Guide to Buying Fabric Online

Meredith holds a stack of twill, corduroy and woven cotton fabric in front of her check while wearing a flannel hinterland dress

As you might guess, we’re pretty big fabric lovers around here, and we’re betting you are too. But there is a lot of fabric out there! It can be hard to know what to choose, where to find it, and what best suits which project. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

We recommend shopping in person, at your local fabric store

If you are lucky enough to have a local fabric shop that caters to garment sewing, you have just hit the fabric jackpot! You’ll find knowledgeable staff people, ready to play matchmaker for fabric and pattern. 

A caveat – sometimes big box fabric stores employ staff who are not very knowledgeable about garment sewing.  Sometimes you’ll find a gem of an employee, but this is not par for the course. In general, we recommend patronizing smaller fabric shops for the best quality fabric AND service.

But we know shopping in person isn’t always possible, for a variety of reasons. (Toddlers? Living in the boondocks? Short on time? Mobility challenges? Only have a big box fabric store? All very understandable reasons to shop for fabric online!) 

Buying online opens up a lot of possibilities, but also comes with a particular set of challenges

When you can’t touch a fabric in person, it can feel risky to order yardage. When there are so many sites out there, how do you know what to choose? 

Having a few tried and true substrates to guide your purchases can help.

A substrate is the type of fabric being used. This refers to not only the fiber content, but also the type of weave and the weight of the fabric. We’ve listed a few of our favorite fabric substrates below. 

Order swatches or ⅛ yard cuts. The first time you go on a new fabric site, check and see if you can order a few swatches. Some sites will offer this option, and whenever you order yardage, it can be a good idea to add a few swatches of fabrics you want to try as well. If the site does not offer a swatch service, go ahead and order ⅛ yard cuts of the fabrics you are interested in. The cost is generally pretty low, and you can use this fabric later in quilts or other projects, so it won’t go to waste. By ordering swatches or small cuts, you can make sure you like the color and feel of a fabric before committing to purchasing a project’s worth.

Our Favorite Wovens

Although we recommend a stable quilting cotton print for your first few projects (having a clear right and wrong side will save you so much head scratching as you’re first starting!) we have some substrate workhorses that will always serve you well in your sewing:

A pile of folded fabric is stacked on a dusty pink upholstered chair, next to a basket of yarn.

Our Favorite Knits 

  • Cotton Jersey/Organic Jersey: Jersey knits are a great workhorse fabric. Stretchy but stable, and easy for those new to sewing knits, jerseys make great tee shirts, bodysuits and leggings. We particularly love organic jersey for its softness. We recommend it for: Stasia Dress and Tee
  • Cotton Interlock/Organic Interlock: Interlock is a double knit, making it just a bit thicker and a bit less stretchy than jersey. Interlock is a great choice for tunics, dresses, sweatshirts or joggers. We recommend it for: the knit view of our Arenite Pants, as well as the Nest Sweatshirt
  • French Terry: French Terry is a thicker knit with a looped texture on the inside. It is very cozy to wear and fun to sew. We recommend it for: the knit Arenite Pants
  • Sweatshirt Fleece: Most sweatshirts you find in the store are made from sweatshirt fleece. It is a smooth knit on the outside with a cozy, fleece inside. A bit trickier to sew due to its relative thickness compared to jersey and interlock, it makes great loungey basics. 
  • Bamboo Jersey: Bamboo jersey is a blend of cotton and bamboo fibers to make a very drapey, soft jersey. You might find it more slippery to sew than a standard cotton jersey, but the results are well worth it. We recommend it for: Talam Jumpsuit, Stasia Dress 

You’ll also want to purchase some muslin

Fabric for sampling is so important, and helps you refine your fit and sewing techniques before you cut into your precious new fabric. You can use the search term “muslin” to buy a really basic cotton fabric that is not meant for making finished garments, but really shines as a sample making fabric. If you’re sewing with knits, try to find a fabric similar to your final fabric in hand and stretch percentage, but it doesn’t have to match in fiber content or color. 

These substrates are just a starting point, and eventually you will likely want to venture past them. The more you sew and use different fabrics, the more comfortable you will begin to feel trying new ones. Be sure to prewash your fabric as you would the finished garment. This will allow any fabric shrinking to happen beforehand, rather than after you’ve sewn an entire piece. 

When buying new (to you) fabric online there are a few things to look for. The first is the weight of the fabric. This might be listed in ounces or by description, i.e bottom weight. Many sites will also list the opacity. They’ll tell you if a fabric is a little translucent and thus more suitable for tops vs. dresses or bottoms. Be sure to look for the fiber content. This is where you can find if a fabric is natural or synthetic, a blend or one fiber. All of these factors affect drape and feel. And with knits, see if there is a listed stretch percentage listed. Most knit patterns will list an ideal stretch percentage, use that as your guide when buying online. A good online fabric store should list all of this information in the description of the fabric. Be wary of vague sites. 

You can also find cuts of these fabrics on places like Etsy, or in maker swaps. 

As with most aspects of making, when looking for fabric take it slow.

Meg holding a stack of fabric in an oustretched arm.

The choices may seem overwhelming, but you probably know yourself better than you think, and deep down may have a sense of what you want. Go one project at a time, especially when you first begin sewing. Write down a few words to describe what you are looking for, like “woven, stable, bright, beginner friendly” or “knit, drapey, earth toned, natural fiber,” and use those to guide your search. Always look on the back of your pattern envelope for the recommended fabrics as a jumping off point. You can even search a pattern’s hashtags to see what other makers used for inspiration. As you sew, think about what you like or don’t like about the fabric, and keep that in mind when you look for your next project. Having a notebook by your sewing machine or computer, where you can keep these notes and maybe add some swatches is really helpful! Or adding a section in your bullet journal is another way to keep your fabric experiences noted for the future. The more you sew, the more you will learn about fabric, and about your personal preferences. Everyone is a little different. Try not to feel too much pressure to follow the trends, and instead stay true to yourself. Not every fabric and make will turn out exactly as you hoped, but each one will help you learn and grow as a sewist. 

-Meg, Judith, and Meredith

Further reading for the fabric obsessed

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  1. Yes, but where? I would love links, to each fabric used. The pajama outfit in brown print is gorgeous.

    1. Hi Sayra,
      Some of the fabric shown is from our stashes, and some from local stores. We didn’t put links because everyone’s access point and preferences are different, and we intended this as a general guide applicable no matter where you shop. Some places we go to online are Stone Mountain and Daughter, Ewe Fibers, Blackbird, and I See Fabric. Closet Core has a fairly exhaustive list on online stores here, https://blog.closetcorepatterns.com/the-ultimate-list-of-online-fabric-stores/

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