Tone-on-tone fabrics are good staples in any quilter's collection
Tone-on-tone fabrics are good staples in any quilter's collection

One of the most fun aspects of patchwork and appliqué is the wide choice of material with which one can work.

You will find that 100% cotton is the most common fabric (and easiest to work with), but certain projects or quilt styles can also incorporate flannel (brushed cottons), fleece, felt, silk, and organza. Experienced quilters may also use materials other than fabrics, such as paper, non woven substances such as painted Bondaweb and plastic in their work, but let’s walk before we can run!

Why Cotton?

For a vibrant, exciting quilt combine prints of different scales and co-ordinating and contrasting plains
For a vibrant, exciting quilt combine prints of different scales and co-ordinating and contrasting plains

There are several reasons for the popularity of cotton. Firstly, it is non-slippery when cutting and you will also find that the patches "stick" to one another when pinned. It is easy to press and maintains crisp seams. Cotton fabrics which are closely woven should be opaque so you will not see shadows of other fabrics showing through. Some quilters prefer to tear their fabric rather than cutting and cotton tears easily on the grain. Finally it is widely available in a vast range of colours and patterns to suit many styles of quilts.

Styles of fabric

Some of the many styles of fabric available to quilters includes the following:

  • Plain Often called "solid" colours in America, plains are essential for breaking up busy patterns and for accentuating individual patches in a block.
  • Tonal (tone on tone) These fabric patterns have understated, possibly abstract, patterns or a small repeating motif. They are printed using shades and tones within one colour, for example light mid, and dark green. Most fabric manufacturers produce several tonal designs, usually in a very wide range of colours. More subtle, than a pattern, yet with more interest than a plain, they an good "basics" in any quilter’s stash.
  • Ditsy Tiny patterns with small pattern repeats, either geometric or floral, are specially designed for quiltmaking. When viewed at a distance, they will often appear to be a plain fabric. In American books you will see such small patterns referred to as calicoes.
  • Conversational / I-Spy This design classification refers to themed or story prints, often not classifiable under another heading, such as floral or geometrics. They were especially popular during the 1930s and ‘5Os as their light hearted patterns, often printed onto utilitarian fabrics such as feed sacks, injected a touch of whimsy into some harsh times. (Some of the designs from these decades are now being reprinted and are ideal for retro style quilts.) The patterns can be small or large. I-Spy patchwork uses themed fabrics and is a popular idea for children’s quilts. I—Spy fabric is often sold in packs with a common theme, such as animals or forms of transport.
  • Stripes These can include one colour, regular stripes or traditional, bolder patterns based on eighteenth and nineteenth century quilts. The designs usually run parallel with the selvage. Stripes can make effective border patterns, especially when corners are mitred.
  • Checks and plaids Includes tiny gingham checks through to brightly coloured, large scale plaids, which are best used in large patches or borders in order to showcase the design. Usually the coloured patterns are woven rather than printed.
  • Themed Another good way to plan a quilt is to collect fabrics with a common theme, for example, stars or leaves. Within a theme, the fabrics can be of various scales and colours.
  • Batiks Often given the generic name, Bali Batiks, these hand painted fabrics are actually from several countries in Indonesia. Printed on a high quality, closely woven base cloth, their colours vary from the subtle to the exotic. They can be combinied with other fabric styles, or used together as a theme fabric.
  • Hand dyed and painted Whether you dye your own material using Dylon dyes or buy from the many talented dyers selling their work, you will end up with a unique fabric. Hand dyes will give an original twist to even the most traditional of patchwork designs.
  • Fabrics from other cultures Fabrics are now available to quilters from around the world. Just some of the exciting fabrics now available to quilters in this country include Aboriginal dot patterns, African wax prints, Indian Madras checks and Japanese shibori dyed indigo fabrics.
  • Large prints Don’t dismiss patterns simply because they have a large pattern repeat. The unexpected sections of the design that appear, when they are cut into patches, can give a spontaneity to your block design.
  • Calico Beginner quilters may overlook the flexibility of this natural cotton fabric, available in bleached and unbleached states. Once washed, it is beautifully soft to work with and an ideal plain accent for patterned fabrics. (Note - in American books, you will find calico called muslin - so don’t get confused. Muslin in the UK is something completely different!)
There is no limit to the imagery that be included on fun conversational prints. The only limit to their use is your imagination
There is no limit to the imagery that be included on fun conversational prints. The only limit to their use is your imagination

Given the wide selection of design styles available, the vital point to remember when shopping for fabrics, is to buy a selection. In patchwork, variety is essential for lively, exciting designs.

