By Lisa Calle
Some quilters buy fabric as they go, with a specific project in mind.
Well, at least I’ve heard that’s the case, but I’ve never actually met one. The rest of us are probably on a spectrum from modest fabric stashes to all-out fabric hoarding.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I used to fall close to the hoarding side of the spectrum, but I have finally learned to master my stash. I’m sharing some of my tips with you, whether you’re building a stash if you’re a new quilter (or perhaps new to modern quilting) or maintaining order with an already established fabric stash.
The main rule is to buy what you love, but let’s go over some things to consider when it comes to evaluating the fabric you bring home.
This may seem like a shocking confession, but I have to admit that fabric quality is not something that concerned me when I first started quilting. I thought fabric was pretty much all the same, which is entirely untrue.
There is a wide spectrum of quality in commercial quilting fabrics, and it may come down to budget when choosing which materials to use. My advice is to always use the best materials you can afford. Quilts take so much work to make that you want to ensure your creation is long-lasting. This advice goes for tools and notions as well as fabric, so be sure to budget for the “nice” thread.
Pre-cuts are a great addition to any quilting stash. A helpful printable guide from Moda Fabrics describes many of the pre-cuts you’ll find at quilt shops. link to
Pre-cuts vary by manufacturer (in such things as number in the package, types offered and names used), but that guide will give you a good feel for what’s available. Pre-cuts can seem expensive at first glance, but when you consider the number of prints offered compared to buying yardage, they’re a great deal. It’s also hard to put a price on the time-saving aspect of reduced cutting.
There are many wonderful patterns and books just for pre-cuts, so it’s nice to have a few jelly rolls or layer cakes on hand to whip up a project that requires minimal cutting and planning and no over-thinking the fabric selection.
Bundles usually are fat quarters and sometimes fat eighths. Bundles can be a great way to build your stash, and shops often offer monthly “stash clubs” with themes such as reproduction fabrics, polka dots and solids.
I used to buy a ton of yardage, and the figurative weight of all of that fabric on my shoulders kept me from sewing and made my workspace a cluttered nightmare. Unless we are talking one of the three Bs (background, backing and binding), half-yard pieces are the biggest size you should buy. Or stick to fat quarters.
When it comes to the three Bs, you will need yardage and sometimes lots of it. Look for versatile prints such as polka dots and stripes, small scale prints and neutral solids. All of these are good choices. Keep a reference sheet such the one below on hand when you’re shopping so you have a good guesstimate of the amount of fabric you might need.
Now let’s talk about what to buy. If you have no stash at all, this should get you on the right track for building one.
I like to have the full rainbow array of color. My challenge colors are yellow (because there don’t seem to be that many nice yellows out there) and purple (because it’s my least favorite color). I make an effort to seek out nice yellows when I’m shopping, but purple rarely makes it home with me. Again, this goes back to buying what you love. If you only love warm colors, just build your stash on those.
Value is the relative lightness or darkness of your fabric to the other fabrics you’re working with. If you read a lot of blogs, you probably see lots of “low-volume” quilts and fabric stacks. What the bloggers really are referring to is the value of the fabrics. Here are two rainbow bundles I pulled from my stash:
It’s pretty easy to see the value difference between the two. The balance of light and dark is what gives your quilt interest and dimension. Most patterns and most quilting teachers will tell you to select a balance of light and dark fabrics, but low-value quilts can be incredibly beautiful, too. Be sure to add a wide range of values to your stash.
Scale refers to the size of the print on your fabric. With quilting fabric, it’s a pretty safe bet that the prints will be the appropriate size for quilting. Scale is something you will have to consider when you are selecting prints for a project. But for stash-building, go crazy.
There are lots of different categories for the prints on quilting fabrics. At the most basic level, there are reproduction prints and contemporary prints. Reproductions are referred to by era, such as Civil War or 1930s, for example, but people who are really into those fabrics break it down even more.
Other themes are geometric, stripes, florals, shirtings, calicoes, text, polka dots and novelty or conversational prints. A wide variety of themes will make for an interesting stash, so be open-minded.
At the same time, though, be balanced in your choices. Don’t always go for the bold print. That bright floral will lose its boldness next to 10 other bright florals. And don’t forget about solids. Every stash needs a good selection of solids.
Now that you’ve started collecting, you immediately have to deal with the storage aspect of owning all that fabric. If you already have an established stash, these tips might help you reduce or revamp it:
• Designate space. Take a realistic look at your sewing space. A good rule used by professional organizers is “one in, one out.” Designate certain shelves or baskets for various fabric cuts – fat quarters, pre-cuts, backing – and don’t buy any more until you’ve used something you already have.
• Donate. Charities are always looking for silent auction items, and quilts are a popular item. Hospice groups and children’s charities always have a need, as well. My quilt guild has an active charity committee, so after one vigorous cleanout of my sewing room, I donated quilt tops, orphan blocks, in-progress quilts and lots of yardage to them with the knowledge that these items would get the care they deserve.
• Share. Maybe you have a neighbor or friend who has a small budget and could use some of your extra fabric. Post a listing for free fabric on message boards and Craigslist.
• Organize. An organized fabric stash will make the sewing experience much more enjoyable. A lesson learned for me was to not fold tall stacks of fabric because that makes a big mess when you need something from the bottom of the pile. Wall storage units are perfect in a sewing room.
If you fold fat quarters just the right way, they fit perfectly into CD-size containers (below), which I see in abundance at thrift shops and yard sales.
Whether you have a big stash or a small one, remember: The important thing is what you sew with it.
Lisa Calle is a freelance writer who lives in Dallas. She writes every Monday. Visit her at Vintage Modern Quilts.