The Secrets of My Fabric

I recently saw a post by Jolene over at Blue Elephant Stitches called The Secrets of My Fabric Stash. I thought she had a good idea and I am always looking for content, so I am writing a similar post. I did change the name of the post, though I wanted to have a link to her post. I don’t like the word stash. I am, after all, not a drug dealer. I also feel justified in having supplies on hand so I can do my work.  I have, however, lost the fight in the quilt world to call my fabric a palette.

How you select your fabric for your projects is correct. I am going to describe the way I do it, but that doesn’t mean your method is wrong.

Jolene said that she gets asked two kinds of questions and writes in her post”… how I choose fabrics for a quilt, and the other one is how I choose fabrics from the store to add to my stash. ”

Ignore Trends

I have been buying fabric since the early 1990s, so I have a lot. I was influenced back in the day by stupid ideas like “buy ugly fabric” and “always use a fabric you dislike in your quilt.” I say unabashedly that these are stupid ideas, because they aren’t good advice. It isn’t fun to use ugly fabric, so why do it with an activity I love? I dislike brown and beige intensely, so I feel justified in refusing to use them. They do not make me happy when I use them and they do not work in my quilts. I may use fabrics that I don’t like as much as others, but I have given up using fabrics I actively dislike. The other thing is that ‘ugly’ is subjective. What is ugly to me may be gorgeous to you. The concept just doesn’t work.

I always have to remind myself that a group of fabric on display on a website or in a shop is not going to look the same when I get it home. I love the look of French General fabrics. I love the dream of what they represent, but I almost never buy them. They won’t look right, or the same, as they do in the shop with the fabric I have at home. My fabric has a brighter, clearer tone than these fabrics. I know I won’t use the creams and dustier tones included with these fabrics. I might as well not buy them.

Fabric Shopping

I really enjoy fabric shopping in stores. I like to see the fabric. Having enough money to buy whatever I want is wonderful, but I have to save my pennies and be aware of storage space in my workroom, so I am very selective.

When I shop in stores, I am generally not looking for something in particular, e.g. more of a specific background fabric. Usually, I am just looking, getting inspired, hoping to see something that will work for a project I didn’t know I was making.

If I shop online, it is very dangerous. I have found that when I shop online, I am either tempted by something or feeling bad and need a pick-me-up. Neither mean I made good fabric choices. I am a visual person, so I take cues from the size of my stack of bolts. It is easy to just keep adding things to my online cart without realizing just how much I have purchased. It isn’t always so easy to remove the fabrics from that same online cart. I can easily end up with a lot of fabric coming to me in the mail and not realizing exactly how much I bought.

Also, I have a hard time judging the scale of prints. I like having a variety of prints, both in scale and color. In online shopping, those things are hard to judge because they depend on things out of your control. Some shops have rulers showing the scale, but that doesn’t always help me. In the end, it is a crap shoot and I try to shop in person. During COVID-19, that is impossible, so I am happy to have enough fabric on hand.

Color Palette by Guicy Guice
Color Palette by Guicy Guice

Like Jolene, I almost never buy a complete line of fabrics. I have in the past and have been sorry. I also have been happy. If I buy a full collection, there are prints that languish and I eventually end up using those prints for gift bags. They frequently go to the guild free table or end up in donation blocks. Sometimes, like the recent purchase of a  line of fat quarters of Alison Glass/Guicy Guice, I have been happy. These were tone on tone fabrics that I can use for a variety of projects, though there were some colors (like that orangey-brown) that I probably won’t use.

The other reason I don’t buy (and use) a full collection is because of variety. There usually isn’t enough variety in scale of prints or colors for the full collection to be useful. I remove a certain number of prints from the full collection and replace them with other fabrics that will add contrast and interest to my quilt.

Even with my man, Phil (Philip Jacobs of the Kaffe Fassett Collective), I don’t buy all of his fabrics. Some of the colors are not colors that I would use and a recent horse print he designed was not a favorite. I stick to his large flower prints, because I do love those.

Now, I only buy what I like AND what I think I will use. I don’t have a collection. My fabrics are there to be used. In the past, I bought fabrics that I loved and saved for the right project. Now, I feel kind of ‘MEH’ about some of these fabrics. That is so sad to me, because when I bought them I adored them. Now I try to use beloved fabrics right away. It is awesome to see them in a quilt, especially one that I use.

I have found that I there are fabrics that I decline to buy even though I like them, because I don’t think I will use them. If I can’t envision them in a quilt, I don’t buy them. I also don’t buy fabrics, even if I like the print, if they fray too much. Fraying fabric = imprecision and problems with fitting. It also means I have to pick threads out of seams continuously. That makes me crazy.


Access to your fabric is important. If you can’t pull down your bins or reach your bolts easily, you won’t use your fabric. I use the fabric I can reach most. Climbing up into the top of my fabric cupboard is a production and even though I don’t want to, I avoid it.

