How to select high quality fabric for sewing projects
August 26, 2016 7:42 AM   Subscribe

I enjoy sewing (at a hobby level), but I don't know a lot about selecting "good" fabrics. I'd like to level up from what's available at my big box craft store. Please help. This Ask is specifically about identifying and/or sourcing durable flannel and knits - fabrics that will hold up well to repeated washings, but I welcome information about other fabrics as well.

This kind of got started when someone on the blue posted about sewing kits for Days for Girls, which is an awesome idea. But the Days for Girls sewing instructions specify that you need to use high quality flannel because the kits you make need to be very durable and very washable. The stuff at Jo-Ann's is .. maybe sort of acceptable? I have kid-washcloths made of it that still work reasonably well. But it shed a lot when I pre-washed it and I feel like I could do better.

I also want to sew a few things for my toddler (for fun) and am interested in finding some hard-wearing knits to do it with because it would kind of blow to spend the time to make something and then have it disintegrate on the first wash.

I know that many people buy fabric online, but I have NO idea how to identify "nice" fabric from the specs - do you have fabrics you can vouch for personally? Standards by which you judge it? Are there online fabric stores that you like? Specific brands of fabric or even specific fabrics?

If I'm looking at fabric in person, how do I estimate washability? I've been to this place but it's seriously overwhelming and while I imagine they have some good stuff there I don't know how to pick the wheat from the chaff.

As I said before, I'm specifically asking about flannels and knits, but would be happy to hear your fabric wisdom regarding other fabrics as well.
posted by telepanda to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Durable fabric feels durable. When you hold it between finger and thumb it doesn't feel flimsy. There are lots of threads per inch so it is not a loose weave and the thread itself feels strong. Watch out for fabric that contains spandex, or has been "sized" impregnated with a starchy substance to make it stiff and firm but which will wash out. Examine the cut end of the fabric to get information on how much it will fray and how easily it develops runs or can be picked apart. If the nap on a fabric is easy to pull fibre out of, then you know the fabric is flimsy.

Once you get a chance to feel and compare different types of fabric you will start to be able to guess what will fall apart quickly. You could even start with clothes in your own wardrobe, comparing different cotton knits, or more sturdy suiting fabrics.

When purchasing fabric look at the ends of the cardboard the fabric is rolled around. There will usually be a sticker with some information even if it describes the material as "unknown".

It is perfectly okay to ask a sales clerk if a fabric is washable and how much shrinkage to expect. If they say "Dunno" then put the fabric back.

It is also acceptable to buy a quarter of a meter and experiment with small projects and get used to how durable that fabric turned out to be after you used it and washed it a few times.

If getting to a fabric store is difficult, you can try going to a thrift store and looking in the bedding section. Flannel sheets can be re-purposed, and it may not be as overwhelming as a full fabric store, and prices might be inexpensive. Many people buy fabric for sewing projects and then never do the sewing so they donate it to charity, so they usually have some new fabric in with the bedding.

Rayon shrinks like a bugger and turns into a wrinkled mess. The purpose of rayon is to demonstrate your high status being able to afford the dry cleaning and pressing it requires. Avoid rayon.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:09 AM on August 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

Buying online, I mostly buy from brands I already know (or I accept that I'm taking a risk).

I like Robert Kaufman flannel.

I'm terrible at assessing knits.

Very much looking forward to seeing other responses here!
posted by mskyle at 8:14 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

You partially answered your own question: Jo Ann's = not the highest quality. Yeah, buying from places that specify high quality is the way I go. For wools, I like Sultan's.
posted by Melismata at 8:22 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Couple of links to bloggers that I think are smart for ya here. I am shit with sewing knits for some reason (I have no idea why people think knits are easier).

Dreamstress (this woman, love her)

Sew Mama Sew (always smart, IMHO)
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:26 AM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

A lot of the blogs I follow swear by Girl Charlee for knits.
posted by pie ninja at 9:08 AM on August 26, 2016

I get most of my knit and garment-type fabric from repurposing thrift-store items. Even the cheapest retail garments seem to have better fabrication than the stock at Joann, etc., and buying from online retailers is both expensive and uncertain, so I tend to just hit up the local Goodwill periodically in search of cheap XL+ skirts, dresses, Ts, bathrobes, sheets, etc. in colors and fabrics I like.

Bonus: the stuff has generally already been laundered, so shrinkage is not a problem. Use a vinegar presoak to remove any thrift-store scent.
posted by Bardolph at 9:10 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Check out, and Any of the proprietresses will be happy to answer questions. Mind you, they are quite a bit more spendy than Joann Fabrics. I make most of my own clothes and frankly, the quality of the fabrics in Joann is pretty dismal.

