Must it Be Cotton?

(From Chapter Four of The Quilter's Catalog - Fabulous Fabric and Where to Find It, p. 232-233)



Cotton is king (or should that be queen?) with quilters, and for very good reasons. Good quality cotton is colorfast, wears well, feels soft, and is easy to sew, both by hand and by machine. Cotton has give to it but isn't so stretchy that you can't keep your quilt looking crisp and straight edged.

Beginning quilters should definitely start by purchasing only fabric that is 100 percent cotton. But things are a tad more complicated than that. Consider that the following can all be cotton fabrics (and this is only a partial list): denim, terry cloth, percale, chintz, broadcloth, damask, jacquard, chenille, flannel, corduroy, velvet, and velour. Most of these fabrics have been used in quilts at one time or another. Denim quilts have been trendy, and velvet is considered a staple in any crazy quilt, whether made in the Victorian era or today.

Irwin Bear, the longtime head of P&B Textiles, which is based near San Francisco, says there are several factors that make different cotton fabrics unique, including how tightly they are woven. Many fabric companies in the quilt market use cotton that is 60 by 60 or 68 by 68, meaning that many threads per inch going both crosswise and lengthwise.

P&B often chooses cotton that measures 75 by 75, which produces a lighter, higher quality fabric, says Bear. (Flannel, in contrast, is often a 42 by 44 weave, and the cotton's surface is literally scratched to produce the nap.)

The tricky part for quilters is to combine vastly different types of cotton in the same quilt. Generally these fabrics are categorized by weight, and it can be difficult to sew together a standard quilt cotton with something heavy, like denim. Also, some types of cotton, like terry cloth, are rather stretchy. This isn't to say any of these are forbidden to quilters. On the contrary, you can mix and match to your heart's content, but understand that, if you plan on machine quilting, some of these heavier, thicker fabrics won't move easily through your sewing machine.

Also, you will want to achieve a balance in your quilt not just of color and design but also in the weight of the fabric. You wouldn't want to make a heavy denim quilt for a newborn, nor would you want to create a crazy quilt that bunched all the heavier fabrics on one side. When opting to use a weight of cotton other than standard quilter's cotton, for example flannel, one solution is to use only that type of cotton in the quilt. Flannel quilts are extremely popular, and fabric stores have seen a veritable explosion in recent years of attractive flannels. While flannels used to be mostly plaids and featured dark woodsy colors, you can now find flannel fabric in wild, bright colors and a wide range of patterns.

In addition, there are some noncotton fabrics that are increasingly finding favor with quilters, including silk. A luxury fabric, silk is standard for crazy quilts, but art quilters also love its exotic texture and shimmer and use it almost as often as cotton in wall hangings.

Those pioneering art quilters love taffeta, organza, and tulle, too, and experiment with virtually every type of textile (and many nonfabric components) in their work. Why should they have all the fun? Try lots of different fabrics in your quilts, but think about how the quilt will be used. Remember that if your loved ones are actually going to sleep under the quilt, comfort and durability matter.

The Quilter's Catalog by Meg Cox

This amazing 600-page resource is the Bee-All and End-All, jam-packed with information, supplies, expert interviews, techniques, community, and inspiration.

If you enjoyed this excerpt and would like to read more, you can purchase Meg's book at your local quilt shop, favorite online store or at

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