HOWTO: Buy Fabric


ebay item 8305987417

[Above: Fabric purchased on one day in July, 2006]

Margo left a comment recently asking me how I bought fabric. I thought replying just "Like a drunken sailor on shore leave, if drunken sailors bought fabric" probably wasn't helpful, so I thought I would lay out some rules for buying fabric that have served me well over the last few decades.

1. You never have enough fabric. If you tell yourself "I have enough fabric," you jinx yourself and will immediately need more fabric (except now that you've angered the fabric gods, everything will be horribly polyester and $15/yard). You ALWAYS need more fabric.

2. If offered an opportunity to shop for fabric, take it. You never know when you're going to need more fabric (oh, wait — yes you do know, and the answer is "all the time" — remember rule one: "You always need more fabric"?). So take advantage of every opportunity to shop for fabric.

3. If it is $1/yard and not aggressively hideous, buy three yards. If it's $1/yard and acceptable, buy five yards. If it's $1/yard and, if the fabric were a man [or woman] you would agree to meet him [or her] for coffee (but not a dinner date) buy ten yards. Any liking over that requires a fifteen- to twenty-yard purchase.

4. The basic unit of fabric purchase is four yards of 45" or three of 60" wide. Any less than that and you won't be able to get a fullish skirt out of it. If it has a large repeat (the amount of space it takes to repeat the pattern) or is a border print, or has stripes, or really, anything out of the ordinary, buy five yards. Don't bother carrying yardage for specific patterns with you: if you do buy exactly enough for a particular pattern, you will then cut out one piece wrong and when you go back out to buy more it will be all gone.

5. If you really, really, really love it, buy it right then. Otherwise it will sell out in less than 24 hours. (The corollary to this rule is that fabric you hate will clot the tables and racks at the fabric store until the place goes out of business or burns to the ground.)

6. If the fabric is too expensive to buy at least two yards, or is less than 40" wide, you can still buy it, but only as an objet d'art. You will never make a garment out of it. As long as you accept this up front, you'll be fine. (I have a one-yard piece of Matisse-print "Jazz" silk that I just pick up and look at every once in a while. It was $10/yard when that was astronomically expensive for me.)

6a. If you regularly wear halter tops rule 6 does not apply to you. But you will be making a LOT of halter tops. (Note: conversion from non-halter-top-wearing to halter-top-wearing just to use up your stash is not recommended.)

7. The proper ratio of prints to solids in your fabric purchasing is 10:1. The rationale for this is that good prints are fleeting but solids are always available. In fact, you should never actually have any black fabric in your stash. That is because keeping black fabric in your stash means you won't have a reason to go to the fabric store when you need black fabric, which would contravene rule 2.

8. If you make theatrical costumes, or participate in historical reenactments, or have ever thought "Someday I am going to make the Kinsale Cloak" you may only buy velvet in 20-yard increments.

9. Always make time to buy fabric when traveling. Global Economy, Schmobal Economy. They got different stuff there, wherever "there" is. Pack an extra bag, if you have to.

10. If you think, while looking at fabric, "I'd have no place to wear this, even IF I made it into anything," close your eyes and envision yourself in tears of rage and disappointment, having been invited at the last minute [but with enough time to sew something] to JUST the perfect place to wear something made of that fabric. The most horrible thing in the world is regret: protect yourself from it by buying fabric. And besides, how dumb will you feel when you're freezing to death in the coming nuclear winter/ecological catastrophe, if you don't buy five yards of that wool now?

11. Fabric bought online doesn't "count" against any self-imposed quotas (quotas which violate rules 1 and 2 anyway). Fabric purchased on eBay DOUBLE doesn't count.

Further thoughts: if you have small children, raise them in the belief that the fabric store is the best place in the world to go, ahead of Disney and Chuck E. Cheese. Resort to bribery if necessary. (Also teach them the "one finger rule": they can touch ANYTHING in the store that adults are allowed to touch, if they do so with only one finger. [Check that the finger is clean!] First violation is a warning. Second violation, they must clasp their hands on top of their head for the remainder of the visit.)

Know to the minute how long it takes you to get to each fabric store in your area. This will allow you to plan quick anonymous stops between other errands.

It is better to go to the fabric store without a particular fabric in mind. When the buyer is ready, the true fabric will appear.

So Margo, I hope this helps you, but I'm afraid I cannot be held liable for the size of the stash that will come from following any of these rules. Obey at your own risk.

