Since it's spring, Easter is approaching, and floral fabric is calling, let's chat for a bit about quilter's cotton, which is both loved and hated by seamstresses!
Granted, it's not suitable for a lot of apparel. And yes, it would be wonderful if even a small percentage of those tempting prints were offered in a lighter weight more suitable for apparel...like shirting, or seersucker, or a cotton sateen. But on the other hand, there are some patterns that work very well in this weight of cotton. I've made some cotton dresses that did not end up turning out too well, while others work just fine and are super comfortable.
This early make of mine from the 1950s was not the best choice for cotton. It needed a drapier fabric for those front pleats, which ballooned when I sat down. Not flattering.
On the other hand, these dresses worked very well in cotton. 2 of these fabrics came from JoAnn, the others were snagged on eBay, of well-known quilter's fabric brands.
As a general rule of thumb, I won't use this type of cotton for dresses with narrow skirts, draping or detail ruching. Ruffles and gathers and bias skirts can also be tricky, which rules out quite a few 1930s patterns. Skirts with pressed pleats often work with cotton. Skirts with narrow gores usually need something limper. A lot of 1940s patterns call for rayon for a reason. But house dresses, now, with their A line skirts, crisp collars, patch pockets, and simple structured tops and sleeves are ideal for cotton. Even quilter's cotton.
Look for a second at these 2 images. The first one has a narrow skirt and fine gathers. It just begs to be made in something limp like rayon. The second one is ideal for cotton. Not incidentally, it is obviously a house dress.
However, some patterns like this one can be made using very different types of fabric, and would have been, back in the day - in cotton with short sleeves for around the house, and again in a pricer fabric like wool crepe, with different sleeve and trim choices, for a classier outfit for wearing in town.
Can I swoon for a moment over the fabulous prints available? Especially 1930s reproduction prints (which cater to quilters who make 1930s style quilts but are also amazing for house dresses!) This is probably the number one reason that keeps us buying yards and yards of quilter's cotton. Also, of course, cotton is so easy to cut out and sew with. No slipperiness, minimal fraying...I love working with it. Cool and comfy to wear. A cheerful cotton print will make it to the top of my sewing queue every time, even if I really would use a plain or dark and simple dress more. Every spring I look forward to switching to sewing with fabrics like these:
Some repro cotton prints in my stash waiting their turn...
A Penny Saved?
However, I've been finding out more and more that all quilter's cottons are not created equal. I don't like to pay much per yard for my fabric, but on the other hand, I've discovered that higher quality cotton just might be worth changing my budget ideas over. For instance, if I pay $3.50 a yard for some cheap cotton on sale, I might get 4 yards for a vintage dress. That's $14 for the dress. In contrast, paying even $5-$6 a yard sounds expensive. I mean, that's enough for a dress plus half of another dress!
But quantity doesn't equal quality. If the cheap cotton shrinks and warps when you wash it, fades after a few washings and wearings in the sun, and is so wrinkly you always have to press it before wearing (as a result it stays crammed in your closet most of the time) - is the savings really worth it, compared to a dress you will really wear, in a cotton that stays true to size and color, has a smooth sheen and dense weave, and doesn't wrinkle very much?
Here's a little example. In this photo, both fabrics were washed. The lavender one came out very wrinkly, stiff, and warped. The green one has just a little bit of wrinkle to it and is still smooth and supple. You get what you pay for.
What Price Worth?
Sewing used to be the thrifty way to clothe yourself, and it still is if you buy brand name or new clothing. I mean, a basic A-line skirt can cost $35-$70! Vintage reproduction dresses often start at $70 and run up from there. When you look at those prices, buying a few yards for $15-$20 and making your own is totally a savings. But for folks like me who shop at thrift stores where you pay max $8 for a dress, there's no way you can spend $15 on new fabric and make it cheaper yourself most of the time. On the other hand, at thrift stores you often don't get the colors and styles you really want, that really fit you - and you have those options when you make your own.
Then again, vintage skews things up a bit more, since I would pay more for a vintage dress than a modern one. With those considerations, making a vintage reproduction (again, that really fits and is washable and non-fragile) for $20 does make more sense than purchasing something similar in true vintage for double the price or more. Worth really is in the eye of the beholder so often.
But of course, sewing clothes for a thrift-store-shopper-only is more about the enjoyment and process of it, and the wonderful creative satisfaction of the finished product matching that pattern illustration or image in your head, than it is about saving money.
That being said, it is still possible to find nice fabric at super sales that really does make it comparable even to the aforementioned thrift store prices. So sometimes it's worth not buying that tempting cheap cotton print and waiting until you can find high quality cotton on eBay or maybe close-out sales from higher end fabric companies that bring it into your price range.
While this tip doesn't work online, the squeeze rule is often a good indicator when shopping. Here we have 3 cottons of varying quality and price ranges. The striped one from Walmart (back when I didn't know any better...) is super stiff, and when a corner is gathered up and squeezed, it retains a ton of wrinkles. The blue floral was a mid-range from JoAnn. It's smoother to the touch and retains less wrinkles when squeezed but still is fairly wrinkly. The green floral (higher end, bought on eBay) hardly wrinkles at all. The smoother and less wrinkly a cotton is, the better it will wear and look as a dress.
That said, I have enjoyed JoAnn's repro prints in the past and will continue to collect them, especially when they are marked down and I have a coupon. :-) I will add that I have found a big difference in quality (you can feel the difference just by fingering the bolts) between their $5-$6 a yard fabric and their $8-$10 a yard fabric; which if you can get on sale and with a coupon, $10 a yard can shrink to more like $4 anyway. That makes it totally worth waiting for the big sales and snagging some of the higher quality stuff, in my opinion, rather than pinching pennies and buying the cheaper stuff so you can get a few extra yards for the same amount.
Because all cottons are not created equal.