Jolene has a much nicer fabric storage solution than I do. Her cupboard is really nice and I would love to have something like that. My fabric closet is larger. 😉 If I won the lottery, I would redo my fabric closet in such a way that all my fabric was out of the plastic bins and I could rifle through it more easily. Still, I can see the amounts that I have based on the number of bins. Nobody who reads this blog regularly will be surprised that I have 3 bins of turquoise.

Storage is an issue. As I said, I have a large fabric closet, but even that is overflowing. Using 100 yards per year is not a whim. I want to use up fabrics, so all of my fabric fits in my fabric closet and I can reach it.

I also want to use my fabric so it doesn’t go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill when I die.

Fabric Selection

First and foremost, I use fabrics that I like. If a pattern calls for a blue, then I will probably chose a turquoise rather than navy.

Frolic! Top finished- corner detail
Frolic! Top finished- corner detail

Pulling fabrics for a quilt happens in two ways: proximity and value. I will often start with fabrics I have close at hand, especially if I am starting a project without planning. Generally, however, I start by devoting a project bin to a potential project. I toss in the pattern, or the drawings or inspiration pages, and fabrics I want to use. Everything – pattern, fabrics, drawings, special ruler, etc. – gets tossed into the project box. When I am ready to work on the project, I have a starting place.

Once I decide on a set of colors, I will go hunting through my stash to find other colors that are similar, but with different prints. The photo (above left) shows this technique very successfully with the red-violets and somewhat successfully with the turquoises. This is a technique I learned from Mary Mashuta back in the dark ages of quiltmaking. Basically, you use different fabrics in the same value to add interest. I don’t really use neutrals, except occasionally, but I have expanded this concept and use it in the foreground and the background. This allows me to use the smaller pieces of fabric, like FQs, I purchase without a plan, scraps and other pieces leftover from other projects. I don’t have to commit to several yards of a fabric I don’t know how I will use. I think quilts look more interesting with a variety of different fabrics. Also, viewers (at a show, for example) get a reward by taking the time to look closely at a quilt when they find you have used many different fabrics.

Scrapitude Carnivale Finished
Scrapitude Carnivale Finished

I used the ‘pushed neutral’ technique for the background of this quilt. I go back, over and over, to Scrapitude Carnivale, because this is the most perfect fabric selection I have ever done. It is not completely perfect, but mostly perfect. Every time I look at it, I am happy. After several years, I still like it. This quilt made me realize that looking at a favorite fabric in a quilt is much better than seeing it unused on a shelf.

The other important aspect is lighting. I live in a place with fog all summer long. That means I have to contend with grey days frequently. Sometimes I can’t see across the street. If I have quilts on my design wall that are too dark, I start to feel depressed. If want to make a purple quilt, I do it is January when the light is clear and there is no fog. I am currently working on a black quilt and that was a poor choice for this time of year, because that feeling of sadness keeps creeping up on me. Most of my quilts are bright, light and cheerful, because it is grey outside my workroom window and the bright colors reflect light back around the room.

More about brown: there is one brown I have found that works for me. It is a rich chocolate brown, slightly darker than milk chocolate, but not quite as dark as 80% dark chocolate. I have found that using a little of this color with turquoise does work and I don’t want to throw-up when I see it. I don’t use it a lot, but sometimes I’ll add it in. I used it in Calm and liked the effect.

This is Personal

Jolene writes “This is something that is very personal, but I’d say it’s a better idea to buy fabric that works with the quilts you want to make, rather than make quilts that fit with the stash that you impulsively purchased. (speaking from experience).” This is true, which is why I think more about the fabrics I am purchasing now than I did when I first started quiltmaking. I also remember that there is always more fabric and I will like the new fabric as much or more than the fabric I see on the shelf but can envision using.

Field Guide by Marcia Derse
Field Guide by Marcia Derse

That being said, I still buy some fabrics that I just like without knowing why I am buying them, without a project in mind and not even sure IF I will be able to use them. This piece of Field Guide: to Art History 101 By Marcia Derse from CURIOSITY. Marcia Derse has an edgy, urban quality that I can’t stay away from but also don’t use much. This print may be telling me to make a drawstring bag from Jeni Baker. For what, though?

I hope this gives you some ideas on my thought process. I am not telling you to go out and buy more fabric. I am telling you what makes up my fabric stash/palette and how I use my fabric. I hope this gives you some insight and helps you with your fabric buying as well.

I wrote on this topic back in 2010.

Author: JayeL

Quiltmaker who enjoys writing and frozen chocolate covered bananas.

One thought on “The Secrets of My Fabric”

  1. You made me laugh about the three bins of turquoise! Currently my fabric amounts seem pretty balanced, with extra gray, white, cream, and tan neutrals. However, my fabric drawers really need folding and straightening!

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