19 August 2014

Top 10 Tips for New Quilters - Fabric & Thread

Introducing Week 1 of the Top 10 Tips for new Quilters -  Fabric & Thread
For the complete line up of tips, please see this page.

Quality Cotton Quilting Fabric:

Three elements are used to determine the quality of cotton quilting fabric: the thread count, the quality of the threads/yarns used, and the finishing processes.

Fabrics with a higher thread count are smoother to the touch and last longer.  Think of when you look for new bed sheets.  A higher thread count equals more comfort and durability.  Good quilting fabric has a thread count of at least 60 threads per inch each on the crosswise and lengthwise grains.

Fabric quality is also determined by the diameter of the yarns used, the size of the cotton filaments and the length of the cotton staple.  These threads/yarns should be even in thickness and have fibers that are at least 1/2" long.

High end quilting fabrics use quality dyes and go through several finishing processes to set these dyes.  For this reason, quality quilting fabrics are not likely to result in colours bleeding when put through the wash cycle.


At the beginning of my quilting journey, my frugal nature and inexperience resulted in my purchasing a lot of lower quality fabrics from "big box" chain stores.  Much of that fabric was either thin, stiff or had bumpy threads.  I always prewashed my yardage, so never had an issue with bleeding.  Over time, I began to purchase more fat quarters and precuts and quit prewashing.  Experience with fabric helped me to learn what the better quality fabrics felt like to the touch and how they looked.  Even how nice they smelled!

Do I still love the quilts I made at the beginning?  Of course!  But now I only buy high quality quilting fabric because I know it will last longer, be softer to the touch, and provides me with better value.  That is not to say I will no longer buy fabric from the "big box" stores.   I watch for sales, always check the label on a bolt of fabric to ensure it is made by a reputable company, and use my experience to ensure it is a good buy.

Fabric Grain:

Fabric grain refers to the way threads are woven.  Fabrics are woven in two directions.  These are referred to as the lengthwise and crosswise grains.  However, there are three types of fabric grain.

Lengthwise grain (warp), also known as straight of grain, runs parallel to the selvages.  It is the strongest grain and has very little stretch, making it great for borders.

Crosswise grain (weft), also known as cross grain,  runs at a right angle to the selvages.  It has a little more stretch than the lengthwise grain.

Bias grain runs on a 45-degree angle to the selvages and has the most stretch.  Be careful when handling pieces cut on the bias.  Strips cut on the bias are used for binding curved quilt edges such as scallops.  Bias strips are also used to make stems for applique.

SUPER TIP:  Have you ever purchased a length of fabric that was all wonky when folded with selvage edges together?  To straighten fabric before cutting hold the selvedge edge in one hand and the cut edge in the other. Give it a tug!  This helps to straighten out a piece of fabric.

To prewash or not to prewash?  That is the question...

Today's quality quilting cottons have made prewashing a thing of the past.  It is no longer necessary to prewash your fabrics before use in order to prevent the dyes from bleeding into adjacent fabrics.  However, to be safe, it is always a good idea to use a product like Shout Color Catcher or Dr. Beckmann - Colour & Dirt Collector.  These sheets look a lot like a fabric softener sheet used to eliminate static in the dryer, but are instead thrown into the washing machine with your quilt for it's first washing.  The sheets trap all dyes in the wash water and prevent them from bleeding into your quilt.  Another great product to have handy when washing your quilt is a bottle of synthropol.  After washing your quilt, if you see some bleeding, you can instantly rewash with some synthropol and the bleeding comes out.

Quality Cotton & Polyester Threads:

Well, here again, quality is the main point.  After all the work that goes into making a quilt, you want the thread to hold up to the wear and tear of use.  Both in the piecing and in the quilting.  Cheaper is not better.

Cotton or Polyester?

This will be a personal choice.  And it will depend largely on how well it works in your sewing machine.

Cotton thread is a spun thread.  It is made by spinning lengths of fiber called staples into plies.  The plies are then twisted together.  Measured by thread count number and plies, the thread count is the thickness of each strand and the ply tells you how many strands are wound together to make the thread.  General cotton sewing thread is typically 50/3, where the thread thickness is 50 and there are 3 strands of thread woven together make the plies.  The higher the first number the thinner the thread.

Quality cotton thread uses long staple fibers and is mercerized.  This results in a smoother thread which is less linty, gives it strength, and helps the dye absorb properly.  However, cotton will wear more than synthetic threads and isn't as colorfast.

Polyester thread can be spun or continuous filament.  Although spun polyester is made in the same way as cotton thread, it is a synthetic blend which is stronger and stretchier and has little or no lint.  Monofilament thread is even stronger and is made from one continuous filament.  Polyester threads come in a variety of weights.  A greater weight number indicates a thinner thread.  Typically, you would use a 40 weight for embroidery or quilting.


I only use polyester thread.  Gutermann and Superior Threads are my threads of choice.  I prefer polyester because it has a higher tensile strength and is less likely to break.  It is strong, durable, and colorfast and is less linty than cotton.  I use a white Gutermann thread for piecing and often also use it for quilting.  But when I really want the quilting to stand out and shine, I turn to my collection of Superior Threads.  I love my Magnifico and Fantastico threads.

