Using Cheap Fabric for Quilting

Cheap fabric–thy mighty temptress. Why should I choose the ream with a higher price tag, when you’re the same color? But after attempting many projects with you when I was a frugal college student, I now know why. So beware: I’m going to spill your bitter secrets to prevent others the frustration and heartbreak.

 

Okay, okay… before we delve into this too deep, I need to note that it’s okay to use any fabric for a quilt. Cheap, expensive, cotton, flannel, old sheets, etc… It all makes quilts. Quilting cotton was developed because it’s easy to use for quilting and its soft and comfortable to use as a blanket.

 

So, what exactly is ‘cheap’ fabric? Cheap fabric is, well, cheap, as in it has a lower price point. The sticker price for cheap fabric is around $5-7 a yard, and you can get it much cheaper on sale. The fabric itself usually feels a bit different than quilting cotton. For one, it’s thinner (you can hold your hand underneath and see clearly through the fabric, even the darker colors). It can also feel not as soft or a bit satiny (this is because it’s actually cotton/polyester blend).

 

Why you might choose to use cheap fabric

  • You’re just testing out the hobby and you don’t want to spend a fortune on something you might never finish.
  • You don’t have the cash, but still want to quilt.
  • You’re at the store and the color/pattern you need is only available in the cheap fabric. (Raise your hand if you’re also too impatient to wait for an online order!)

Why you shouldn’t use cheap fabric (if you can help it)

  • It’s thin – Like I mentioned early, cheap fabric is often a lot thinner and, therefore, more see through. This is troublesome because when you press the seams that you sew, you’re going to be able to see that quarter inch of excess through the fabric. You’ll also see odd strings you forgot to lint roll off. ‘Nicer’ fabric isn’t immune to these problems either, especially if you’re using lighter colors. The difference can like looking through plastic wrap (cheap fabric) versus parchment paper (‘nicer’ fabric). Always check the opacity before buying lighter colors!

The cheapest fabric at Joann. It’s light pink and you can easily see my fingers.

Kona ‘feather’ yardage. You can barely see the outline of my hand.

A cat print from a local quilt shop. I can see no part of my hand.

  • The fraying – This may not be all cheap fabric, but the cheap fabric I have bought frays way worse than ‘nicer’ quilting cotton. When I go to wash cheap fabric, I will surge (zig-zag) stitch the raw edge to prevent too much waste. But the fraying can also start to affect your quilt if you have fiddly piecing. The more you play around with a piece, aka pinning it and pulling it through your machine, the more it will fray. This means a dwindling seam allowance and those pesky odd strings that seem to get everywhere.                                                                                                                                                  
Zig-zag stitch on the raw edge to prevent fraying.
  • It distorts – WARNING! This is the most frustrating thing as a quilter, and you probably won’t notice it until you are in too deep. As you sew, the cheap fabric will stretch and pull more than the ‘nicer’ fabric . As you add more and more pieces to your quilt top, it will be harder to make things fit correctly. Soon, you’ll have a block a inch bigger than the other you’re supposed to sew to it. Straight lines start running catawampus, and then you’ll have to rethink that straight line quilting you were thinking about doing. If need be, you can try to mitigate the distortion by measuring and trimming your blocks to size frequently, but that can be challenging. You don’t want to cut off part of fiddly design.

The Takeaway

This is all to say that I have used fabric from all price points at Walmart, JoAnn, Amazon, other big name online fabric stores, and local specialty quilt shops. I’ve made them all work with little tug here and a snip there (hey, it’s an art, not a science). But now you know that using cheaper fabric makes piecing and getting a clean, crisp quilt harder. If you are new or seasoned this can be a point of frustration that could make you think you aren’t a good quilter. Rubbish! You just got bad fabric!

 

I highly recommend buying at least mid-range fabric ($8-10/yard, but cheaper with a coupon). Lately, I’ve been using Kona (you can get this at Jo-Ann, but it’s cheaper online), Cotton Supreme solids, and Bella solids, but the mid-range fabric from Jo-Ann or Walmart works well, too. Take a trip to your local fabric store and go see, feel, and tug the difference yourself to find what works best for you.

Sew on!

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