Beginner's Guide to Fabrics for Quilting

Beginner’s Guide to Fabric for Quilting

Bolts of fabric in a store
Bolts of fabric in a quilt store on wooden shelves

If you are new to quilting and go to a fabric store or quilt shop you’ll see that they have lots and lots of fabrics. They come in many colors, prints and types. This could be overwhelming when trying to choose a fabric for your project.

You might be wondering…Is one type of fabric better than another for quilting or can you just use anything? Does the quality of fabric used matter when quilting? What fabric traits or fabrics should you stay away from when making your first few quilts? Is fabric for quilting expensive?

In this blog, I hope to give you a few guidelines on choosing a fabric for your first forays into quilting. Also by the end of this blog I hope you’ll have a clearer understanding of some key elements about fabrics in general and how to judge a fabric’s quality. With this information at hand, I hope it will be easier for you to choose and get the best fabric for your quilt project.

What Is the Most Commonly Used Fabric for Quilting?

There is no rule that says you can't have a fabric you like in a quilt. Some quilter’s have used denim, silk, linen, velour, etc. in their quilts. But, the most common fabric used for quilting is quilter’s cotton. The second most popular is 100% cotton fabric.

Quilter’s cotton is most easily found in quilt shops whether physical or online. The fabric there will be of a higher quality than the fabric you’ll find in retail chain stores. But…you can also find good 100% cotton fabric in those stores and it’ll be less expensive than the quilter’s cotton.

So, for your first few or maybe for many of your quilts, you may choose to purchase good cotton fabric from a chain store such as JoAnn’s Fabric or Hobby Lobby. Why? Well, when we are learning a new craft such as quilting, we won’t be experts right away. This means we’ll make a fair share of mistakes (at least I did…) and those mistakes are a lot less stressful when we spend $4-8/yard for fabric than $12+/yard of fabric.

Once you have been piecing quilts for a while, you’ll find that choosing quilt fabrics is easier in a quilt store, where there are many quilting cottons in a variety of solids and prints available. These fabrics will cost more…about double what you would pay in JoAnn’s and even more if you buy one of the trendy lines curated by a designer.

Fabric Types Found in Retail Chain Stores

In a fabric store there are many different types of fabric. Some are specialty fabrics that are used for things like curtains (think sheer fabrics) or wedding dresses (think lace or satin). Then there is clothing fabric (denim, linen, stretch cotton or blends). You even have fabrics for the outdoors that are heavy and water resistant.

These fabrics can be used in quilting but are better left to a more experienced quilter as they react differently than a 100% simple weave cotton...more about weave soon. In addition to weave, other reasons these other fabrics are more challenging for a beginning quilter to use is their weight, structure, stretch and even fiber content which could lead to issues when a final quilt is washed.

So…if the recommendation is to stick with 100% cotton with a simple weave that should be easy to do right? Well, maybe not totally. You may find the following cotton fabric sections in a store:

Cotton Fabrics in Retail Chain Store that are Good for Quilting
    • Keepsake Calico Cotton
    • Novelty Cotton Prints
    • Licensed Cotton
    • Holiday Cotton
    • Quilter’s Showcase Cotton
    • Woven Specialty Cotton
    • Cotton Canvas
    • Cotton Prints
    • Flannel Cotton
    • Batik Cotton

Not all of the above “cottons” are what we are looking for for quilting. Cotton Canvas is a fabric more suited to making tote bags or pillowcases for your outdoor furniture. Woven Specialty Cotton is just that, fabric used for special purposes such as eyelet, gauze or seesucker which is more appropriate for clothing. The rest of the list above is where you are going to find the fabrics you want to choose from for your quilt. But to decide between them…we first need to talk about weave.

Cotton Canvas - Cotton Plain Weave
Woven Specialty Cotton Fabrics - Eyelet, Gauze, Searsucker

What is Weave and Most Importantly, Simple Weave?

A fabric’s weave is made of “warp” threads and “weft” threads. The warp threads are those that run vertically in a fabric. The weft threads are the ones that run horizontally.

