By Tammie Schaffer
When I first started sewing regularly, I didn’t have a fabric stash. I looked for scraps at garage sales and thrift shops. I bought fabric in small doses, one project at a time.
I still remember my first “big” fabric purchase, at a Hobby Lobby, where I bought several yards of quilting fabrics. (Gasp!) At the time, I didn’t have a designated sewing area, and I quickly outgrew the dining room. So I set up residence in the upstairs corner, bought some yard sale shelves, added a free table from Craigslist, and began creating my sewing nook.
I quickly learned about good quality fabrics and threads, and discovered which designers I adored, which led to more fabric purchases and more shelves.
Around that time, my grandmother Kay moved into a nursing home. Kay was a quilter, and when the family was deciding what to do with all of her things, Mom asked me if I’d like to have her fabrics. They were random, mostly scraps left over from baby quilts.
Then my husband’s grandma Marie died. I was given several large boxes of fabric and unfinished quilt tops, as well as a big box of crochet thread, half finished doilies and pearl cotton. A friend’s mother died, and they gave me all of her knitting supplies, which were abundant. And I found that I was unable to resist the allure of the question, “Could you use some more fabric?” Who knew what might be in those boxes?
Do you see where this is going? I “inherited” a guest room full of supplies and unfinished projects. Add that to my own stash and UFOs, and someone might have to call the TV show “Hoarders”! It was time to be brutally honest and only keep what I would really use. The tubs of yarn went first, because I rarely knit or crochet anymore.
When my Nana passed her fabric stash to me, it was perhaps the hardest one to go through, because we’d always been close. Nana owned a seamstress shop, and she made beautiful clothes for me growing up. It can be emotional sorting through someone’s creative supplies.
I was brought to happy tears when I found the vintage pattern Nana had used to make my daughter a dress. It has Emma’s 8-month measurements written on the cover, in Nana’s shaky handwriting, and I am so glad that I found it. I still remember her calling me for those measurements. I no longer have the dress (I gave it to my niece when she was born, so she could wear it, too), but now I have a keepsake that will always bring a smile to my face.
So how do you decide what to keep and what to let go? For me, I have a few prints that melt my heart. Gingham, ticking, polka dots and tiny animals and flowers. One treasure of Marie’s was a large box of gingham, in pink, aqua, lime green and yellow. They were cut into rather large rectangles, and I wish I could ask her what her plan had been for them. I used strips of them to make this fun fabric wreath and didn’t even put a dent in the box.
Blue and white ticking was another staple of her collection, which I used for the binding on my son’s baby blanket and the backing for a few pillows. I love being able to add in something passed down from their grannies. There was also a bunch of double-knit polyester in her stash, because she made really heavy, warm quilts out of them. Those were quickly given away, because I don’t like working with that kind of fabric.
It can be difficult to say no to a fabric offer, especially when it belonged to someone you love. It is important, though, to not let yourself be buried underneath all of that free fabric.
Here are some questions to help you determine whether it should take up space in your life.
• Would I buy this fabric or make this quilt on my own?
If the answer is no, just let it go. My local thrift shop has a fabric section, and takes donations. In the Kansas City area, we have two stores called Fabric Recycles, where you can bring your unwanted fabric to sell or trade. Also consider preschools, Girl Scout troops, your local extension office, or your church as possible donation places. It’s OK not to love the crazy polyester quilt top someone gave you! Don’t make it your burden. If it’s something special or unique, you could try listing it on eBay or Etsy, or contact dealers from either site to see whether they would be interested in the item.
If you would buy this fabric or make this quilt, the next question is:
• Do I have the fabrics needed to complete this UFO?
If you don’t have the background fabric for a quilt that is only half finished, will you be able to match it? For example, this nine patch quilt that my Nana was making has a pale yellow fabric for the sashings. It’s thin, and all that’s left are some small scraps. There’s only three extra nine patch blocks, so I would need to make lots more. I’m not in love with this top, but I do enjoy the fact that some of the fabrics in this quilt top make appearances in some of her other quilts that I own.
Here’s another one of those situations. While I like the pattern of this top, she obviously was creating from her stash and had used at least two shades of green to set the smaller four patches. I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge of this one!
• Do I have the time to sort, wash and store these fabrics?
Vintage fabrics tend to come with their own special musty odor. You should also remember that older fabrics may not have stable dyes. It’s usually a good idea to test them first, to avoid any post-project bleeding. You want to be careful not to damage the fabrics with harsh cleaners. I like to soak them in a bath with OxiClean.
Sometimes, vintage pieces will have rust spots from pins, so be sure to look it over carefully to see whether it’s worth your time. There’s a dark spot on one of these cool triangle blocks in Marie’s top. (I’ve marked it in the photo with with a red circle.) I don’t know if I can get the dark spot out, but I sure hope so.
• By working on this project, will I be taking away from a project I really want to make?
This is a tough one. The answer is probably yes. Unless the piece has special meaning, it’s probably not a priority. But if you feel as though you might regret not holding on to it, keep it for a while. You can probably store it without it being a burden, and you can reevaluate in a few months.
• How much time or money do I want to put into this project?
Let’s face it, most of those unfinished quilt tops are very scrappy and not that aesthetically pleasing. Nana made this Snake Trail top, and it just doesn’t appeal to me. But it’s large, and the top is complete, so I will finish it for her. It has fabric in it that she used on my own baby dress, 40 years ago. I don’t really want to spend much money on it, so I might tie it or do some simple machine quilting. And it will be a perfectly functional quilt the kids can use for forts and picnics, and I won’t cry if they spill something on it.
In short, if the free fabrics and supplies stifle your creativity or take time away from your current projects, pass them off to a charity or sewing group.
Tammie Schaffer is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond, Kansas. Visit her at craftytammie