One piece of advice I see in or on just about every quilting blog, forum, magazine, book—you name it—is that if you care at all about your quilting (which you obviously should), you absolutely have to buy “quilt shop quality” (QSQ) fabric. If any rule can be broken in quilting, I think this one can once you have some experience under your (piecing) foot.
It’s difficult to explain to a new quilter what good quality fabric feels like—drape, good weave, and hand are hard concepts to describe with words. So blanket rules may save some heartache, but that limits the rest of us—rule breakers, experimenters, or just people with a solid grasp of the craft—to a fraction of the fabric that is out there.
Reasons why not to buy big-box fabric
There are valid reasons why not to buy big-box fabric.
It’s less colorfast. The dyes used by QSQ manufacturers are typically safe for the non-prewashing set. Throw a couple of color catchers in the wash with the finished quilt, and you’re unlikely to see bleed. The same can’t always be said for chain-store fabric. But, you can always test by wetting a square of your fabric, placing it face down on a square of plain white muslin, and letting it dry. For a more long-term view, the cheaper dyes can also break down fabric, so they might not hold up as well as more expensive ones. If you’re aiming for heirloom-quality, you’re taking a gamble with cheap stuff.
It’s not always on-grain. Typically, the pattern should be printed on-grain. Chain-store fabrics are more likely to be skewed off grain, which means when you try to cut strips of stripes or other obvious vertical/horizontal patterns, you’ll either have to cut partially on the bias, which means piecing headaches, or deal with slanted designs.
It’s shortchanging the fabric industry. Fabric designers don’t make much money, and it’s good to support the ones we have so that they continue to put out great products and inspire new designers to join the fun. I’ve also seen very blatant copies/rip-offs of QSQ fabric in the chain-store aisles (this is different from designers who sometimes license their designs to chain-store suppliers). No one wins when you support IP theft. But, some of the nicer chain-store fabric is designed by designers who do QSQ too, so we can’t make blanket statements.
You can’t sell what you make from some of it. When you buy QSQ fabric, there’s an implied agreement that the designer has been paid for their design, you can now make and sell whatever you wish with the fabric*. Chain-stores, on the other hand, have a lot of fabrics marked “for non-commerical, home-use only“. So, while the fabric is cheaper, the trade-off is that you can’t make money off of things made with it, if that’s your forte. (* Within reason in a non-wholesale quantity, usually.)
It’s lower-quality/stiff/low-thread count/not-fit-to-be-called-fabric. Most arguments against chain-store fabric come down to the nebulous “it’s not good quality” statement. I think we’ve all seen fabric that is see-through, poorly-printed, sized within an inch of its life, frays at a thought, and of questionable fiber content. The base fabric used varies far more than in QSQ fabric—one imagines that chain-store fabric is often printed on goods that failed quality control for the QSQ prints. But, even QSQ fabric has a variety of greige goods to start out with. Some are sumptuous, some are stiff, some are cheaper than others—they just have a baseline that starts somewhere in the middle of the chain-store spectrum, rather than at the barely-fabric bottom.
But Rae, you said in defense!
So, after listing all those reasons why not to buy chain-store fabric, my argument comes down to this:
If you’re aware of reasons why not to buy, you can make an informed decision to buy.
Chain store fabric is less costly, sometimes just as perfect for a project, and not always inferior. As much as I’d love to always have the resources to buy $10.50/yd QSQ cottons, there are times when I can’t. There are times when I fall in love with a print at the chain-store. And sometimes, I swear that the greige goods are identical between QSQ and chain-store yardage.
So, if I’m trying a finicky new technique or making a mega time-intensive quilt, I’m not likely to grab the $3/yd chain-store stuff because I don’t want things warping and bleeding and fraying when I simply look at the fabric. But for a relatively simple project with a small budget—well, there’s no reason not to take a look at the local chain to supplement my stash or even for fabric enough to compose an entire quilt.
What’s your take on the subject?