain prints in the collection (the elephant prints in the orange and green) and then the coordinating prints (the pink monkeys) and the the basics (the three prints on the bottom).  As you can see by sticking within the collection you will most definitely have fabric that all coordinate together. 


Coordinates and Basics are essentially the same with one minor difference.  A Coordinate is typically one that was designed as part of a larger collection, however the design is generic enough that it could be combined with other fabrics that are not a part of the collection.  Basics are prints that have a design to them but are not tied to a specific Collection.  

Think Thatched by Robin Pickens, or Speckled by Ruby Star Society, or Floral Elements by Art Gallery Fabrics.  These are all basics that have a design element to them but can be used across collections and were are tied to only one specific collection. 


A solid is just that.  A fabric that is all one color.  Solids can really help round out a project and pull colors from your main print and make them more vibrant.  There are different kinds of solids - just a flat all one color solid or near solids like Grunge.  Using something like Grunge adds "texture" to your quilt.  Using just a one color solid will be more flat with no texture.   Grunge can give your project a more modern feel to it since it incorporates other subtle colors in it.  Whereas a solid solid can really make those colors pop.  

So, how do you choose the right coordinates or basics to go with a print you found online?  Because the colors online can sometimes be misleading due to variations in monitor screens and the colors they output to the user, if can be challenging to ensure you are picking the right fabrics that match each other. 

Prior to owning my shop, I rarely went in to a fabric store.  There just weren't any near me.  So I perfected online shopping for fabric. Here is my super non-technical way of doing it:

  1. Open a tab in your internet browser with the main print you are trying to match. You could even save a copy of the picture to your computer. 
  2. Find a fabric of a coordinating print you think will match and save that picture.
  3. Open both pictures and put them side by side on your screen.  If they coordinate well together then you have a winner!
  4. If they don't repeat until you find the right one that matches. 
I'd love to hear from others in the quilting community about how they purchase online.  So let me know in the comments!  What are your strategies for picking the perfect fabric online or in store? 


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