Sewing Basics: How To Pick Fabric for a Quilt

If you’re new to sewing or to quilting (or to both!), it can be intimidating to choose fabric for your first quilt. In this Sewing Basics post, I’ll be answering your six most frequently asked questions about how to pick fabric for a quilt.

This post contains affiliate links. I may receive compensation (at no added cost to you) if you make a purchase using these links. I am a Brand Ambassador for Michael Miller Fabrics and this post is part of our ongoing collaboration. All opinions and thoughts are my own. 

I still remember the confusion back in 2005 when two of my friends and I were standing over the fabric trying to pick our selections for our first quilts. Lights? Darks? Fat quarters? All of these words were like a strange language we hadn’t yet learned. Today, I’m going to help you feel more confident about how to pick fabric for your first (or next) quilt by answering questions about the types of fabrics, colors, and more! 

How To Pick Fabric for a Quilt

I’m answering the six most frequently asked newbie quilter questions about how to pick fabric for a quilt, including the type of fabric, the colors, whether to use pre-cuts or yardage (and what pre-cuts are!), and more, so read on for details.

What fabric is best for quilting?

High quality 100% cotton quilt fabric is the traditional choice — and the best choice! — for quilt fabrics. Cotton is both durable and breathable, making it perfect for a quilt that will be long loved. High quality fabrics shrink less and are less likely to have dyes bleed in the wash than other cotton fabrics. High quality cotton quilt fabric also has a tighter weave than other cotton fabrics which helps it hold up to multiple washings. As an added bonus, high quality cotton quilt fabrics are also one of the best fabrics for face masks if you’d like to make some with your leftover quilt fabric. You can also use cotton quilt fabric for clothing, but make sure to wash it first so that it shrinks before you cut and sew it to fit.

Triangles made with fabrics from the Michael Miller Fabrics Krystals collection. Get the free pattern for the Easy Half Square Triangle Pillow here.

When I first started quilting, I made the mistake of combining 100% cotton fabrics with cotton/polyester blends. Not only are those cotton/poly fabrics difficult to iron but they don’t usually hold up to frequent washing. Trust me, if you put in the hours to make a quilt, you are going to want it to last!

One of the reasons I applied to be a Michael Miller Fabrics Brand Ambassador for 2020 is because they have such a wide range of fabrics that are high quality but also fun, cute, beautiful, and wonderful to look at for the life of your project. If you’re looking for Michael Miller Fabrics for your next project, ask your local quilt shop or shop online at Fat Quarter Shop or Fabric.com

What types of cotton quilt fabric are available?

Now that you know you need a high quality, 100% cotton fabric, you may be wondering about all the different options available. Here are some of the most common types of fabric you may see listed in a quilt pattern or at your local quilt shop.

  • Solids are fabrics in a single color without a print. Michael Miller Fabrics Couture Cotton would be an example. Solids can be cut into large or small pieces easily. There are typically more color options available with solids than in other lines of fabric, so if you want a very specific color, solid fabrics are a great choice.
  • Blenders are fabrics that are marbled or have a very small print. From a distance, blenders may “look” like a solid color. These can be cut to very small pieces for quilting, just like solids.
Enjoy the Little Things in White (at left) is a small print fabric and Fairy Frost in Ice Glitter (at right) is a great blender fabric.
  • Batiks are fabrics made using a wax-resist dyeing process that originates in Indonesia. Batik fabrics have a beautiful and distinctive look. If you love batiks, you may want to join in the free Peek Into Batiks Quilt Along!
A selection of batik, solid, and blender fabrics for the Peek Into Batiks Quilt Along.
  • Prints have patterns on the fabric. When working with prints, think about the size of the pattern repeat. Some prints have large repeats which look best when you cut them into large pieces or keep them whole in panels, while other prints can easily be cut into small strips or squares while still looking cute.
These prints are all cut to 6″ wide so you can see the comparative size of the pattern repeats. From the Lost in Paradise collection (top and center) and the By the Sea collection (bottom).
  • “Lights,” “mediums,” and “darks” are fabric choices relative to other fabrics. Many quilt patterns, like the traditional log cabin blocks, use relative differences in fabric as part of the design. Lights don’t have to be whites or creams, but they should have sufficient contrast from the darks to be distinctive. Something that helps is to use a black and white filter on your phone (or tablet or camera) to look at a group of fabrics together. If they all seem to be the same “color” when viewed in black and white or grayscale, then you don’t have enough distinction between light, medium, and dark. 
Fabrics from the Lost in Paradise collection (center and right) have enough contrast to work as “light” and “dark” on the same project. The Lobsters from the By the Sea collection (at left) and the Tropical Getaway fabric postcards (at right) would both be “light.”
  • Backing fabrics or “wide backs” are quilt fabrics that are wider, typically 108,” than other fabrics. This allows you to cut a single piece of fabric for a quilt back instead of piecing pieces together. 

