How to Buy Fabric

How to Buy Fabric

Imagine it’s your first time going to the store to purchase fabric… your nerves are a bundle, and you anxiously wonder what you are supposed to be doing. Why is all of the fabric on these pieces of cardboard? Do I have to buy the whole thing? How do I figure out how much this is going to cost me??? Relax! I’ve got this. Let me walk through what you need to know before you go to the store and start buying fabric for your first (or next) project.  To help give you a better idea of what is going on, I called JoAnn Fabrics to see if I could come in and take some pictures to illustrate this post, and they graciously agreed. (I am not an affiliate of JoAnn’s, just a frequent, happy customer, and wanted to give you a reference point for your future fabric shopping trips!)  I only wish I had written this before we did our first project together!

How to Buy Fabric
JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts is just one of the larger chain stores you can go to get a quality product and find just about all of the supplies you will need to complete any sewing project.



  • Weave:  To form a fabric by interlacing yarn, thread, ect., especially on loom
  • Weft: The crossgrain threads on a loom, over and under other threads (warp) to make cloth
  • Warp:  In weaving, the threads on a loom over and under which other threads (the weft) are passed to make cloth. (This thread determines the manufactured width of a fabric.)  The GRAIN of the fabric.
    “the warp and weft are the basic constituents of all textiles” ( (This thread determines the overall length of a given fabric when it is manufactured.)
  • Selvage: An edge produced during the manufacturing process for fabric that prevents it from unraveling.
  • Nap: Some materials will have a “nap,” which refers to the finish the fabric has.  (Leather, velvet, corduroy, some fleeces, etc. have this.  Cotton typically does not.)  If you run your hand over the fabric, there will be an obvious up and down direction to the finish. This makes your fabric directional, and you should pay attention to this when cutting out pieces for any project.
  • Bias: This is the “line” that is at a forty-five-degree angle to the lengthwise and crosswise grain of the fabric as it is on the bolt. The bias is somewhat stretchy in woven fabric.  A garment that has been cut on the bias will hang differently than a garment that has been cut on the straight or crosswise grain.  Binding for a quilt or other project that has been cut on the bias will be more adaptable to going around curves and corners.

When You Enter the Store

One of the first things you will notice when walking into most fabric stores is a beautiful rainbow of fabric.  However, if you are walking into JoAnn’s the first thing you may notice is the AMAZING smell of cinnamon pine cones as you enter the store.  I was there several days before taking these pictures, and my mom, Trudy, and I were walking through the store and occasionally stopping to get a good whiff of the bag that I was going to bring home.  It is magically relaxing… but I’m getting off topic 🙂  The fabric will be sorted into multiple categories, but types of fabric will vary from store to store.  Quilt shops typically carry cotton fabric as their main stock, maybe having flannels and other special materials that people will use in quilts.  A fabric store will have a larger variety, carrying everything from cotton to satin, stretch materials to upholstery, and lots of other varieties somewhere in between or outside of that scope.

In each section of the fabric store, the materials will be sorted by color, type, and sometimes by collection, season, or designs.  For example, within the cotton section, there is a section of novelty prints (Spiderman, Hello Kitty…), solids (no design, just a solid color), holidays, and sometimes by a designer or material quality.  Some manufacturers produce a higher quality material that is, therefore, more expensive, or they print a line by a certain designer, and typically, those run a little pricier than other.

Reading the Bolt

Most of the time, as I said, these materials are sorted first by fabric content, then by color or other factors.  If you are not sure what type of fabric you are looking at, there is always a label at the end of the bolt of fabric that will tell you what the fabric content is, along with a slew of other information.

On the bolts of materials pictured above, there is a lining fabric for things like lining dresses and jackets.  The pink bolt in the middle is “performance” fabric, meant for stretchy clothes like yoga pants or other exercise clothing.  The bolt of white isn’t exactly a fabric, but a material.  It is an insulating material used for things like the inside of a potholder (to make it heat resistant), or for making a lunch bag.

The bolts pictured below are a standard 100% cotton.  So many of our fabrics today are synthetic (like the ones pictured above), so I hate saying standard cotton.  You could think of t-shirt material when I say cotton, and that’s not what I’m referring to.  Standard cotton is the bulk of any fabric found in a fabric store.  It consists of a very basic weaving pattern, like what you may have done to make a placemat for Thanksgiving as a child, though the threads are fine and tightly woven, unlike one of those placemats 😉  It will generally be pretty smooth, though not slippery, and if it is printed, you may be able to feel the texture of the printing.

