Understanding Quilting Fabrics

Here’s what to look for when searching for quilting fabrics.

Originally posted on January 30, 2018 by Cheryl Sleboda

At one point in the history of quilting, quilts were made with whatever fabrics were at hand.  Now, we have many choices when it comes to fabrics for our quilts.  But what sets certain fabrics apart from others? When you are shopping for fabric, it can be tempting to just pick up the designs you like, but have you thought about what makes up the fabric itself?  We’re going to cover a few basics for you to help clear up the mystery of quilting cottons.  This can be broken down into 3 basics: greige goods, dyeing or printing, and finishing.

Quilting cottons start with the base fabric called “greige goods” (it’s pronounced as “gray” and also can be spelled that way too). This base fabric is before it’s printed, dyed, or bleached.  It’s this underlying fabric that separates quality cottons from ones that are sold more inexpensively. At the heart of a quality greige good is the thread count and quality of the cotton yarn that makes up the cloth.  Premium cottons have a very high thread count, like your expensive sheet sets.  These cottons last longer and show wear less due to that thread count.  Lower thread count fabric has a looser weave and your batting may beard through.  The yarns in premium cottons are smooth, with no “slubs”, creating less places for the fabric to wear out.  Batik fabrics are some of the highest thread count fabrics out there.

The dyeing or printing process on quilting cottons can also vary.  Printing a design on fabric is done with a screen for each color. How many colors the fabric has on it is indicated by those circles on the selvage edge.  Fabric with many colors and small detailed designs have to be printed at a slower rate.  It also takes time to line up the screen so that the printing is not “off”.  This can set some premium cotton quilting fabrics apart.  Even solids are not created equal.  Solid fabrics can be screen printed to read as a solid, greige fabric that is vat dyed to be solid, or dyeing the yarn and weaving the fabric as one solid color.  There’s a million ways the dyeing and printing processes can differ.

Lastly, your fabrics are “finished” which means that the cotton is treated so that your dyes are set, and the fabric is given it’s “hand”.  This can include mechanically polishing the cotton, “raising” the cotton to produce flannel fibers on the surface, and chemical finishing such as sizing and flame retardants.  While there are hundreds of ways to finish the fabric before it arrives to you, quality cottons have a soft feel, minimal sizing, and the dyes are usually set so that your fabric dye bleeds less.

While this is not the final word on quilting cottons, it’s a brief overview on the differences that you may have seen or felt in the quilting cottons in your own collection.  Look for high thread count, few or no slubs, printing that’s aligned properly, and a soft hand.  We all want to make quilts that stand the test of time and using a quality fabric to start with will help your masterpiece do just that.


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