Understanding Cotton Fabric for Quilting

Although not the only fabric used in quilting, cotton has become the most popular choice of fabric when it comes to making quilts. Cotton is a natural fabric, along with linen and ramie (vegetable fibers made from thread spun with fibers from the cotton, flax or ramie plant). Silk and wool are natural animal fibers, from the pelt of sheep, goats, llama or camels in the case of wool and from the strands of the cocoon of the silkworm.Cotton_Boll
Man-made fabrics can be manufactured from natural fibers, as in the case of rayon and acetate, made from cellulose, a tree byproduct. Rayon was developed in the late nineteenth century in an attempt to create a fabric with the look and feel of silk, but at a cheaper price. Synthetic man-made fibers were developed at the beginning of the twentieth century and are produced from petroleum-based byproducts. Nylon, acrylic and polyester were developed during the middle of the twentieth century and they became popular for clothing and home decorating because they are resilient, cheap to produce and easy to wash and dry.

Cotton: From boll to fabric

Cotton is made from the fibers of the cotton plant’s seed. The cotton seed is encased in a ball of fibers, called “boll”. These fibers are used to spin thread from which the cotton fabric is woven. Although cotton fabric has been used since prehistoric times, separating the seeds from the protective ball of fibers was a lengthy process only achieved by hand, until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney. The quality of the fabric depends on the Ginplantquality of the thread, which in turn depends on the quality of the cotton fibers. The longer the “staple” (the length of the cotton fibers), the better the quality of the finished fabric. The length of the fibers varies between 1 1/8 inches and 2 ½ inches. The long staple varieties of cotton are used to manufacture Egyptian, Pyma and Sea Island cottons. Longer staple cotton makes thread that is stronger and softer.
After cotton thread is spun, it is woven into fabric. This fabric, before being bleached and printed is called “greige goods”. Greige goods for good quality quilting cotton should have at least 60 threads per inch. Higher thread count produces higher quality fabric, though it must be pointed out that there is a limit of threads per inch when it comes greige-1to cotton quilting fabric. Too many threads per inch make the fabric hard to needle, that is, hard for a needle to pierce the fabric. Cotton fabrics like chino, broadcloth or sheeting have too many threads per inch and are not suitable for making quilts. Batik fabrics, a traditional cotton fabric from the Far East that have become very popular as quilting cotton during the latter part of the twentieth century have a high thread count as well, but it is soft enough to use in quilts. On the other hand, if the thread count is under 60 it makes the cotton fabric flimsy, it breaks easily and it allows the fibers from the batting to beard through. Greige goods become cotton quilting fabric once they are bleached and dyed or printed and gone through chemical processes to make it suitable for quilting or clothing manufacture.

There are many types of cotton fabric, depending on the way the cotton threads are woven on the loom, their thickness or their nap. Most often used for quilting are calico, a plain woven cotton fabric printed with small motifs, gingham, checkered fabric with the checks woven, not printed. Also chintz, a glossy cotton fabric that achieves its gloss through the application of heat or chemicals, usually printed with large motifs, flannels, a warm cotton fabric, plain woven with a soft nap. Muslin is a more loosely woven cotton fabric that is suitable for backings or backgrounds. Cotton knits, such as the ones used for t-shirts and other garments can be used for quilting, provided they are stabilized because of their stretchy quality.

What is good quality cotton quilting fabric?

So, how does one choose a good quality cotton fabric for quilting? What factors affect the price of the fabric? Is it better to buy cotton fabric at a discount store or a quilt shop? It really doesn’t matter where you buy it, it’s all about being able to select the best quality cotton fabric for your money.bolts
The first consideration is the thread count. Cotton fabric bolts do not mention the thread count. But one can get an idea of the count by simply holding the cotton fabric to the light. If one can see through the fabric easily, it might be too loosely woven. Does it fray easily? Fraying is also an indication of poor quality fabric. Cotton fabrics made with a thread count between 68 and 75 threads per inch are perfect for quilt making. Check the back of the fabric. Are the fabric cotton threads straight? Most cotton quilting fabric has a plain weave, with threads running up and down (north to south) and left and right, at a straight angle. Cotton fabric of good quality is “square”, the threads have a true ninety degree angle. Good quality fabric shrinks less, because there is less space between the fabric threads.
Also check for the excessive application of chemicals, such as sizing. Sizing can be used to improve the look of cheaper cotton quilting fabric, to give it more body. A strong chemical odor might indicate a cheaper quilting fabric, because it has been treated. Also, rub the fabric between your fingers and look for flaking. Sizing and starches flake off.
Also, better quality cotton fabric uses better dyes and printing processes, therefore, it bleeds less when it is washed. Printed cotton fabric will be printed true to the grain of the fabric (of importance when the fabric has a directional print).

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