If you have any other tips or advice to share, please leave a comment!

And remember to.....

Keep On Quilting On!


ipatchandquilt said...

Thank you both for all the information!
I have had trouble with the vertical spool stand too. What I do now is place a piece of cardboard underneath the spool and hold it in place with the cap of the spool that comes of the Aurifil cones. The thread now hardly snags anymore and i can still use the top hook! At the moment I use Guterman, Amann and Aurifil thread. The latter is actually a polyester for embroidery, but it work great on quilts too! And I adore the shine!

Unknown said...

That is a lot of information, all good. Love the info about the thread - I use Aurifil 90% of the time because my machine loves it

Judy@Quilt Paradigm said...

Great post Lorna! I am a bit of a fabric snob and totally agree with you on quality quilting cotton :) Another useful tip to get those LONG cuts on grain. . . RIP it! I learned this many years ago in Home Ec in high school. I usually have to close my eyes and hold my breath but it works every time!

I use Aurifil to piece and mostly various types of Superior 40 wt to quilt.

Thank you so much for allowing me to share my metallic adventures! :)

Patricia said...

Thank you for the information on fabric and thread. And Judy's information on metallic great and the tree she did awesome!

Patricia C

Jayne said...

I love learning and this post fit the bill! It is amazing the difference between a high quality fabric and one that isn't! I kind of cringe when I think about the fabrics I used when I first started quilting...it didn't last long, but it did happen! I use cotton and poly threads. Each one has it place! I especially try to use a cotton/poly when sewing on bindings. Just for added strength!

Thank you for this post Lorna! I have a spool of metallic thread that I thought I would never use and now I think I may give it a shot!

Lin's Quilts said...

The picture of the folded fabrics is lovely. Love the color array.

Lara B. said...

Really great explanations Lorna and Judy!
Judy, your family tree quilt is astonishing! How gorgeous! Some very special people are going to be moved to tears by your gift!
Lorna, do you still pre-wash your fabrics, even though they bleed less than in the past? I did some testing with name brand charm packs. I measured them after prewashing and found that the fabrics do not shrink evenly along their lengthwise and crosswise grains. Even within the same fabric collection, each color print shrank differently from the others. So I've been afraid to skip the pre-washing step. If you do skip the step, how did it work out for you after the quilt was washed? Does it turn out okay? I know so many people do not prewash their quilt fabrics, so wondered if the piecing and quilting process helps keeps the fabrics from shrinking unevenly.

Adrienne said...

Awesome Post! Such great information. Cannot wait for the next one!

Vicki said...

I have always wondered about poly thread.

margaret said...

so much useful information here Lorna thank you. Afraid I do buy the cheaper cotton fabric due to finances and being new to quilting still not very good at it but I do pre wash with colour catchers apart from jelly rolls, charm packs etc. Will now have a go with metallics, never worked when I tried them in embroidery but did not know to set the machine tension to 1 would never have thought of that. Re thread, have been buying cotton as that is what the book said but maybe will now use poly as it is a lot cheaper, we have a company Empress Mills and there cotton thread are lovely to sew with

Wendy said...

it's great to hear that about polyester thread. I use it as I just can't afford cotton all the time so I'm glad it's not doing any damage. Guttermann is also my thread of choice. I didn't really understand the bit about the thread set up for metallic threads. My spools sit on top of my machine, rather than behind it with a hook thing, so I don't really get what that was all about.

Patch the Giraffe said...

I have always wondered about polyester and cotton thread! Thanks for showing the difference and pros and cons of each. One mystery of the world solved :)

Kathleen said...

Do those color catcher sheets work well in front loader machines? Mine adds water according to the weight of the load, so the machine doesn't ever fill up like top loaders do. So I don't see how these sheets can float around in the water to catch dye.

Mara said...

Great post Lorna and Judy, I learned so much.

TheGeek said...

Hi Lorna, could you tell us what fabric that is you're using in the header for the series? It's a gorgeous run and I'd love to try and get my hands on some like it.

Jo Ferguson said...

Wow!! That was fascinating. Thanks for the tips from both of you.

Anita said...

Hi Lorna! Awesome information here. I used to sew with polyester Guterman and then one day I was buying some in a quilt shop and the ladies there (employees) were making quite a big deal out of it and saying I shouldn't use it. They said I should only use cotton because polyester will cut through the fabrics over time. Do you think there's any truth to that? What kind of time are we talking about? 100 years? I switched to cotton because I didn't want to risk ruining my quilts but I know that a lot of professional long arm quilters use poly threads in their machines too so I'm wondering if it really matters.

Lorna McMahon said...

Well, Anita... I think you have already answered your own question. 100 years? That's how I figured it, too. And I think each person has to decide for themselves what kind of thread they prefer to use. I will use a cotton thread occasionally. I was given some Aurifil and I have used some of it. But I do like to use that plain white Guetermann for most of my piecing and quilting.

My grandmother had a quilt hand quilted for me. Every time I used that quilt, I heard the sounds the threads popping. And I cringed.

So I figure... What is the advantage in having the fabric outlast the thread?

Thanks so much for checking out my post!
Happy Sewing! (regardless of what thread you choose!)

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