It’s important to know that there are different types of weaves…plain, twill and satin. Huh? Stay with me here as I explain.

A plain weave is one where the warp and weft are woven together in a criss-cross pattern. It can have one or more threads in the warp or weft but it is always a criss-cross pattern. A simple weave, which is found in quilter’s cotton or the cotton fabrics we are looking for when making a quilt has one warp and one weft thread woven together like in the picture below.

Drawing of simple Fabric Weave

A twill weave is one where there is a special diagonal weave pattern. Twill will often have a weave that is two or three threads up or down vs. the one up and one down found in a plain weave. This type of weaving doesn’t work well in quilting because of this diagonal and uneven patterning. See picture below for an example of a twill weave. You’ve probably seen this type of weave in fabric used on couches or ottomans.

Diagram of Twill Weave in Fabric

A satin weave is where the weft (horizontal) thread floats over several warp threads before going under one warp thread. This pattern is repeated. The threads used are very fine and the resulting fabric is thin and fragile…qualities that don’t lend themselves that well to quilting.

Diagram of Satin Weave in Fabric

Quilter’s Cotton vs. Regular Simple Weave Cotton

The reason that quilter’s cotton is the most common fabric used in quilting is that it is a better quality fabric. It is made of higher quality materials using higher quality techniques. The result is a mid-weight, simple weave fabric that holds its shape. It also holds its color better, so less potential for bleeding and it shrinks less, can be more vibrant, have more intricate designs and feel smoother than cheaper fabric.

Fabric organized in a quilt shop

You’ll find quilter’s cotton in brick & mortar and online quilt shops as they pride themselves on offering top quality products, especially fabrics. In these same shops you’ll also find “designer” fabric lines. They are also quilter’s cotton but the difference is that they were designed by the designer or in the case of pre-cuts (think… Jelly Rolls or Fat Quarter Bundles as examples) were curated by the designer. Designer fabrics and pre-cuts are even more expensive…well, they are designer.


So wait! What about those fabrics in the retail chain stores that were in the list above? You know…the ones I said you could consider? For reference here is the list of the ones we are talking about:

  • Keepsake Calico Cotton
  • Novelty Cotton Prints
  • Licensed Cotton
  • Holiday Cotton
  • Quilter’s Showcase Cotton
  • Cotton Prints
  • Flannel Cotton
  • Batik Cotton


How do you tell the difference between their quality and that of quilter’s cotton or even just against each other so you can pick the best of those for your project? Good questions as these are less expensive options and what I recommend when making your first few quilts. Or many.

To figure this out, you’ll want to check the weave and there are two ways to do this…

Since you know that quilter’s cotton is the higher standard material, you could purchase a small piece and carry the swatch of high quality quilting cotton with you when you shop at the retail chain store. You’ll then be comparing the evenness and tightness of the weave in your swatch to a fabric you are looking at in the chain store.




You can check the weave as you want it to be tight with a decent thread count similar to what you would find in quilting cottons. A quick way to check the weave is to hold the cotton fabric up to light and look at it. For best results, the weave should be nice and tight without a lot of light coming through. If the weave is too loose then the fabric will be harder to work with as it will have a tendency to stretch and pull out of shape as you cut. You can also get more fraying.


If you are wondering what I mean, see the below fabric comparisons of a novelty 100% cotton fabric next to quilter’s 100% cotton. In the first shot, they are lying down so you can see the patterns on them clearly. The next picture is of the same fabrics held up to light coming through a window. See how the light passes through the 100% cotton cat print much more than the quilter’s cotton making the cats not quite so black? That’s because the regular 100% cotton has a looser weave and is of lesser quality.

Regular 100% Cotton fabric next to Quilter’s 100% Cotton fabric lying down
Regular 100% Cotton fabric next to Quilter’s 100% Cotton fabric held up to light

Just to be clear, I’m not saying not to use the regular cotton, but if you find one that has a very loose weave, just be aware how it might react when cutting and sewing. Just so you know, I did use this novelty 100% cotton cat print fabric with some quilter’s 100% cotton fabrics to make a quilt. And to this day, it’s one of my favorite quilts.