106 thoughts on “HOWTO: Buy Fabric

  1. Joni, Miss B screaming about books is probably no more odd than Robbie hiding underneath the fabric rounds and playing with his Micromachines…..screaching sounds included.Erin, I think I need to make my dh read this….then he will see the *ahem* logic to my stashing.

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  2. ah, so good, so true! I have to print the rules out for my husband – he just couldn’t understand when we moved from New Zealand to Australia and I had to bring all my fabric with me – some of which was over 10 years old then. I am fortunate in having a good friend who is also a fabric addict, so occasionally I have a ‘purge’ and ‘give’ her all the fabrics that I will ‘never’ use. Essentially she stores them for a while until my husband forgets, and then I get them all back again! I also have a similar approach with patterns. I could look at pattern envelopes and play with my fabrics quite happily – much of the joy in sewing is in the fantasising about what *could* be made!

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  3. OMG!!! I did not know that these were the rules I’ve actually believed in all my life!! Thanks for writing them down for me so I can post them over my sewing machine and explain this to my family–who think I’m crazy–by the way. Did you know this kind of thing skips a generation? I have hopes for my granddaughter since my daughters hate to sew!

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  4. YOU ARE BRILLIANT! I must print these out in a pretty font and frame them for the back of the front door so that I see them every time I leave the house. Thanks!

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  5. Hmm, so I guess trying to figure a way for the company to send me on temporary deployment to one of the India offices, just so I can find an excuse to wander one of the fabric markets, isn’t strange after all.

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  6. Love the rules and I have been applying them. Lately every time I find a great fabric at $1/yard I just buy whatever is left on the bolt. I’m trying to buy my fabrics in colors that I want to do a SWAP sew with so I’m just preplanning, right?I’m a quilter also so I can’t leave cotton fabrics alone either. Fortunately hubby actually encourages me most of the time and HELPS me shop for fabric.

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  7. My 14 yodd read your rules with me and said “Well, mom, at least now you know you were doing everything right.” Wonderful to be validated by your teenager…. 😀

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  8. I am puzzled about this thing called “quota”. Does that apply to what will fit in the house or are you also counting the trunk of the car?Great set of rules!

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  9. I use these rules, exactly. I should increase my yardage minimum, though. From now on I buy at least three yards at a time. Except when I shop for work, then the fabrics are mainly artificial fur that must be bought mailorder, with prior deposit from the client.Do you have rules for cleaning out the sewing room? How small a scrap is too small to keep?

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  10. re the travel souvenirs, I’ve purchased those extra travel bags that you buy in airport concourse shops to haul home fabric, and I’ve availed myself of the shipping services of various hotels. There is a post office right around the corner from Winmil Fabrics in Boston, and at Britex in SanFran they’ll even ship it for you, and then you don’t have to pay the sales tax!Great rules.

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  11. No fabric is safe from me. I turned old “Monkeys Driving Jeeps” sheets into a skirt and curtains(two kitchen redoes ago ) into a skirt. I turned out grown anime screenprinted son’s shirts into throw pillow covers. I’m a fabric junkie. I am afraid my children are planning an intervention. Very Good — very funny post.

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  12. I already live by your rules Erin and am just glad to find out I am not the only one. My son recently started buying fabrc as he is studying tailoring, now we are fighting for storage space, I really need one of my kids to leave home to have room for all the fabric etc.

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  13. Yes. Yes yes. Yes on everything except making the Kinsale Cloak. I made it years ago and wore it once. I hated it. I looked like Little Miss Muffet. Horrible. Make the Moroccan Burnoose instead. You’ll be much happier.–Lydia

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  14. These are the best rules I have read in a long time. I am going to link to this article in my blog.I have some friends who need to get off the fabric moratorium I and they have been on for several weeks now.

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  15. WOW.I will need to read this entry and all the comments over and over just to glean all the wisdom! What treasure!Now I know why I feel swoony in fabric stores: I’ve been trying to shop for one project and one pattern at a time! I need to release the wanton inside and buy everything gorgeous. Hmmmm. I just remembered several yards of gorgeous heavy white silk with slubs in it. I bought it for a wedding dress and then ended up wearing my mother’s (hand sewn)dress. But that was $90 worth of silk, a fortune for a penniless college student. And even though I have never had a serious idea of what to do with it since the wedding dress plan, it has moved with me everywhere since then and I know exactly which storage box it’s in right now. So perhaps Fabric Addiction is in my blood already.Thanks, Erin, for a superb treatise!

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  16. I laughed out loud through the whole thing, and am now TOTALLY inspired for my upcoming trip to (hooray!) Japan.Thanks for a great post.

