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Local Quilt Shop Fabric vs Big Box Store Fabric

I get asked about the difference between fabrics you buy at your local quilt shops and those fabrics you find in the big box stores.  I'm going to do my absolute best to explain the difference between the fabrics in easy to understand words.  I'm going to cover the surface of what goes into making up the final quality of the fabric but there's even more than what I mention like what kind of dye that's used, how the print is made on the fabric, and more.  When you get down to that you are really splitting hairs about quality and I could stir up a bigger hornet's nest than I want to deal with.  What we will cover is fabric greige, fabric finishes, what fabrics don't change quality based on where you buy it, and how to stretch our fabric budget the farthest.  We'll also talk about where fabric quality doesn't really matter in the long run.

Learn what the difference is between quilt shop fabric and big box store fabric.

This post may contain affiliate links.  Purchasing items from the links cost you nothing more and adds a few pennies to the fabric budget.

Fabric Greige

I know greige sounds like I'm talking about a color but I'm not.  It's pronounced like gray not beige but that's where the color similarity stops.  The greige fabric is a fabric that's unfinished.  It has just come off the loom.  This is where fabric quality actually starts.  It is similar to thread count on your sheets.  We aren't just dealing with thread count though, we are also talking about the size of thread that is being used to make the fabric..  

Typically the fabric we find in our local quilt shops is about 75 thread count and made with 30 weight thread.  30 weight thread is just a little thicker than what we usually piece with, that's usually either a 40 or 50 weight thread.  The exception to this is batik fabrics.  Due to the way batiks are made they are made with a higher thread count closer to that of a sheet, around 200.  Batiks go through a lot more before they hit the bolt so they need the higher thread count so they keep their straight of grain during the washing, twisting, dying, ect.

Lower quality fabrics are usually cheaper.  The reason behind that the consistency isn't there.  I was looking at some manufacturers and their website said the thread size wasn't the same and/or the thread count wouldn't be the same.  That varied among the manufactures and the quality levels.  You need consistency in your fabrics.

Why Fabric Greige Matters

So why should we worry about the fabric greige?  Since greige actually means quality it's a big thing in quilting.  We spend a lot of time on our quilts so to have them fall apart quickly can be heartbreaking.  Also, a lack of consistency in fabric from bolt to bolt can bring lots of headaches when it comes to shrinkage.

We use fabric from multiple bolts to make a quilt.  If you prewash your fabrics and they are a lower quality you can end up with much less fabric than you started with.  Which means you'll be buying more fabric which ups the cost per yard.  If you have to buy 1 1/2 yards to end up with a yard that $7.00 a yard fabric just turned into $10.50 a yard fabric.  If you don't prewash than when you wash your quilt the fabrics won't shrink at the same rate because they don't have the same consistency of weave.  That will cause stress at the seams or even in the quilting which means your quilt will wear out quicker.

The one thing I haven't mentioned is the finish that gets put on to fabric once it's been "printed".  There are two reasons for finishes on fabric.  One is the feel of the fabric.  This doesn't really change anything about the fabric other than how it feels in your hands.  The other is actually a sizing type of finish.  We use sizing in our quilting.  When we use spray starch or best press to keep the fabric from going wonky that's a form of sizing.  The problem is when the sizing is the only thing keeping the fabric on the straight of grain.  When it washes out you are trying to cut strips out of fabric that doesn't know where it's bias is anymore.  Cuts aren't right, it stretches when you press it, and it becomes a huge headache.  In the end, you are using a lot more fabric which means you aren't saving anything.

Sometimes you will find the same print in your LQS and a big box store.  These are usually licensed fabrics.  When I made the boys their quilts a few years ago I learned a lot about this first hand.  The boys love John Deere tractors.  I was doing a tossed 9 patch for their quilts and while I wanted them to be similar I also wanted them to reflect the boys' personalities.  I happened to be shopping with some girlfriends in one of the big box stores and started checking out their John Deere fabrics.  They had some different prints but they were such poor quality I couldn't include them in the quilts.  I could see through them.  If you can see through the fabric there's a good chance your batting will also come through.  They were really stiff so I knew when it washed it would be completely wonky.

Fabrics That Are The Same No Matter Where You Buy Them

Most of the time the fabrics you buy in the quilt shop are different from the fabrics you buy at the big box stores but there are exceptions to that rule.  One is Kona cotton.  Kona is the standard in solid color quilting cotton.  There is no difference between Kona bought at a big box store and Kona bought at an LQS.  

