Friday, February 08, 2008

In Praise of Cheap Fabric

After reading the reactions to Part I of my baby quilt primer, I'm inspired to leap to the defense of cheap fabric. Several commenters were surprised by my use of lower-grade material, and thought I was doing new quilters a disservice not to discourage them from using premium fabric.
Those objections represent the majority opinion in the serious quilting community, and I respect that. But, friends, I am here today to deliver the minority report.

Here goes.

The first objection, from Linda, was that new quilters would be turned off by "the frustrations of working with the cheap crap." This confused me for a while, because for simple straight-stitch pieceing, the cheap crap doesn't really handle any differently than the expensive crap. Does it? But I'm wondering if we might have a definitional problem confusing the issue. Let's talk about three categories of fabric:
  • Premium Fabric. Typically has a nice high threat count from good cotton fiber, tending towards better dyeing and fastness of color, generally sold at specialty quilt shops for $9 to $12 per yard.
  • Discount Fabric. Lower threat count, often somewhat "loose" after a coating of starch is dissolved during the initial washing. Wide range of dye quality. Generally sold at, um, chain craft outlets for, on average, $2 to $3 per yard.
  • Salvage. Stuff that's not 100% cotton. Stuff that used to be sheets or clothing. Stuff that is stretchy or limp or smells like your grandma's house in 1972 when you iron it. Generally found at thrift shops or in boxes at the side of the road that say "free," or cut out of clothes, or handed to you in a garbage bag by a well meaning person who asks "Don't you sew or something?"
Now then. My experience is that Salvage fabric can be, yes, very frustrating to work with. (I must mention in passing, though, that my buddy Sara whupped out her first quilt from, if I recall correctly, upholstery samples, quickly and with gleeful abandon. But she's a can-do sorta girl.) Discount fabric can be harder to deal with than premium if you are working on the bias, or if you are doing applique with small pieces. But for good old cut-out-squares-and-sew-them-back-together pieceing, again, I've never noticed it handling any differently from Premium fabric. I don't think a newbie would either.

Jeanne (whom I can't find a link to, sorry) pointed out that Premium fabric is more durable in the long run, and there's no doubt about it. It's 100% true. Absolutely. But the point is also easily overstated, I think; Discount fabric is not the flimsy tissue it is often made out to be. For my first decade or so of quilting, I used discount fabrics almost exclusively. Many of those pieces are now ten to fifteen years old, and to my knowledge none of them have any serious structural issues. My first blanket-sized quilt has been in practical use on my bed every day for 12 years now, and it's fine. The first child's quilt I made saw constant use by a toddler who grew up, as they do, and is now in junior high, and it's been handed down to little sister now. It has a huge ink stain on it from an unfortunate incident along the way, but the fabric is completely intact. It has lasted longer than it needed to!

In Praise of Premium Fabric

Now the truth is, although I still have acres of Discount fabric in the stash, I almost never buy it anymore. When I buy fabric now, I go the Premium route. There are excellent reasons to buy Premium fabric; here are my Top Four in increasing order of importance.

#4 - The durability is better over longer time spans.

#3 - The color fastness is often, although not always, better.

#2 - When you buy Premium, you support the quilt shops that are the hubs of the community.

#1 - Premium fabrics are, typically, on average, more beautiful. Obviously, that matters. For a serious artistic project, they are the obvious choice if you can afford them.

In Praise of Discount Fabric

But having said that, I really resist the idea of telling a new quilter that Premium is the only way to go. Because it's not that Premium fabric is, like most products, 20% or 50% or 100% more expensive than the Discount equivalent. It's usually 400% to 500% more! That kind of price differential makes using Premium fabric a very, very expensive way to make all of the mistakes you are going to make, and to work through those first naive design ideas you are going to come up with, when you are first starting out.

The thing is, if Discount fabric is off-limits the craft becomes strictly the domain of the well-off. The reason that I only used Discount fabrics for so long, after all, is that they were simply all I could afford, and I have never been anything resembling truly poor. Even at that, and even at the Discount price, my finished tops used to wait sometimes for Christmas gift certificates so I could afford backing fabric for them.

The only reason I can buy Premium fabric now is that I've reached enough of a level of mid-life affluence that I have extra money to throw at my hobby. I buy it because I CAN. If I had played my cards differently, though -- if I had wanted to have children, for instance -- I seriously doubt I could afford the good stuff now. But I would still want to make an occasional quilt.