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  17. How true it is that if you tell yourself you have a limit and won’t be buying more–the impulse to want more will only be strengthened. If you know that you can buy more whenever you want to or need it…money will be spent for what you really want. Doesn’t the same thing apply to dieting or other areas of consumption?!

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  18. I have decided that, from now on, I will base my life on your teachings. I’m traveling tomorrow and will get to implement #9 right away! You know what else all that extra fabric is good for? It’s good for packing items when you move. And when you UNpack, you get to relive all those fabric purchases!

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  19. A use for 1 yard of fabric: take your favorite color of fleece vest, maybe one which is beginning to look a little old. Choose a fabric which goes with all the clothes you like to wear with that vest. Line the vest so it can be worn inside out. (I like batik fabrics for this, but then I like them for everything. But the tight weave adds a wind resistant layer.) Don’t forget pockets. A bit of leftover flannel is good for pockets between the layers. Well, yes, if you insist upon doing it right, you could change the zipper. I just figure if it’s difficult and I’m desperate to zip it up, I can reverse it.MinaW

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  20. 69 comments and counting!!! Yikes! Let me just say that I agree with all of the above EXCEPT that you can make wonderful hats out of 1 yard pieces. If you do fabric collage you can use even scraps. I tell my students once you start millinery you can’t throw anything away.I gave away/sold/donated an entire studio full of fabrics when I moved here to Switzerland thinking ‘I’m moving to Switzerland where Swiss cottons are famous and there is a textile museum in my town’ ONLY to find out that there are only 2 tiny fabric stores in town and denim or cotton is 20 Swiss francs per meter – Alas! We do have wonderful lace outlets tho’ so I am hoarding again.K Q:-)

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  21. With the rules in mind yesterday on our ‘date’ hubby and I entered a fabric store. I wanted fabric for some clothes (following the rules of course) he wanted fabric for curtains for our new house (he also followed the rules). Almost $500 later we left the store–but were very happy to have found the exact fabric we both liked for the window treatments (you can’t call them curtains when you spend that much on the fabric) and I should have a couple of skirts and a top. I know it was more expensive to buy ‘extra’ than the just enough on the window fabric, but what if I ran out in the middle of a glorious valance–horrors!

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  22. Mmmmm, stash. I put myself on a moratorium until March 1, with fabric only to complete current projects until May 1. I actually made the March 1, but then *had* to buy some yello silk satin brocade online. It is for a skirt that will match a blouse I plan to make, so maybe technically it is tangentially related to a current project? At any rate, I was relieved to hear that internet purchases don’t count!

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  23. A time and a season for everything, Lydia. There is room in the world for both the Moroccan Burnoose and the Kinsale Cloak. There are those of us who don’t particularly mind looking like Little Miss Muffet, and times when an 18th Century-style cloak is more appropriate than an 1860’s style cloak. If you still have your cloak, time to Ebay it! Let it go free (except for the “free” part), and use the money to buy … more fabric!

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  24. Of course, if the fabric is wonderful but too expensive to buy more than a yard, the obvious thing to do is to make me a tie out of it. (^_^)I should probably start making my own, actually. I do know how to sew, I’m just lazy and/or distractable.

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  25. What a wonderful post Erin and reading ALL the responses here just as fun! One of my first real jobs was in a fabric store in the mid to late 70’s and I still have a trunk of hoarded fabric from that time!!

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  26. Francis, if you love fabric, and can sew but are willing to acknowledge that … you’d rather not, why don’t you make arrangements with a seamster/seamstress to swap work with them for stuff you don’t mind doing, but they do? Moving heavy furniture, putting together do-it-yourself shelving, taking the cats to the vet’s, babysitting small children? (As opposed to, say, some of the people in my past, who expected me to sew for them just because they wanted something, without any kind of equitable exchange being offered.)Mojogeno, I. Am. So. Jealous. If I had had your job, I would have thousands of yards of fabric by now, instead of … thousands of yards of fabric.Kate Ohhhhhhh, nooooo! Please tell me that the Swiss franc is worth about $.05, U.S. No, I didn’t think so. I hurt for you. I foresee much buying on line for you. Or mayhap you can do swaps with some of the folks here: lace for stash? Or even folks who are entertaining the idea of selling parts of their stash? Maybe they could let you know, and find out if you wanted to buy?trenab, WHERE? Where did you get your yellow silk brocade???

