Hot! ATSW: Using Quilting Cotton


Sabine writes:

I was wondering about fabric choices for (vintage) dresses.

I see that you pick quite a bit of the "quilting cotton" type fabrics for your MTL series (which I LOVE!). I had been told that those fabrics didn't have such a great drape for (women's) attire, as they are a little (too) stiff. Something I kinda regretted, as there are so many absolutely gorgeous "designer cottons" around now.

But I see that you confidently choose (and buy and use) them, so I wonder what your personal experience with them is? (Also, I've just realized that maybe feedsack fabric kinda resembles quilting cotton, so if that is the case, then they are probably even a logical choice for some vintage dresses?) 

Would you advice them as a preferred fabric for (summer) dresses/skirts/tops or do they indeed behave a little stiff and would rayon or whatever be a better choice?

I also wondered if you could add the type of fabric to the little "fact file" at the top of every finished garment post. That would be extremely helpful! :-)

Thank you!


Thanks, Sabine (and all the others who have asked this same question lately) for your question! Now, before I answer this question, I'll start by saying that I'm incredibly inept when it comes to identifying fabric. I can usually tell the difference between synthetics and natural cloth but then, after that, it's usually just a guessing game. That's the first caveat. The second is that I'm certainly not an expert in what fabric to use. So, I'm sure readers will be able to expand on my answer in the comments.

Okay, now, here's my answer.

I've found that the range of quality of quilting cottons and calico can vary quite significantly. If you visit a fabric store in person that carries a lot of quilting fabric (think big chains), you can touch the fabric and feel the difference because of differences in thread count/weave (I believe). I have found, lately, that the big shops (I shop at Jo-Ann's) are actually starting to carry significant inventories of designer quilting/calicos that have a much nicer drape than the quilting cotton they've carried in the past. 

For the Seven in Seven Challenge, I used quilting/calico fabric for five of the seven dresses. The Macaron, Parfait, Eclair, Crepe and Rooibos were all created with fabric that was billed for "crafts and apparel." The plus side to using this fabric is that it's quite easy to work with. I think beginners should start working with this type of fabric because it's cheap and it doesn't provide any sort of nasty construction issues (other than being a bit too thick when gathering). The only Seven in Seven dress that could have benefited from different fabric was my Rooibos, but that's only because it actually didn't have *enough* body.

As far as prints, go, there isn't any type of fabric that rivals quilting fabric as far as availibility of reproduction patterns. I'd love to see more apparel-weight fabric printed in repro prints, but that doesn't seem to be too popular of a trend right now (I'm sure that will change, given the push toward vintage styles in fashion). For a 1930s housedress, the calico/quilting weight fabric works quite well. If you're trying to recreate more of a bias-cut 1930s dress, you'll be out of luck.

The sort of dresses/garments that I try to avoid using the heavier and less drapey fabrics usually have peplums, flutter sleeves, ruffles and really anything that you can imagine looking quite pretty when a breeze passes by.



Mena Trott

Mena Trott started The Sew Weekly to document her attempt to sew all of her own clothes in 2010. Since then, she's made over 125 outfits and has way more clothes than she needs.


Comments are closed.

  1. Thanks for this affirmation of quilting cotton. I am a huge fan of cotton and go mad over the prints available, but for awhile was worried it was all too ‘stiff’. However I’ve come to realize that one or two good washings can significantly improve the drape of the fabric. In fact I just sewed a dress out of fabric that 6 months ago I feared wasn’t appropriate for apparel and I fortunately proved myself wrong!
    I sometimes wonder if some of my favorite vintage cotton dresses were made with quilting cottons that have softened and aged nicely over time. Just a guess though, I’m pretty much a complete dunderhead about fabric personally. :)

  2. I sure wish that idea about quilting cottons softening with age was true. Even better I wish we could treat the fabric somehow to make it softer (wash 20 times put in ziplock bag and drive over it a few times?) like you would age a piece of furniture. I don’t think its possible though.
    I’m not going to give up looking for the perfect pattern to use quilting cottons though.

  3. i think my biggest beef with using quilting cotton as apparel fabric is that 9 times out of 10, the print looks like it belongs on a quilt. not so much with vintage prints – maybe i’m just used to seeing a dozen people wearing the same alexander henry fabric as a sheath dress so it automatically screams ‘QUILT!!’ to me.