What are pre-cut fabrics?

Today’s quilters can choose between buying pre-cut fabrics in a variety of sizes or yardage for quilts. I’m starting with a glossary of pre-cut terminology before sharing reasons for choosing pre-cuts or yardage for your next quilt.

It’s important to know that most cotton quilting fabric is 44” wide, but there are some variations — 40” or 42” are also common. You may sometimes see instructions to cut down the “width of the fabric,” also known as WOF in some quilt patterns.

Pre-cut cotton quilt fabric comes in several typical sizes:

Fat quarters (FQ)

A fat quarter is a quarter (one-fourth) yard of fabric, but instead of being cut straight down the width of the fabric, it is cut across the length. While a quarter yard of fabric cut across the WOF would be 9” x ~44”, when cut across the length, you end up with a piece that measures 18” x half of the WOF. Typically, fat quarters are 18” x 22”, but some are a bit smaller (18” x 20” or 18” x 21”) based on the width of fabric. Fat quarters are sold individually or in bundles. Michael Miller Fabrics fat quarter bundles include as few as 18 or as many as 42 coordinating fat quarters in each bundle.

A Frosty Marbled Hash fat quarter bundle.

Fat eighths

A fat eighth is like the baby sister of a fat quarter. It’s an eighth yard of fabric cut across the length. Instead of being 4.5” x ~44”, a fat eighth would measure 9” x 22” (or 9” x 20” or 9” x 21”). 

5” charm

A 5” charm square is simply a 5” square of fabric. Most 5” charm packs from Michael Miller Fabrics include 42 coordinating 5” squares in a pack. Some fabric or quilt shops call a bundle of 5” squares a “charm pack.” A “mini-charm pack” is filled with 2-½” squares.

A small bundle of fat quarters and a pack of 5″ charm squares.

10” square

A 10” square pre-cut is simply a 10” square of fabric. 10” square packs from Michael Miller Fabrics include 42 single color or coordinating 10” squares in a pack. Some fabric and quilt shops call a bundle with this size of square a “layer cake.”

Krystals collection in 10″ squares. Get the free pattern for the Easy Half Square Triangle Pillow here.

Rolls

A roll of 2-½” pre-cut strips from Michael Miller Fabrics includes 40 to 44 single color or coordinating strips. Some fabric and quilt shops call this size of strips a “jelly roll.” A “honey bun” is a roll of 1-½” strips.

A roll of 2-1/2″ strips from my Brand Ambassador welcome box.

You can also buy bundles of half yard or full yard fabric in coordinating colors. 

Should I use pre-cut fabric bundles or yardage for my quilt?

Now that you know about the different pre-cut options, here’s how to decide whether pre-cut fabric bundles or yardage fabrics are the better option for your next quilt.

