My mom always told me that you could tell the quality of a fabric by the feel. She used to walk through the fabric stores running her fingers across the bolts. When she came to one that felt good, she would decide if she liked how it looked. Most people look first and maybe test the feel of the fabric. So is there really a difference?
After doing a little research, I found that my mother was right – as usual! There is a difference in the quality of quilt fabrics, which is generally reflected in the cost. Just about every facet of the fabrication process affects the quality: greige goods (raw fabric), printing and finishing.
The main factors contributing to the quality of greige goods are the number of threads per inch, diameter threads, and length of the cotton staple. The longer the staple, the stronger the thread. Likewise, the larger the diameter, the denser and stronger the fabric. If a longer staple and larger diameter are good, one would think a greater thread count is also good. Kind of…. the optimal thread count is around 70 threads per inch. Less than that, the fabric weave will be loose, not wash well, and allow batting to beard through the loose weave. More than that, the fabric will be tough for the needle to pierce, not good for quilting. These quality factors also help reduce the shrinkage of the fabric.
The printing process also influences fabric quality. High quality fabrics are typically screened rather than rolled. This means the ink has more time to penetrate the fabric. Dye penetration corresponds to bleeding. The less it penetrates, the more likely to bleed. As an aside, batik fabrics are created in a different process.
Finally, high quality fabric undergoes a more rigorous finishing process that helps set the dye, minimize further shrinking, and provide a silkier feel. Lower quality fabrics typically have more sizing or starch to make the fabric feel denser than it really is.
How do you know if the fabric is good quality or just overpriced? Examine the threads carefully for thickness and thread count. You can bring a good sample to compare it to. Smell the fabric. If it has a strong chemical smell, that is probably the sizing used for lower quality fabrics. Feel the fabric, if it is stiff or wrinkly, it is again probably loaded with sizing or starch. A good fabric should feel soft and silky.
Does this mean you should always buy the highest quality or most expensive fabric – absolutely not! You should consider the end use of your fabric – donation, wall hanging, kids quilt or family heirloom. Heirloom quilts are meant to last so quality is important. Wall hangings won’t be washed much so, a lower quality won’t matter. Kids quilt are meant to be loved to pieces, so again a lower quality may be ok.