In Praise of Salvage Fabric

Even though I can afford Premium fabric now, I still don't see the point of making utility quilts from it. For utility quilts (and remember, I consider a working crib quilt to be a utility item) I like to reach back to the practical origins of pieceing. I like the challenge of making do with what is on hand, imitating -- albeit in great comfort and without the desperation of necessity -- the way that earlier quilters made practical use of available scraps during the many centuries when fabric was a precious commodity.

Times have changed, of course. The drunk who once staggered into my mom's quilt class to announce "these are the ladies who cut cloth apart and then sew it back together!" was not the only person to notice that modern decorative quilting has strayed a long way from its practical roots. Well, that's fine. But I get a great deal of satisfaction out of finding use for the Salvage fabric that washes up on my shores. It's kind of a fun game, trying to keep it out of the landfill by doing something useful and attractive with it. That's what the QuiltStorm project (stay tuned!) is going to be all about, and that is why, in the next post, you will see me use an old flannel sheet that I found on the sidewalk as the back for my highly scrappy crib quilt.

And yes, that's a highly SCRAPPY crib quilt. With an "S." It looks great! If I do say so myself! It is by no means archival, but I betcha it will stay in one piece longer than the baby will stay a baby, which is as long as it needs to. It's comfy and cozy and warm! And the total materials cost, fabric, batting, and thread, was: FREE. 100% scrap and salvage.


Feather on a Wire said...

You are so right!
There is very little non premium fabric available in the UK and as a consequence quilting is really only done by the well off. (not always but mostly)
My first patchworks (the only way to find fabric here 20-30 years ago) were done with a lot of salvage fabric and the quilts are still going strong more than 20 years later. Yes they have faded but I like that, it shows they have been loved.

QuiltingFitzy said...

I think you've missed a catagory tho. "Discount-Plus". You CAN find some better quality at Jo-Ann's but you have to know what to look for. That's my catagory for now. I'll save "the good stuff" when I'm more proficient and ready to make an heirloom piece.

jovaliquilts said...

I think you've made your point very well -- the type of fabric should fit the purpose of the quilt. I'm in charge of the fabric stash for my guild's charity projects and I've sorted through a good many pieces of fabric. We can't use all of it, but we can use a wide range. It's important to wash lower quality fabrics before using (I wash everything, but the changes are biggest in lower-quality goods) to deal with bleeding and especially shrinking, which we have had more trouble with than we have with bleeding dyes. This is crucial if you are combining different kinds of fabric, as they may shrink at different rates (the biggest variation is in flannels). Also, some really cheap fabric never softens, even after washing, and that's not appropriate for a child's quilt. But using lower quality fabric we have made wonderful quilts that hold up to machine washing. One of the biggest problems I've heard of with less expensive fabrics is that they fade in sunlight more quickly, but we haven't seen that end of it.

Pam said...

I agree that the scrappy utility quilts do not need the "premium" fabric.

My son was given a quilt that looked like it was made from old flannel pajamas and a it had and "unknown" fabric backing that wasn't flannel but it certainly wasn't cotton. It had his name across the back in scraps of flannel. That was 22 years ago and that quilt is still intact. It is so much fun to look at it now with all those old prints of rocket ships and such.

Bethany said...

I love all kinds of fabric from the JoAnn fabric to the premium stuff. If I like it and have a project in mind, I buy it. If I can get it on sale even better.

I think far too many new quilters are so intimidated by the cost of quilting that they never start. The first time I walked into a quilting store I about fainted when I saw how much a yard of fabric costs.

Your blog makes quilting practical and fun. It's nice to see that.

Anjea said...

Don't remember how I found your blog, but I quite enjoy reading it! :D

I'm with you on the fabric thing - I tend to buy more premium fabric because I prefer to support the local businesses and I find more variation of prints. Maybe I'm just picky? :D

Thanks for the read. I added Feed Dog to my Google Reader, too!

Su Bee said...

Man, you always nail it - I agree with you on every count. I started learning on the cheap stuff because I knew I'd screw up, and now in mid-life affluence (good term!) I can buy the expensive stuff so I do - against the day when I can't. I have also made my share of "salvage" quilts and I like those too -- in the end, it's all good, eh?
Having said all that, sometimes I feel guilty that quilting is becoming a bit of a hobby for the affluent only - I know most young'uns starting out can NO WAY afford all the toys and fabrics that we say we HAVE to have in order to make a quilt. Too bad -- and we need to encourage these kids to get fabric where they can, and enjoy the process.

Exuberant Color said...