How to Buy Fabric
The lower bolt is from a line called “Harvest Prints,” it’s 100% cotton, machine washable, and $9.99 per yard when it is not on sale.

Each bolt of fabric has a label that tells you just about all you need to know about the fabric you are buying.  For instance, in the image above, you can clearly read the label.  The fabric comes from a line called Harvest Prints (it’s a seasonal fabric), and the design is Gold Flowers on Green Met.  The fabric is 43 in. wide, which means that if you cut a yard of fabric, you would have a piece of material that is 43″x 36″ in total.  It is manufactured in China, and is 100% cotton.  Then they tell you to machine wash gentle, in cold water, no chlorine, and tumble dry on a low heat setting, using a cool iron to smooth it out.  Now, to some extent, you can take or leave the washing directions on the fabric, but if you care for the material as the label reads, your fabric will stay in better shape throughout the life of the fabric.  Then there is the barcode, which is what the sales clerk will scan when they cut your material. This bolt started with 8 yards of fabric on it, and the store can use that number to keep track of how much they have left of a specific fabric should a customer want a specific yardage and they aren’t sure if there is enough on the bolt.  The price PER YARD is $9.99.  And the cotton logo is just to say that it truly is cotton, though not all bolts would have that, even if they are cotton.

There is a number listed after the width of the fabric on this bolt, 16205 RN 35055.  This number, I believe, is a dye lot.  When a manufacturer produces a particular fabric design, they will make the material in a batch or a lot.  Each time they make another batch of fabric, they assign a new dye lot number.  Even though the fabric should theoretically be identical, if the machines or people were measuring out the dye multiple times, there can be slight variations in the color from one lot to the next.  When somebody is working on a project that they need precision for matching the fabric, they would take note of the dye lot to make sure that if they ran out of that fabric and needed to get more material, they get it from the same dye lot.  Another reason being that if they needed lots of material and knew exactly how much ahead of time, they might find that a single bolt of fabric is not enough for the project and that they will need more material from another bolt to have enough.  If that is the case, they would check to see if a single dye lot had enough of that particular print BEFORE purchasing so that they didn’t risk running out.

How to Buy Fabric
It can be easy to get carried away and want to buy all of the fabrics in the store! Make sure you are keeping track of cost per yard, what you need for your projects, and that you have enough funds to buy it all 🙂 I’m telling you… this is easily an addiction for a lot of people who sew!

Ordering Cuts of Fabric

While you can purchase an entire bolt of fabric, most of the time, it’s not packaged that way.   (There are sometimes bolts of fabric, wrapped in plastic, that are sold by the bolt for things like quilt backings or making a whole-cloth quilt.)  Fabric is meant to be purchased “by the yard.”  That doesn’t always mean that you need to buy an entire yard, but just that you buy it in increments of a yard, in 1/16ths, 1/8ths, 1/3rds, 1/4ths, and 1/2 yard increments.  Some fabric stores will have a minimum yardage you must buy, like 1-yard minimum, or 1/2 yard, or say that you can only buy it in 1-yard increments, but they will typically have a sign up somewhere in the store, usually by the cutting counter to let you know that.  You don’t order your cuts in inches (though I’m sure they’d understand what you meant if you said 18″).  Part of the reason for this is that as people order varying cuts of fabric from the bolt, eventually you come to the end of the bolt, and they don’t want to be left with really random remnants of fabric.  Most stores will sell the remnants at a discounted price, or they cut the leftovers into pieces like “fat quarters”, which is 1/4th of a yard, but in a square piece rather than a thin, rectangular strip.

With the fabric(s) of your choosing, head to the cutting counter.  You should be able to find it pretty easily.  Just look for the line of women with ridiculously large stacks of bolts of fabric waiting in a line 🙂  But really, at the JoAnn’s by me, there is a large pair of scissors hanging over the cutting area.  Otherwise, you can look for a counter that has a yardstick on it or a rotary mat.

How to Buy Fabric
Built-in yardstick on a cutting counter allows the person working at the counter to give you cuts of fabric based on yardage.