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  27. I just spent part of the morning at SAS Fabrics in Phoenix. Where fabric is sold by the pound as well as the yard. It’s a remnants warehouse where old inventory goes to die. Unfortunately, the only two pieces I really loved were both under two yards. If you go, remember that it is cash or in-state check only.Andrea

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  28. Thank you so very much for the excellent set of rules! I just came back from the Sewing Expo in Pullyap, WA with an extra suitcase filled with fabric, notions, gadgets, and LOVE! Note, this is in addition to the empty suitcases I allotted myself. So glad to know I was just following the “rules!”

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  29. If it is on sale, buy it. The greater the rebate, the more you may buy.To affirm this principle: On certain occasions, certain truly hideously expensive fashion fabrics may be offered for sale, because they are “no longer fashionable”, or “in season”, or whatever.Two truly enchanting examples:A faux leather embossed with an absolutely lovely floral pattern, which I made into a marvellous skirt. And there are scraps remaining which I may yet make into a handbag.A chamoix-like material embossed with a pailsly-like pattern, which I made into a truly charming suit (jacket + pencil skirt)I would not even have _thought_ of buying these if they had not been _at least_ 50 % off.They were still fairly expensive, but not obscenely so, so I managed to quiet my conscience.

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  30. Great post today Erin love all your rules. You make me laugh so hard. You should have been with me tho Jan, 2006 when I had to smuggle 70 yards of Pendleton Wool on the airplane. Once in my life they did not weight my luggage dh & I were so happy we were over the limit and we bought 2 large empty suitcases with us from Florida. I had the hardest time getting all the fabric in suitcases. I did not relise I bought that much. Then all the Chrismas pressies.The Pendleton wool and us made it all the way back to Florida from Portland, Ore in one piece and no extra charges. Dh and I were so happy.

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  31. Hello – I have read your rules with interest and they all certainly do apply. Yesterday I went to a wholesale fabric store I have just discovered, in the next suburb ( very close by) and the right fabric did in fact, make itself known to me, so much so I went back there today and bought some more.REegards,Tigersspace

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  32. Yeah, okay but what if you didn’t know better and bought 3 yards of lovely raw silk while in China and then realized it is 36″ wide…..is there a conversion of 45″ to 36″ so I might know what I can make out of this fabulous 36″ material…since the patterns don’t usually show a yardage requirement for 36″?

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  33. Have just re-found this post, at a rather good time, having somehow accidentally bought obscene amounts of fabric in Goldhawk Road yesterday… As in, it’s just as well I had my mum’s shopping-bag-on-wheels with me. I rarely buy more than two metres of most things unless I know I’ll be making a dress from them – I am really into 40s styles, so even though I am a size 20/22 I can generally squeeze a slim-skirted dress out of 2m of main fabric with a contrast yoke or something – hurrah for the whole make-do-and-mend thing 😉 I am just too much of a sucker for variety. I can make a pencil skirt with 1m of a nice wide suiting, too, or a nice shall/cap-sleeved blouse from 1m of silk satin or similar.

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  34. Oh, those of you with access to $1/yd fabrics are sooo lucky. I moved to Tasmania (Australia) 3 yrs ago, and even cheesey muslin costs several dollars a meter (yd). But am off to SE Asia to holiday and buy more beautiful fabric. I have, however, finally cut into some of my stash, so now there’s a bit of room for more!Marian from Hobart

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  35. Funny! And true. I linked you on my blog. These are important rules others should know. Thank you for making me laugh!

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  36. Fantastic post – I got here via LiEr’s link and I’m glad she posted, I got a good laugh. My husband is always complaining about my fabric-buying ways…

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  37. I, too, arrived via Lier’s link. I pretty much live by these rules–and apply them to yarn and paper as well. (I have a serious problem!)And when you are out of town, why not just photograph the yellow pages fabric (and yarn and scrapbooking and art supplies) section(s) with your cell phone? Works for maps, too.

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  38. I seem to be makng those anonymous stops more and more. I just add 20 minutes to the time it should take e to get home, and stop in.

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  39. Just here to refresh, what with spring coming and all. 😉 What a great post…And really, just plain good advice (esp. regarding one-way fabrics, because I never, ever know how much to buy of them for anything at all and kind of freak out a little).Also, a story of blessed shopping: Two weeks ago I saw, nearly bought, but left behind a fabric that was greatly liked, but there were only about 4 yards, and yes, it’s one-way. But it never really slipped my mind…While in the store trying to find curtain trim today, I took a look.It was STILL THERE! Every inch, Erin! And on sale to boot! Miracle, I tell you. Miracle!

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