Sometimes you can find LQS fabrics in the big box stores.  Much like clothing designers that sell off their out of season clothes to stores like Ross and TJ Maxx some fabric manufacturers do the same.  You have to hunt for it and you have to read the salvage edge but with a little work, you can find it.  It's not going to be the latest lines it's going to be a last season's fabric or maybe two seasons ago fabric.  I don't know about you but I shop at Ross and TJ Maxx because I like the name brand designer clothing but can't afford it when it is in season plus really do a classic cut pair of black slacks ever go out of fashion?  No, and smart buying of fabric doesn't go out of style either.  I've bought some great blenders at the big box stores by taking the time to check the manufacturer. 

How To Get The Most Fabric For Your Buck

I don't think any of us are on an unlimited fabric budget.  So we have to shop smart and make our dollar go as far as possible.  There are several ways I do this.  I shop garage sales, estate sales, and second-hand stores.  Like spending time in the big box store to find those LQS out of season blenders someone else's fabric from a quilt shop is just as good as the stuff I buy at the quilt shop.  I also stock up during sales.  From time to time my shops, I'm lucky to have two nearby, run sales.  I save my pennies for those sales and buy what I need.  One shop also has a "discount" rack that is always 40% off unless you take the whole bolt than it is 50% off.  I love that rack.  Some shops have a loyalty program but you have to ask to find out.  Mine is a punch card.  When I fill the card I get $25 to spend.  Paul has his own.  We save those cards up so when it's time to buy lots of fabric to make gifts we are spending little of our own money.  Some shops give discounts if you are a member of a guild.  Don't be afraid to ask!!

I try to shop locally as much as possible but I do shop the internet too.  My small shops can't stock everything.  A lot of times online is cheaper.  I have bought from before.  You just have to watch the prices because they aren't always cheaper.  Fat Quarter Shop has a flash sale every day and so does Missouri Star.  The flash sales vary so you have to check each day.  Sometimes they are templates, sometimes they are pre-cut packs, and sometimes they are quilt kits.  Just because you buy a kit doesn't mean you have to make that quilt, you can use that fabric for anything.  

If you are trying to build a stash to make scrappy quilts a box subscription is the way to go.  I subscribed to Cotton Cuts fat quarter box for a year.  I spent $445 and got 144 fat quarters. That made each fat quarter just a little over $3.00.  They now offer half yard cuts.  If you did a year subscription, the cheapest per month, you would get three yards of fabric each month, 6 half yard cuts.  You also get a full pattern, a couple of block patterns, and a trinket each month.  Which lowers the cost even more, if you figure each pattern would cost you $10 than your fat quarters come out to being $2.25 each.  

When Quality Doesn't Matter As Much

When I say quality doesn't matter as much I'm not talking about that fabric you can see through.  That stuff has no place in my opinion.  I'm talking about fabric that isn't as good as quilt shop fabric but isn't just junk either.  Not everything we make needs to last a generation or two.  That's when I use those cheaper fabrics.

I never make test blocks with my LQS fabric.  If I'm going to goof up a bunch I'm going to do it on cheap fabric.  Once I have my pattern figured out I'll move on to the good stuff.  I use other people's scraps, I use shirts, I use fabric I bought at garage sales that aren't my precious blenders, or scraps from another project but never my yardage or fat quarters.  That's for the real quilt that I want to last for a long time.

Small things like aprons, bowl cozies, and casserole carriers don't need to last for generations.  Styles change, the size of bowls and families change, and you might get bored with what you have.  Using a cheaper fabric, as long as we are still dealing with cotton, allows you to have options or switch out more often.

All of the fabrics above are from my stash.  The top is from Michael Miller, the middle is from JoAnn, and the bottom is QT Fabrics.  They all have a place.  The top and bottom I would use to make anything that I wanted, the middle is actually some from a friend that I used to make myself a small bag.  Now, I will say I've had the bottom fabric for awhile, it is in the same line as the fabric from my No Y-Seam 8 point star and I've been saving it to make something special because I don't want to cut it up for something that doesn't mean something to me.

Not every quilt needs to last forever either.  Making a quilt for the teen in your life?  It's not going to be an heirloom, they are going to outgrow the style you make before the quilt wears out.  Save that heirloom quilt for when they get married.

If you are learning, head out to that big box store and save your money.  If you know it's not meant to last for years pick up the fabric where you can but if it's a really special quilt save your pennies and buy from your LQS or a similar online source.

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Ever wonder what the real difference between quilt shop fabrics and big box store fabrics?  How about where you can use which fabric? You'll learn that and more here.

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