The other thing you can do is buy the premium fabric when it is on sale. I have gotten some of the older Kaffe Fassett fabrics for under $4 a yd. which allows me to have the variety I want in my quilts.
A lot of times the only bad thing about the cheap fabrics is that the print isn't registered right and there aren't as many screens used to print. I've never heard a baby complain about that yet.

The Calico Cat said...

Nice post, I could not have said it better myself.

Another reason why discount is o.k., many liscensed characters only live in discount shops & we all know that when "X" character is wanted only "X" will do.

For me, there will be no better compliment than to have a quilt retuned to me for "fixing" than one that has been loved to death. I am not making "you can't touch my quilt" quilts.

Rebel said...

It's the same thing in knitting - different materials have different pros & cons. That said, I was both awed & saddened when I first stepped foot into a quilt shop. I'd used discount fabrics in my first quilt and if I'd known so much better fabric was available, I would have used it.

Bridget B. said...

Once again, you organize the facts and opinions to delight and inform!

Libby said...

Great post - I definitely agree on every point. I bought pretty much all of my fabric at jo-anns all through college because, yeah, there is no other way I could have afforded to quilt. This makes me want to write a post about the fine art of never paying full price for premium fabric.

Anonymous said...

THANK-YOU for a great post. I am so tired of "fabric snobs" - people who tell you quilt shop fabric is the best fabric and yet cannot tell you why it is better. I recently did a lot of research in this area of fabric quality and it comes down to (1) the length of the cotton in it's unproceesed state, (2) the tread count and (3) dying process. Fabric snobs are too stupid to know that most fabric all come from the same raw cotton bolls, and this industry is heavily regulated for quality. I'm not knocking high end fabrics but fabric snobs need to understand that they are also paying for the designer's name, the middle man, and the LQS owner who has to make a living at just selling fabric. Fabric snobs also say the "higher the price, the better the quality". Don't they realize how stupid this sounds. The same fabric costs more in Canada than it does in the U.S. and oftentimes more than when purchased from online sites and shipped to Canada! As you can see, I am very passionated about this topic and I could write more but won't bore you. As for me, I'll continue to buy my fabric from our largest fabric chain "Fabricland" and "Wal-Mart". Plus I'll continue to buy discounted designer fabric if I like it. Finally, while I can afford to pay $12 to $16 a meter for designer fabric at quilt shops, I refuse to do so, as I feel I am being royally fleeced. One last word; in Canada, any quilter who buys from Fabricland is snubbed by the fabric snobs. -Canadian Gail (at times like this, I wish I had a blog.) Oh yes, I also hear there are yarn snobs and thread snobs - Man, they are everywhere.

La Manosa said...

Well said.

I think using whichever fabric you can afford and is appropriate for what you intend it for is the best way to go.

Sometimes using the nice designer fabric can be really fun because it feels nice and is beautiful. That said, using less expensive fabric gives you more freedom to play around and try new things without feeling guilty about wasting money.

I'm glad you posted on this, I think it's a good thing for new quilters, in particular, to keep in mind.

Michael5000 said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments; I'm glad so many people found it an interesting read.

@feather: I've noticed that there aren't nearly as many quilt shops or high-end fabrics stores in the UK as there are here. I found a lovely little place near the cathedral in Carlisle, but I believe that's the only one I've been in.

@fitzy: You're right, there's certainly room between Discount and Premium. Also, for that matter, between Discount and Salvage. (Below Salvage, fabric is called "rags." Above Premium, it's called "silk.")

@jovali: An excellent point. I reflexively pre-shrink EVERYTHING, and only realized fairly recently that not everyone does that.

@pam: 22 years! Excellent!

@bethany: Thanks for the nice complement. This blog started out as me trying to explain quilting to my friends. As the readership has largely shifted to quilters, I'm finding that it's still interesting to write about the fundamentals of the craft. It starts interesting conversations.

@anjea: I totally agree with you about supporting the quilt shops. The good ones play an important role as community centers, and that's something worth supporting.

@rebel: Thats an interesting counterargument.

@libby: This makes me want to write a post about the fine art of never paying full price for premium fabric. = You write it, we'll read it!

@anon: It sounds like you've had some bad experiences with snooty individuals, but to be fair a lot of people who buy Premium fabric are very knowledgeable about what they are paying for and why. And, we shouldn't knock thread count; it's an important factor in fabric quality.

As I said in the post, when I buy fabric now I generally go Premium,. At the end of the day, though, the proof is in the product. Every time you make something really cool and/or lovely from Discount fabrics, you've proved your point.