If you are interested in learning about quality fabrics, you might take a day and visit a nice department store and just walk around feeling the fabrics and reading the labels to get a sense of what you like; what different types of fibers/blends feel like and how they drape. Be sure to compare lower-priced garments vs. more expensive garments. That won't always translate to what kind of fabric you can buy, but it will help you to learn what kinds of knits you like and don't like.
posted by sarajane at 9:33 AM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting this! We're down to two real fabric stores in Boston, so I'm starting to look online myself. Just a note about your comment that you don't want stuff to fall apart in the first wash--I'd recommend washing any fabric first before sewing it, no matter where you get it. Having it shrink and pucker after all your hard work might be worse than having it disintegrate.
posted by pangolin party at 12:16 PM on August 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I buy fabric online from a variety of places.

Many online shops will allow you to order swatches for a small fee - sometimes I do that for more expensive items. Otherwise I'll risk a yard and make a t-shirt and see how it holds up.

For light-weight knits, I've had my best luck with 100% cotton - less pilling and holds up to my ridiculous laundry habits.

I love Mood Fabrics . I've had good luck with Online Fabric Store. is hit and miss for me. I've had some great fabric and some awful stuff that pilled almost immediately.

I've been getting samples from as well and I think I'll be ordering knits in the near future.

Oh man - I almost forgot Spandex World! I did buy some mid-weight cotton spandex from them about (no joke) 5 years ago and made leggings that have worn like IRON. No joke. They have faded with time, but no pilling, no bagging, BULLET PROOF leggings. Love.
posted by hilaryjade at 7:59 PM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Forgot one -- Fabric Mart. I bought some amazing Italian shirting for a shirt for my Dad. I still have some little scraps that I go pet sometimes.
posted by hilaryjade at 8:02 PM on August 26, 2016

Last one I promise:
Nick of Time Textiles

It looks like they have updated their site - it looks less shady than it used to. :)

I have bought white cotton knit 10 yards at a time for t-shirts, vast quantities of French terry for sweatpants and jacket, and have been very happy with the quality.
posted by hilaryjade at 8:06 PM on August 26, 2016

Joann Fabrics has several types of flannel. The 'snuggle flannel' is lightweight, cotton in baby/kid prints & is ok for things like baby blankets, burp clothes, etc. They sell a shirting flannel that is a similar weight but in plaids. Too light weight for my projects. Look for the Plaiditudes flannel. Most of it is 100% cotton and it is a nice heavy flannel. All flannel sheds when it is washed, esp the first time, but even some in later washings. It will also shrink, so buy accordingly.

I think you can find fabrics at Joann that are better than people assume. I think the vast quantities of the really awful 'blizzard fleece' they carry gives people the impression all the fabric is poor quality. They carry 100% linen in various weights and some cotton/linen blends. They also carry a line of lightweight 95% rayon/5% spandex knit that is good quality. I've noticed some other nice knits there lately. 100% cotton corduroy in cute prints, too. Check the Red Tag area; a lot of that is one off that were never carried in quantity. I found some great velvet in that section. The key is to read the bolt end for fabric content/care info and to feel the fabric, check the drape, and make sure it is the right fabric for whatever you are sewing. As mentioned, wash everything before cutting & sewing.

I think buying online can be hard--and risky and expensive--if you are unfamiliar with all the fabric terms & descriptions. The pictures can be helpful, but you really need to look closely. I bought several pieces of boiled wool from Mood. Two were authentic boiled wool; the other 4 were a blend that shouldn't have been on the same page as the others. Disappointed, to say the least. Should have ordered the swatches. Fabric tends to be higher end on some of the sites and fabric is heavy, so factor in shipping costs.

You are in the Chicago area--you have some interesting places to shop. The Textile Outlet in Pilsen is huge & is relatively well-organized for the warehouse operation it is. Not sure how much knit or flannel they have, but a wide variety of other stuff. I go there every time I am in Chicago and end up shipping stuff home. They are friendly & chatty, in my experience. Although if you find Vogue in Evanston overwhelming, you might meltdown at the Textile Outlet. Take an experienced sewing friend. I am not wild about Vogue. I also went to this place which was an exercise in digging, but I found some nice wool. Eccentric proprietor. There are other Chicago fabric stores that specialize in high end fabrics, including for fancy dresses. Oak Fabrics has cute fabric, too.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 10:50 PM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sawyer Brook has fine quality fabrics.

I have seen some of the online stores offer swatches for a minimal price. is one of those, and the fee is minimal. If you don't see it listed, you can contact the seller to find out if they would send one anyway.
posted by annsunny at 2:33 PM on August 27, 2016

I've seen mixed reviews for Girl Charlee. Emmaonesock has a lovely well-curated selection with good descriptions and lots of great sewing information but sometimes the markup is a little ridiculous.

I think the best way to learn is to manhandle as many fabrics as possible, read the labels on everything (you learn what 10% spandex jersey feels like compared to 3% spandex), and compare swatches to known quantities. I don't think brand name fabrics/shops necessarily equals better quality, but you can generally find better information and reviews.
posted by yeahlikethat at 3:18 PM on August 27, 2016

« Older Ever been on Pristiq? What's it like?   |   Where do I buy a car? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.