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Make Stuff - Beginners Guide to the Fabric Store

This is the first post in my "Make Stuff" series, where I explain the basics of beginning a number of craft projects. Crafts don't have to be hard, but they can be intimidating to a lot of people simply because they don't know what to expect. This series will be a road map to getting you off on the right foot.

If you've never shopped for fabric

If you've never shopped for fabric before, stepping into a fabric store can be pretty intimidating. There's so much fabric to take in it can be overwhelming, how on earth do you know what to buy or how much? And then there's the terminology - they sell notions at the fabric store? Do they also sell ideas and opinions? (Actually, I'm sure you can find plenty of those there for free.) If you've ever thought Read on, we'll have you feeling like a pro before you go so you can shop and not feel like you stepped into the Twilight Zone. Now, we're off to the fabric store...

The first thing you need to know is that fabric comes on a bolt and is measured by the yard. Whenever you see a price advertised, it is by the yard (which is 3 feet in case you don’t know – this is a beginners guide, after all.) The bolts are those big bundles of fabric you see lined up on the shelves row after row. When shelved properly, they will be folded over in an inside-out kind of fabric comb-over that can make it nearly impossible to find the middle, but just keep turning. They display it like this because the fabric is actually folded in half and rolled up on the bolt with the “wrong” side showing – this weird fold allows you to see the “right” side of the fabric (these are actual terms, so take note.) So, if the fabric is folded over, how do you know how wide it is when it’s spread out? To begin with, most common widths for fabric are between 40” and 60” although they can come anywhere smaller or larger depending on the manufacturer and the use. Width, and other useful information, is on one end of the cardboard center that the fabric is wrapped around. This is important because your pattern will tell you how much yardage to buy depending on the width of your fabric. Check out this helpful article to learn how to read a pattern.

Note: Most apparel fabric typically only comes on the folded-over-rolled-up-inside-out format. If you're getting something really fancy, it sometimes comes on a roll.

Home décor fabric can come this way or all rolled out flat onto a long tube. If it is on a display wall, the right side is usually facing out; if it is piled up, it's probably going to be right side in. Typically, home décor fabric is around 60” wide because you are usually covering bigger stuff. If you are considering an apparel fabric that is on a long tube and you are reading this blog post, keep moving, that stuff is for veterans and it’s hard to sew. Once you have decided on the fabric you would like (this will depend on your project, but when in doubt, go for cotton) take the bolt over to the cutting counter. If you have decided on the tube of home décor fabric, double check with an employee if they would prefer you to take the roll down or have them come over and cut it where it hangs. Nobody wants to have to re-shelve a 60 lb. honkin’ bolt of fabric. For an exhaustive explanation of fabric info, check out Silver Bobbin's blog post here. Now, off to the cutting counter…

Recap: Fabric comes on a “bolt”

Fabric is measured by the yard

Fabric has a “right” side and a “wrong” side

It is typically between 40” and 60” wide

Helpful information is on the cardboard ends

Usually, home décor fabric comes on a long roll

The cutting counter is that giant table in the middle of the store. Take note: if you shop at JoAnn, you will have to take a number to be served at the cutting counter. Depending on how busy the store is, you may want to pull that number before you pick your final fabric so you’re not waiting an eternity. Wherever you shop, you will be telling the person at the cutting counter how much fabric you need in yards – like “I need 2/3 of a yard” or “I need 3 ¼ yards.” In a lot of places, the smallest they will allow you to purchase is 1/8 yard. Just don’t ask for the fabric to be cut at 4 feet and 6 inches – go ahead and do the math before you get up there and you’ll feel a lot less like a newbie (that’s a yard and a half, by the way.) I always like to have a little more cut than I actually need, because it’s always better to have a little left over than not enough to finish.

Also, those folks behind that counter are usually a wealth of information, if you are unsure of your selection or your measurements, go ahead and ask they will be happy to help. If you’re not 100% sure what the back of your pattern is telling you – feel free to bring that so they can help you double check. If you don’t want to feel the eyes of 20 impatient people drilling holes into the back of your head, don’t do this on a Saturday morning. Once they’ve rolled out the fabric and cut it for you, they will probably give you a slip of paper which you will take to the register to check out – DO NOT lose this piece of paper! It’s got all the info they need to ring you up and if you don’t have it, you just about have to go back to square one to figure it out – not fun.

Recap: The giant table in the middle of the store is the cutting counter

Request your fabric in yards and increments of yards, not feet.

Order a little more for safety

Ask the cutting counter folks for help – they’re geniuses

Don’t lose that paper, you need it

Now, for the rest of the store...