  4. Here’s the bottom line about cotton fabrics – you get what you pay for. The cheaper it is, the cheaper the base fabric (we used to call them ‘grey goods’). That fabric is treated with all kinds of stuff, depending on the final desired result. Years ago women wanted perma press so the fibers were inundated with formaldehyde. It worked but had some repercussions. Yummy… If you buy a fabric today and it’s stiff then wash it a few times. Most finishes ‘should’ wash out in time. Anything from the finishes to the inks or dyes can make it stiffen.
    I got to the point where I can feel or smell the fabric and tell you what it is, most of the time : ) Some names like ‘rayon’ can mean whatever junk the manufacturer decided to throw on a loom. That whole acetate boom in the 90’s that gave us those vivid golds and teals and fuschias resulted in a huge supply of fabrics that once washed or cleaned, looked like rags. Not to mention the skin rashes and colored limbs when the excess dye rubbed off on our skin.
    I LOVE nice cottons, and stores like JoAnn have some good stuff but most of their ‘quilting wall’ is pretty junky. Shop by feel – if it feels good off the bolt then you’re off to a good start.
    Keep this in mind when looking at ‘organic’ fabrics – while the raw fiber is organic, there is NOTHING in the manufacturing process that is organic. Somewhere along the way they use non-organic agents that mean all that careful raising of the cotton is negated. Maybe soon we’ll have an ‘organic’ way of producing fabric but right now, no.

  5. I think it really is a matter of matching the fabric drape/hand to the pattern’s design. While I tend towards apparel-specific fabrics most of the time, that is also because I don’t make a lot of clothes that would fit that stiffer-fabric criteria. For me, I’ve found that to make a successful garment with quilting cotton, it needs to be simple. No fussy details, puffed sleeves, tightly gathered skirts, or bits that might stick out at odd angles. While I too have seen more lightweight quilting fabrics show up on the scene of late (just because I don’t sew with them often doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them! hehe! I’m a sucker for the prints!), it’s still an area that I urge sewers to consider their project carefully.
    From a personal example standpoint, I used a quilting cotton for this dress several years ago. It was lightweight and worked with the design. However, later I used quilting fabric for this design that was far stiffer and thicker–much like most of the quilting fabrics available. The one thing I don’t like, in retrospect, is that I kept the extended sleeves. Because the fabric doesn’t drape, they jut out at an odd angle. It would have been much more successful had I altered the sleeves.
    Yikes! Sorry if I waxed a bit too long about this. lol. I just think it’s really important to factor the design along with the fabric when making a choice about materials for your sewing. Colette Patterns designs work well with many quilting fabrics because that is what Sarai initially designed some of the patterns for. I kind of wish more companies would jump on that bandwagon because quilting cottons are so popular and pretty–and with the limited selection at JoAnns and other big chains, it’s sometimes hard to find that specialized apparel fabric.
    Okay… I’ll stop now. haha! Just my two cents!

  6. judy roberson

    First, I have to say, as Mena said.I am no expert on fabrics..I just use the ole “feel and touch” theory..
    I personally have to say.. I love quilting cottons..I use them alot. In my opinion, it is like all other fabrics..You have good ones and bad ones. And that is in all types of fabrics. I have bought really expensive apparel fabric , only to wash it and it be terrible.. and the same with quilting cottons.
    Also.. I find that the majority of the time, once you give it a wash and fabric softner treatment, it softens and can be used very well..
    I love the wonderful variety of quilting cottons..And as Casey so cleverly said, choose your fabric to your project.
    Happy sewing to what ever fabric you choose.

  7. Thank you everyone for your responses – it’s so nice to get other (not to mention more experienced) sewists’ ideas and experiences, it’s quite encouraging! I noticed that Gertie has quite a discussion on this topic going on as well :-)
    I learned quite a few things, and have – of course – a few new questions as well, now ;-)
    Like some others mentioned: it’s really a bit of a shame that so many of the “new” talented fabric designers focus so heavily on the quilting cotton. All those wonderful designs, only available on one fabric. Voile seems to be popping up here and there (yey!) but it’s still a looming minority. Perhaps we should all start a petition here!
    I have used QC myself, mainly for summer shirts for my sons – those are pretty straightforward patterns and do not ask for a lot of drape. And yes, there is a big difference between all those cottons too – for instance, I have found the “Tammis Keefe tribute” retro reproduction prints to be exceptionally soft!
    ( Love the alligators!
    I’m still a bit uncertain about women’s apparel, tough – I guess curvy bodies need a bit more drape than a 5 year old’s body.
    I asked my sewing teacher if there was any meaning behind the “order of appearance” in the suggested fabrics listing on pattern sleeves. She told me that the order should really be based upon the order of preference – so the first fabric listed should be more suitable for that particular piece than the third.
    If that’s indeed the case, then this at least gives a solid guideline. Only trouble is that the suggested fabrics often say something like “cottons” or “lightweight cotton” – only there are so many cottons around :-/
    Also: does someone know how “feedsack” cotton compares to quilting cotton? I could imagine that they have more or less the same feel? (Haven’t had the chance to experience feedsack myself – I live in Europe and, frankly, I’ve never seen the term anywhere around here.)
    Well, in any case: being reassured by your responses and suggestions to look for the “right pattern”, I went ahead and I ordered some quilting cotton, which I plan to use on Mena’s first MTL (I ordered for the skirt of the Night-and-Day Dress) I’m curious to see how it will turn out – as it is a pretty wide skirt, I guess it’ll be fine? Am still in doubt whether I should pick black or red for the bodice :-)
    Thank you all!