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. Still laughing and feeling Im not alone after reading this in Jan 2010!Unfortunately at my house this rule is also included:Never throw away scraps no matter how small. I am making a braided rag rug from the pieces I tear off to even out the fabric before I cut the pattern. AND I still have pieces of fabric from my 8th grade home economics class. (circa 1968)


  2. oh, i found it very good rules, i’m in Guangzhou China. If you want to buy fabric, you can contact me. I can show you the biggest fabric market in he world.0086-13570292264


  3. The most ironic thing about this post is that I HAVE actually had the thought that “Someday I will make the Kinsale Cloak.”

    The rules, of course, are all true.


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