Patterns: If you are shopping for patterns, there will be a number of books on a table for you to flip through. There are a couple of different pattern brands, Simplicity, Burda, Vogue, and McCalls are some of the biggest. Depending on the store where you are shopping, they may have some or all of the patterns they offer on their website, so you can browse before you go if you’d like. One important thing to know about buying patterns from a big brand craft store – you should never pay full price! Many patterns are upwards of $20, which is pretty steep if you still have to buy and sew the fabric too. Most big stores are running pattern sales all the time, sometimes for only $1 or $2. Wait till you get to the fabric store to see what’s on sale and just flip through that book. I don’t know about you, but paying $20 for a pattern you could buy on a different day for $1 makes me neurotic. When you find the pattern you want, note the manufacturer and the pattern number, which is usually located in large letters/numbers at the top right of the page or at the bottom of the page with a bunch of other important info. Patterns are stored in large file cabinets by brand and pattern number. Most stores usually have at least one pattern for each design in the books, but not always, so if you can’t find it ask those cutting counter folks if they can check for you. You may also find some patterns placed around this area that you can just pick up and go.

Thread: There are a number of thread brands, most of them are comparable in quality. Generally, the higher the price, the better the quality but for most sewing projects your run of the mill cotton/polyester thread will do. Be aware that there may also be upholstery thread and cones of thread for sergers – these are not what you want, upholstery thread is too thick and serger cones won’t fit most regular sewing machines. Typically, one spool of thread will be enough for most projects and the color of the thread just needs to be close to the color of the fabric, not exact.

Notions: Huh? Just think of this area as all the things. Any kind of special or additional goodies you need to pull the whole thing together are in the notions aisle. You’ll find snaps, pins, seam rippers, elastic, measuring tape, Velcro, etc. Ribbons, zippers, buttons, and bias tape are usually found in their own special area because there is such a variety of these to choose from.

Things that cut: Scissors, rotary cutters, X-acto blades etc. are usually kept all together. If you are only going to do a little sewing, a decent pair of sewing scissors should be plenty, and maybe a small set of embroidery scissors for tight areas. And yes, you do need a set of scissors specifically for fabric. You can’t just start cutting away with that beat-up pair from the junk drawer, you’ll never get a clean cut. And after you've bought yourself a shiny new pair of sewing scissors don't use them to cut anything other than fabric - seriously, it dulls them and you'll want to stab yourself with them later if they're not sharp enough to cut fabric properly. Rotary cutters are the bomb, they work just like a pizza cutter. They are my favorite cutting tool to use, but to my surprise, a lot of people have a hard time learning to use them. The trick is t bear down hard enough to cut through the fabric on the first go, like you do with a tough pizza crust. Because of this, you need a self-healing mat to use with them so you don't mar your cutting surface. Self healing mats and fancy scissors like pinking shears (zig-zag scissors,) are pretty expensive though and not a necessity for a beginner, so you may want to leave those for another day and just stick with a basic pair of scissors.

Fluffy Stuff: There is usually an area for stuffing, pillow forms, and otherwise fluffy innards. With pillow forms, the more expensive - the softer and better the quality. If you get the rock-bottom bargain form, expect to have a rock-hard pillow form in a few months. Feathers and down/down alternative are the softest and retain their shape for years to come and, I think, look the best out of the lot. Do not confuse PolyFill or loose stuffing for a pillow form. Pillow forms are an all-in-one pre-sewn insert for a pillow cover. Stuffing or fiber-fill can be used to stuff a pillow, but it is just a bag of fluff, you have to have something to contain it. It is great for plush toys or unusually shaped pillows. Note: when using loose stuffing to stuff anything, don’t try to cram it all in at one time, you’ll never get it through the hole you’ve left in the seam. What you want to do is pull off appropriately sized chunks for the area you are stuffing and place them where you want them – they’re not going to work their way into that doll’s arm by themselves. Batting is stuffing’s more conservative cousin and is fluff in sheet form; it is used for things like blankets and upholstery. You will also find foam of various shapes and sizes in this area. Foam comes in different densities for different purposes and can usually be cut to length, which is nice because the really thick stuff is also really expensive so you don’t want to buy any more than you have to. If you are doing more than just wrapping a chair seat, this may be out of your wheelhouse if you are a beginner, so proceed with caution, foam can be a little fussy. Another thing you may find in this area is styrofoam bean bag filling – this stuff is like glitter, it gets everywhere and static cling makes it stick. Seriously ask yourself if that store-bought bean bag really just won’t do, this material takes commitment.

Wrap-up Recap:

Patterns are chosen from books and are stored in file cabinets

Never pay full price for patterns

Basic thread is good for most things

One spool is usually enough

Notions are all the little things you never knew you needed

Get a decent pair of scissors

Have a dedicated pair of scissors for sewing

Pillow forms are pre-made inserts

Stuffing is a bag of fluff

Tear off pieces of fiber-fill to stuff something, don’t cram

Batting is a sheet of fluff

Foam and bean bag filling are probably not worth the hassle for a beginner.

So there you go, that is fabric store boot camp, you should be able to enter one now with at least a vague sense of familiarity. When you go for the first time, give yourself some time to wander around and get an idea of all the fun stuff there is to find. If you don’t have any supplies at all, here is my list of must-haves: Scissors, measuring tape, seam ripper, stick pins, sewing pins, thread, and fabric.

Happy hunting and remember to have fun!

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