Picture of Cat Quilt using both regular 100% cotton fabric and quilter’s 100% cotton fabric

And if you are wondering what a much looser weave might look like, for your reference here is a picture of linen fabric. See how you can easily see the holes in the loose weave? It’s even easy to see without needing to hold the fabric up to light.

Picture of beige linen fabric

Flannel and Batik Fabrics Cautions

Flannels in 100% cotton are also used for quilting. Sometimes they are only used for the back of a quilt and sometimes they are used for both the back and the front and even as batting! Flannel is a heavier fabric so keep that in mind as you may need to make adjustments to your sewing settings when quilting. I personally like to use 100% cotton flannel for backing some of my quilts to give them that extra “soft against your skin” feel and for the added warmth of the flannel itself.

Below is a picture of a quilt I made as a gift for my best friend. The front is a lovely leopard panel and the back is a cozy 100% cotton flannel. This quilt is great for Spring and Fall when the temperatures are cool but not so cold. It’s perfect for snuggling under on the couch with a good book and cup of tea.

Leopard Panel Quilt Front
Yellow 100% cotton flannel used on back of leopard quilt

Batik’s are a different story. They are a tighter weave and heavier fabric. When working with them, you may not want to mix them with quilter’s cotton or the other cotton fabrics for that reason. You could do an all batik quilt or wait until you’ve honed your craft some before you do any mixing.

But Wait…What About Bedding Fabric? It Can Be Cotton!

Some people use bedding cotton for quilting but I don’t recommend it and neither do many long arm quilters.

Why not use bedding cotton? Sure, you can find large cotton bed sheets for good prices but the thread count is really high if you are getting quality and therefore the weave is very, very tight. This makes it difficult for a sewing machine needle to punch through all of the layers. Just think of the wear and tear on the needle and on the fabric (sometimes even holes)! Plus, many times, bedding is not made of a simple weave like the one pictured earlier and many bedding sheets are not made of 100% cotton.

A Pile of bed sheets in two colors

Special Mention: Wool Fabric

Fabric made from 100% Wool (and I don’t mean those in-expensive wool craft sheets which are not woven fabric) is often used for hand applique. You’ll easily recognize quilts, wall hangings or decorations made with 100% wool fabric when you see them. Wool applique is a fun type of quilting to try and it gives you an opportunity to learn hand stitching, a few embellishment techniques and fancy hand stitches. This is the next quilting technique I’m going to be learning.

Flower and Branch Wool Applique

In Closing - Other Fabrics

As you become a more advanced quilter it is good to know that you can also make quilts from t-shirts, jeans, and so much more. Have fun experimenting. Just remember if you mix fabrics of different fiber contents, they may do strange things when they are washed in the final product which may give results you don’t want. That is why I prefer to use quilter’s or regular 100% cotton fabrics for my quilts and suggest beginning quilters do the same. But, if your quilt is only meant as a wall hanging that will never be washed or only spot cleaned, mixing fabrics may be just the thing you want to do.

Join our Sewing Club!

Save 10% on your first order

Be the first to know about our tutorials, weekly deals and so much more!

Value is required
Thank you!

There is more to choosing quilting fabric than just fabric types. Check out the blog: Beginning Quilting: Choosing Colors and Prints! You’ll learn about color theory, matching fabrics and prints, color values and so much more.


If you are looking for more insights on quilting in general, be sure to check out the Madam Sew Beginning with Quilting Guide where you will find a wealth of information, tips and tricks on all the different aspects of this beautiful craft.


Let us know what fabrics you like to use when quilting and any cautionary stories our readers would find helpful. Comment here on this blog or share with our Facebook Quilting community!



Happy quilting!


Cathy Jaynes
Product Developer and Quilter

Back to blog


Please sell quilting material. I have alot of your other things

Linda Clinton

Requesting to use the simple weave pattern (copy) in a book for veterans about moral injury. We have them draw themselves as a woven tapestry of dark and light threads. Thank you.

Dr. Pat Pernicano

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.