Not all fabric stores will let you cut in increments as small as 1/16th of a yard, but lots will let you do 1/8th or larger.  And if you are looking to match a fabric for a project that is large enough that you cannot bring it to the fabric store to find a match, you can often times get a small sample of fabric cut for free or a small fee to take home with you.

I know it’s not the easiest to see, but below I show how it looks to have 1/4 yard, 1/2 yard, 3/4 yard, and a full yard measured out.  If you click on the pictures, you can see the measurements on the ruler on the table.

It won’t matter if they measure from the left or the right, either way, the process is the same.  In the pictures below, you can see her using the metal guide built into the tabletop to help give a straight cut down the fabric.  If I remember correctly, I ordered 1/3 of a yard of this fabric.  On a standard bolt of fabric like the ones pictured, the fabric on the bolt is folded in half, lengthwise, with right sides facing out, and the material is wound around the bolt, so when you open up your cut of fabric, it will be twice as big as it appears when it is being cut.


You do not always have to buy fabric from a bolt as I said before.  When a fabric store has a small amount of fabric left from a bolt (often anything under 1 yard), they will either cut the fabric up for different purposes and package it, or they will sell it as a whole piece, sometimes at a discount.  I know that the chain fabric stores like JoAnn’s often have their remnants 50% off of the original price of the material.  You won’t always find what you need in these sections, but you never know.  Just like colors and styles change from season to season, year to year in clothing, so they do in fabric stores.  Sometimes a fabric in the remnant bin will be a better match for the project you are working on than anything stocked on the shelves.

While sometimes remnants are cut into “fat quarters,” it is more and more common to find a section of folded fabrics that are exclusively sold as fat quarters, and not by the bolt.  These are great for all kinds of reasons, but if they do not have enough of a particular fabric for you, you may be out of luck.  Stores like Hobby Lobby and Walmart both sell remnants and fat quarters.  And sometimes these stores will sell pre-cuts of 1/2 yard or a yard or more for the sake of projects to save people the trouble of finding help from an employee in the store for help getting fabric cut.


While you are doing your fabric shopping for any given sewing project, always remember to go shopping for any notions or thread while you have your fabric with you.  You will have much better success finding a matching zipper, ribbons, or thread if you have your fabric with you.  These are some of the thread displays that the JoAnn’s by me look like, and in general, that is how they look in most fabric stores.  They want it to be easy for you to find the best match for your project.

When I am searching for a matching or coordinating thread for a project, I will just hold the bolt of fabric up next to the colors and it is easy to pick the best match that way.  For the picture of the dark blue fabric, I chose the blue thread that is third from the top.  In the picture, it may not look like the closest match, but in person it was.  Since we homeschool, I often have to bring the kids along with me if I want to make a trip to the fabric store, which is fun, and sometimes hard.  Think about how badly you want to buy all of the fabrics you love, and then add in how your kids feel about all of the fabrics they love…it’s hard to not spend all of your money!  The youngest in the family always ends up being the one to hold the thread for me 🙂


Well, there you have it.  I think that’s just about everything you need to know to have a successful shopping trip at the fabric store.  Our next Sewing Saturday post will be a table runner, and maybe you’ll need to be making a trip to the fabric store.  Don’t forget your coupons if you have them… check online, and ask any sales associates about sales, coupons, or ways you can get signed up for more savings.  If you are a homeschooling parent, I believe you can get signed up for the teacher’s discount at JoAnn’s, and they have a flyer they send to your home that will advertise sales and have coupons you won’t be able to get in-store or online.  How to Buy Fabric

As always, let us know if you have any questions!  Have you been shopping in a fabric store before?  What is your favorite part?

Love~Danielle and Trudy

Did you miss our other Sewing Saturday posts?  Need to refresh yourself?  Check out the links below.  They are organized by category to help make it easier for you to search through them for the info you may need.

The Basics

Introduction to Sewing: Part 1

Introduction to Sewing: Part 2

Sewing Tools

Your Sewing Machine

Acquiring a Sewing Machine

Getting To Know Your Sewing Machine

Setting Up Your Sewing Machine

Sewing Machine Maintenance and Troubleshooting

Hand Sewing

Sew, A Needle Pulling Thread

Basic Hand Sewing: Part 1

Basic Hand Sewing: Part 2


Throw Pillow Supplies and More Sewing Tools

How to Sew a Pillow


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