Thursday, June 7, 2012

Guest Post: Why Does Some Fabric Cost So Much?

Have you ever wondered why some fabrics in the quilt shops are so pricey when you can pick up others at Wal-Mart on the cheap? 
Well, today we have our very first guest post here on ASG in the SLC, and Maude Medlin-Brown, a member of the ASG Tucson Chapter is posting an amazing article explaining exactly why that is.
Join us in welcoming Maude to ASG in the SLC,
oh, this is gonna be good...

Why Does Some Fabric Cost So Much? 
or Processes Defined 

What makes the difference between big chain store fabric and quilt store fabric is the Greige Goods and what happens to it? (That's pronounced "gray goods".) Greige Goods is the unfinished fabric that has just been removed from a knitting machine or loom. It does not have any bleach, dye or finishing processes on it. After it is woven, fabric goes through a number of processes. 

  • Scouring: A chemical wash that removes impurities (like seed fragments) and the natural wax found in cotton. This leaves even the finest cotton fibers with a yellow hue. 
  • Bleaching: If a fabric is going to be dyed or printed with dark colors, only minimal bleaching is necessary. If a fabric is going to be white or a light color, much more bleaching is required. 
  • Mercerising: A treatment where a caustic soda solution is applied to the fibers causing them to swell. This allows the fabric to take the dye better and makes it feel nicer. 
  • Singeing: A process that burns off the surface fibers from fabric to produce smoothness. 
  • Raising: In some fabrics, this is a technique that pulls fibers up off of the surfaces to create a "hairy" feeling such as in flannelette. 
  • Calendering: A mechanical process where fabric is passed between heated rollers to generate different effects on the fabric (i.e. smooth versus embossed). 
  • Shrinking: Pre-shrinking the fabric at this stage means there will be very little shrinking after laundering once the fabric is used in a garment or quilt. 
  • Dyeing: Cotton is very absorbent so dyeing is a popular technique. To make sure the color stays colorfast, more complex chemistry is used during the processing and that makes the fabric more expensive. To keep costs down, a cheaper dye (which may not be colorfast) could be used. 
  • Printing: Printing a design on fabric may be done over the dye or it may be applied directly to the white fabric. The paste or ink used also must go through colorfast procedures. 
  • Finishing: Many fabrics have coatings on them to make them feel stronger or softer and to make the colors appear brighter. These finishings often include formaldehyde  which helps to preserve the cloth and keep bugs out during the storing/shipping/selling process. 

What happens with big chain stores and other companies that purchase in very large quantities is that they order the fabric without some of the finishing processes. That makes the fabric feel more coarse when you touch it. That also allows them to sell for less than the small quilt stores. The reason you spend so much more in a quilt store is that they are buying the better quality fabric (the fabric that has been through more of the processing). 

Now having said all of that, it really comes down to what you want to do with the fabric. If you want to make an heirloom quilt that will last for decades, you probably want to seek out the best quality fabric for both durability and softness of touch. 

If you are making garments, how the fabric feels is truly important. If you are making something you want to last (i.e. a baby garment that you plan to keep as a memento) then you might want to go for a better quality fabric. If you are whipping up a summer dress for your granddaughter that she will outgrow by the end of the season, then go for the less expensive and lower quality fabric. 
If you are making craft items, then I definitely would look at the big chain stores. Just be sure to test the fabric for color-fastness. Also, sew a test seam and then put a little stress on it to be sure that the fabric is going to hold up to whatever craft you are making. There would be no need to spend a lot extra to make a stuffed toy! 

The bottom line is - YOU have to decide what you can afford. The price of raw cotton has really jumped recently so even the low end big chain store fabric is going to be more expensive than it has been. 

This should give you some idea of why the Debbie Mumm® fabric you see at the quilt store may be three or four dollars (or more) higher than the Debbie Mumm® fabric at the big chain fabric store. The designer is the same but the processing isn't, allowing the big chain fabric store to sell their fabric for less. 

Maude Medlin-Brown, a member of the ASG Tucson Chapter since 1978 and Editor of their newsletter, the Cactus Needle News, since 2010. 
"My mother taught me how to sew by hand around age six. Then I graduated to the Singer treadle sewing machine and was making all my own clothes by age 13. How to conserve fabric during pattern layout was one of the valuable lessons my mother taught. However her methods caused me problems in high school when my Home Economics teacher did not agree with my cutting layouts! Another valuable lesson I learned was how to restyle clothes from two older sisters for my own wardrobe. This came in really handy for prom dresses, but of course the real challenge was the bust size reduction required for the proper fit!"
"A Kenmore sewing machine was a great high school graduation gift and saw many years of use. One of the first Baby Lock sergers and lessons from Stretch & Sew were highlights of my 20’s. A class in pattern drafting in the late 1980’s was the next big step in clothing construction for me. Tackling three successive Viking embroidery machines plus aHuskylock 936 serger evolved my sewing skills even further."
"After retiring in 2007 from my engineering job, I fill my time with making clothing, purses, decorator items, jazzing up purchased items with embroidery, crocheting and making gifts for others. Also attending two Neighborhood Groups and all the great ASG Chapter events we hold. Plus I also like to read and enjoy traveling world wide with my husband."

18 inch doll clothes made by Maude

matching doll and dress made by Maude

Thanks so much for posting here today and sharing your expertise with all our readers, I guess when it comes to fabric - you really do get what you pay for!
Don't forget to check out the ASG Tucson Chapter (Neighborhood Group information, photos, their newsletters, information on future events and local Retail Discounts) 

Tell us! What's the most you've ever spent on a piece of fabric?

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