Many new quilters feel stuck when picking out fabric, not knowing how to begin or proceed. Choosing fabric for a quilt doesn’t need to be stressful or mysterious. There are no secret formulas or hard and fast rules you need to follow when choosing your fabric. It’s primarily a matter of trusting yourself and choosing what you like! Having said that however, it can be helpful to understand a few basic principles as you choose fabric. The more knowledge you have, the more confident quilter you will be! Let’s begin at the beginning…
Where to Buy Quilting Fabric
Always buy high-quality (referred to as quilt shop quality) fabric. You will put many hours into making your quilt and it will last for years to come. You want the quilt to hold up for many years of use and retain its beauty, shape and quality. Quilting fabric is 100% cotton with a high thread count. It will hold together through many washings and will have a nice hand feel when working with it. There will be less bias stretching when working with high-quality fabric as well, making your overall quilt piecing experience that much smoother.
For the reasons stated above, you will want to shop for your fabric at a quilt shop, either in-person or online. Shopping at a brick-and-mortar quilt shop gives you the advantage of seeing the fabric in person, where you can handle it and be sure of the color and feel. It’s always good to support our local quilt shops! However, not everyone has a quilt shop nearby and not every quilt shop has the variety or fabric we need. In those cases, you will find a plethora of fabric choices through on-line quilt shops. The disadvantage of this is that the colors you see on your monitor may not be exact, as different monitor and screens may show the colors differently. If this is a worry for you, most on-line shops will send you a fabric swatch so you can be sure the color is exactly what you need.
Curated Fabric Lines
By far the most popular and easiest route to picking out fabric for a quilt is to choose fabric from a curated fabric line. These are a collection of fabrics that have been designed to go together and usually include a variety of colors, scales and designs that complement each other. Below is a collection of fat quarters from a curated fabric line:
Within each fabric line you will find pre-cuts that include the various fabrics from that line. These are wonderful time savers! They also allow you to have a small amount of each of the fabrics within the line without having to buy yardage. It’s common to buy a pre-cut (charm pack, layer cake or fat quarter bundle for example) and then buy yardage to match for the borders, binding and backing, as shown in the photo below:
Below is a list of the most commonly available pre-cuts:
- Charm Pack – 42 – five-inch fabric squares
- Jelly Roll – 40 to 42 - 2.5" X width of fabric strips
- Layer Cake – 40 to 42 ten-inch fabric squares
- Fat Quarter – A fabric piece that has been cut to 18" X 21"
- Fat Eighth – A fabric piece that has been cut to 9" X 22"
Focus fabric is usually a print within a fabric line that has within it all the colors from that line. By using the focus fabric as a starting point, you can choose matching fabrics to go along with it and “build” your quilt from there. If you find a fabric you absolutely love, this can be your focus fabric. You would then choose matching fabrics to blend with it to create your quilt’s color scheme. The photo below shows some examples of focus fabrics:
A blender is a non-focus fabric that serves as a sort of bridge between the other fabrics. Blenders can be very small prints that appear as nearly solid (also referred to as “low impact” fabrics). Blenders can be actual solids, or they can be tonal or marbled fabrics with just a touch of texture. Blenders in a quilt give the eye a place to rest by providing a space between the busier, focus fabrics in the quilt. Below are some examples of blenders:
In real estate, the key words are location, location, location. In quilting, I think the key words should be contrast, contrast, contrast! Contrast means difference. Differences between large and small scale prints, differences between colors; lights and darks, bright and muted colors or busy vs calm fabrics. It’s these differences that make us notice the quilt’s individual components. We notice something because of the contrast (differences) around it.
For Cornerstones, I used just three main fabrics. The focus fabric is the lighter, teal floral fabric. I used the darker teal and yellow blender fabrics to contrast with the lighter focus fabric. Both these blender fabrics are included in the focus fabric color scheme as is the darker teal floral I used in the border.
Scale is another way of creating contrast. Scale refers to the differences in size and volume (impact) within a fabric line. In the example below, you can see there are small, medium and large-scale prints as well as blenders. Even the blenders add scale because they appear less pronounced to the eye when looking at the collection as a whole.
Some fabrics are just busy! They can be loud, overwhelming and even chaotic in a quilt. On the flip side, they can also be gorgeous and just beckon us to use them! For busy or overpowering fabrics, it is helpful to use a low-volume background fabric. Below are some busy fabrics from designer Kaffe Fassett:
I love to use these types of fabrics in a quilt, it really feels like you get a lot of “bang” for your buck when including them! For Cascading Charms, I used Kaffe Fassett prints and surrounded them with a white background, which really sets them off.
Background fabric refers to a neutral fabric that does not draw the eye. Background fabric is intended to be just that…in the background. Below are some examples of background fabrics:
These fabrics vary in shade, intensity, color and texture. Background fabrics can also be blender fabrics and visa-versa. The backgrounds shown above are all on the white/light spectrum but background fabrics can be dark as well, depending on what color the other fabrics in your quilt are.
Borders & Binding
Never underestimate the power of borders and binding! Oftentimes, a ho-hum quilt will be set-off with the perfect border fabric or a contrasting binding. In the example below (the sample quilt from my Cobblestone Charm quilt pattern), I chose a bright blue blender fabric for the inner border. This border really makes the quilt “pop”. Without it, the outer border would be muted and would almost blend in with the quilt center.
As you peruse the fabric isles, pay attention not only to what you like and are drawn to, but why you are drawn to it. Maybe you are crazy about paisley (like I am!). Maybe you love sunflowers (like I do!). Maybe your favorite color is blue. Are you partial to floral prints? Do you prefer modern fabrics with geometric designs? Are you a fan of civil war reproduction fabrics or do you prefer the colorful prints from the 1930’s style fabric? Knowing what you like will make your choices easier. There is no right or wrong here and there certainly are no quilt police! This is a time to trust yourself and allow yourself to explore, experiment and discover who you are as a quilter.
Planning a quilt and choosing the fabrics are my favorite part of quilting! I often have several quilts all planned out well before I actually start on them. If I see a fabric I love, I will plan a quilt around it, purchase the fabric to make it and add it to my stash. (I’m not telling just how many such “planned” quilts are currently waiting in my stash!)
I hope this article has given you something to think about the next time you choose fabric for a quilt!
Until next time, happy quilting!