Buying fabric

How many fabrics do I need? Some traditional quilts use only one or two fabrics. Single fabric quilts, called Wholecloth quilts, were common in Wales and the north-east of England in the 19th century and incorporated elaborate hand quilting designs. Two colour quilts, called Strippy quilts, (often blue and white or red and white) were also popular. The two contrasting colours, sewn in broad stripes, could create really bold quilts.

However, if you are starting patchwork and quilting for the first time, part of the fun is building up a collection of fabric that you can dip into for your projects. Ask friends and family who are keen dressmakers to donate their remnants of cotton to you. Don’t worry about the small, odd shapes - it can all be used! Charity shops and good-as-new sales are another option for sourcing fabrics, but do take into consideration that you should always use fabric that is in good condition, closely woven and which still has plenty of life in it if you want your quilts to last for many years. Keen quilters are always on the look out for fabrics - a metre here and a remnant there - it all builds up to form a good selection in no time. Even if you don’t have a specialist quilt or fabric shop near you, many of the quilt shops that are advertising on this website offer a mail order service, via catalogues, swatch samples that you can send for, or via their websites.

Exotic patterns and colours are a hallmark of batik fabrics
Exotic patterns and colours are a hallmark of batik fabrics

How much to buy? Unlike cooking, the raw ingredients of quiltmaking don’t "go off" so they are never wasted. If you have some material left over from one project, it will probably be just right for another quilt in the future. Or you swap offcuts that you no longer want with a quilting friend. The projects published on our website and in our magazine always state precise meterage required for the projects. If you are using only one or two fabrics, it is essential that you follow these guidelines. However, for a scrappy quilt containing many different fabrics, the individual amounts can be less precise, as long as the total meterage is sufficient. To build up a varied collection, buy at least 1/4m of fabric at a time - this can be 25cm from a bale or roll of fabric (usually 112-114cm wide) or a "fat quarter" (usually pre-cut). Fat quarters are cut from a metre of fabric, sliced in half length-ways and then width-ways. Quilt shops often have packs of fat quarters in collections by theme, colour or patterns. Some also offer fat quarter clubs which send out fabric at regular intervals to quilters who have subscribed to the club. You will soon learn which fabrics you enjoy using, so it makes sense to buy more of these. Borders and backings for quilts will also use larger amounts of fabric, so buy these in 2m lengths or more (especially when they are on special offer). You should buy a selection of patterns and colours. More information about colour choices is given in Colour for Quilters.

Anja Townrow successfully combined wax resist prints in her dramatic quilt, African Shimmer. This quilt was a project in the September 2000 issue of Popular Patchwork
Anja Townrow successfully combined wax resist prints in her dramatic quilt, African Shimmer. This quilt was a project in the September 2000 issue of Popular Patchwork
Fabric preparation

Quilters have different views on preparing fabrics before quilting. Some recommend pre-washing to remove sizing and other finishes. This softens the fabric before sewing and also checks the colour fastness of fabrics. The colour fastness of a fabric is very important. You do not want to use a fabric whose colour is not permanent as it will bleed into the surrounding fabrics when you wash your quilt or in severe cases, the colour may even rub off on your fingers when it is handled. This is especially noticeable if you are hand quilting.

Other quilters prefer the crispness of working with unwashed fabrics and will launder the completed quilt once the final stitch has been sewn. The advantage of this is that the quilt gets the look of an antique quilt whose wadding and fabrics have shrunk together over time. If you prefer to work in this way, it is vital that you test a small section of your chosen fabric for colour fastness before using.

First published in Patchwork Basics 2002