Advantages of choosing pre-cut fabric for your next quilt

  • Color coordination is made easy. The fabric company has taken the stress out of selecting fabrics that coordinate by choosing options that blend together harmoniously and packaging them into one bundle.
  • Less cutting. If you’re using a quilt pattern designed for “strip piecing” using 2-½” strips (such as the ones popularized by Eleanor Burns), or using 5” or 10” squares (or half- or quarter-square triangles cut from 5” or 10” squares), then you will save yourself a lot of time on cutting and include a broader range of fabrics if you choose pre-cut fabrics for your quilt.
  • More experimentation. It can be expensive to buy yardage of many different fabrics. Bundles of pre-cuts are often a more affordable way to play with different colors, designs, and prints in your next quilt.
  • Lots of available quilt patterns. There are many patterns designed to work well with fat quarters, rolls, and other pre-cuts. You can still use these patterns with yardage but there is more cutting involved.
The Frosty Marbled Hash fat quarter bundle includes a rainbow of colors.

Advantages of choosing yardage for your next quilt

  • Control over fabric selection. With yardage, you can choose the exact fabrics you want for each part of your quilt. Not every print is available in a pre-cut fabric, and if you have a specific color or print combination in mind, you may not be able to find a suitable bundle anyway.
  • (Potentially) less fabric waste. If you plan out your yardage requirements in advance, you may need less fabric or have fewer scraps left over because you’ve picked out the exact amounts needed for your specific project. This is especially true if you are using a pattern that isn’t “pre-cut friendly.”
  • Fabric collecting is fun, too. Most quilters love collecting fabric and holding on to leftover pieces for scrap projects and string quilts. Buying yardage gives you a diverse range of scrap pieces to use for future projects.

For newbie quilters, I recommend reading over the pattern you plan to use for your first quilt. If it’s pre-cut friendly, start out with a pre-cut bundle. This will take away some of the stress of choosing fabrics, and a lot of the time for cutting fabrics, so you can focus on the sewing and assembling of the quilt. Once you have more confidence with quilting, decide if yardage is better for your next project.

Can I mix fabrics from different fabric collections in one quilt?

First off, it’s your quilt! You can do whatever you want! Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about mixing fabric. Some quilt fabrics, like the Basics collections from Michael Miller Fabrics, are designed to easily blend with other fabrics. These fabrics use solid or marbled colors, or small, all-over designs, that allow them to look great next to many different fabric collections. Basics can also be cut into smaller pieces and still look fabulous because they don’t include large prints.

It’s often easier to combine fabrics from the same collection into one quilt. Fabrics in the same collection are designed to work together, like these three fabrics from the Dinoworld collection. They have harmonious colors and the theme fits together across different fabrics. There’s also a similar aesthetic or graphic style (such as humorous, classic, energetic, floral, etc.) across the same collection.

How many colors should I use in my quilt?

Again, it’s your quilt! A quilt made with high quality cotton fabric that is cared for properly will last a long time, and there are some ways of putting together colors that stand the test of time. Here are some options that allow you to choose a variety of fabrics while having a timeless quality to your next quilt.

  • Monochromatic quilts use one color in different tints, tones, and shades. In other words, your quilt may be made with a variety of purple fabrics, but some are lightened with white (tints), others have some gray (tones), and others are darkened with black (shades). 
  • Analogous quilts use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel (like orange and yellow) while complementary quilts use colors that are across or opposite from each other on the color wheel (like yellow and purple).
  • If this seems complicated, don’t worry! Believe it or not, the more colors you choose, the less you have to worry about color theory. If you have seven or more fabrics in your quilt, you will find that as long as you like the way each fabric looks next to the piece it is sewn to, everything will come together.

Now that I’ve answered the six most common newbie questions about how to pick fabric for a quilt, I hope you feel ready to head into your local quilt shop or to browse Fat Quarter Shop or Fabric.com for your fabric selections! If you have other questions about picking quilt fabric, or other sewing questions you think would make a good Sewing Basics post, let me know.

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