Your First Trip to the Fabric Store, an Ultimate Beginners Guide

If you’ve never shopped for fabric

multi floor stairs grayscale photo

If you’ve never shopped for fabric before, stepping into a fabric store can be pretty intimidating.  There’s so much fabric to take in it can be overwhelming, how on earth do you know what to buy or how much?  And then there’s the terminology – they sell notions at the fabric store?  Do they also sell ideas and opinions?  (Actually, I’m sure you can find plenty of those there for free.)  If you’ve ever thought about venturing into one but couldn’t work up the nerve for fear of the unknown – read on.  We’ll have you feeling like a pro before you go so you can shop without feeling like you stepped into the Twilight Zone.

The first thing you need to know is that fabric comes on a bolt and is measured by the yard.  Whenever you see a price advertised, it is by the yard (which is 3 feet in case you don’t know – this is the ultimate beginners guide, after all.)  The bolts are those big bundles of fabric you see lined up on the shelves row after row.  When shelved properly,

abstract cloth colors cotton
  1. Note: apparel fabric typically only comes on the folded-over-rolled-up-inside-out format.  Home décor fabric can come this way or all rolled out flat onto a long tube with the right side facing out.  Typically, home décor fabric is around 60” wide because you are usually covering bigger stuff.  If you are considering an apparel fabric that is on a long tube and you are reading this blog post, keep moving, that stuff is for veterans and it’s hard to sew.  Once you have decided on the fabric you would like (this will depend on your project, but when in doubt, go for cotton) take the bolt over to the cutting counter.  If you have decided on the tube of home décor fabric, double check with an employee if they would prefer you to take the roll down or have them come over and cut it where it hangs.  Nobody wants to have to re-shelve a 60 lb. honkin’ bolt of fabric.  Now, off to the cutting counter…

Fabric Basics Recap:

  1. Fabric comes on a “bolt”

  2. Fabric is measured by the yard

  3. Fabric has a “right” side and a “wrong” side

  4. It is typically 45” or 60” wide

  5. Helpful information is on the cardboard ends

  6. Usually, home décor fabric comes on a long roll

fabric scissors needle needles scissors

Now that you’ve decided…

The cutting counter is that giant table in the middle of the store.  Take note: if you shop at JoAnn, you will have to take a number to be served at the cutting counter.  Depending on how busy the store is, you may want to pull that number before you pick your final fabric so you’re not waiting an eternity.  Wherever you shop, you will be telling the person at the cutting counter how much fabric you need in yards – like “I need 2/3 of a yard” or “I need 3 ¼ yards.”  In a lot of places, the smallest they will allow you to purchase is 1/8 yard.  Just don’t ask for the fabric to be cut at 4 feet and 6 inches – go ahead and do the math before you get up there and you’ll feel a lot less like a newbie (that’s a yard and a half, by the way.)  I always like to have a little more cut than I


Fabric Cutting Recap:

  1. The giant table in the middle of the store is the cutting counter

  2.  Request your fabric in yards and increments of yards, not feet.

  3.  Order a little more for safety

  4.  Ask the cutting counter folks for help – they’re geniuses

  5.  Don’t lose that paper, you need it

Now, for the rest of the store.

PATTERNS: If you are shopping for patterns, there will be a number of books on a table for you to flip through.  There are a couple of different pattern brands, Simplicity, Burda, Vogue, and McCalls are some of the biggest.  Depending on the store where you are shopping, they may have some or all of the patterns they offer on their website, so you

Vintage Pattern

assorted color threads on white surface
green yellow red needle pin and safety pins

NOTIONS: Huh?  Just think of this area as all the things.  Any kind of special or additional goodies you need to pull the whole thing together are in the notions aisle.  You’ll find snaps, pins, seam rippers, elastic, measuring tape, Velcro, etc.  Ribbons, zippers, buttons, and bias tape are usually found in their own special area because there is such a variety of these to choose from.

black scissors near thread reel on white book page

THINGS THAT CUT:  Scissors, roatary cutters,  exacto blades etc. are usually kept together with self-healing cutting mats.  If you are only going to do a little sewing, a decent pair of sewing scissors should be plenty, and maybe a small set of embroidery scissors for tight areas.  And yes, you do need a set of scissors specifically for fabric.  You can’t just start cutting away with that beat-up pair from the junk drawer, you’ll never get a clean cut.  Self healing mats and fancy scissors like pinking shears are pretty expensive and not a necessity for a beginner, so leave those for another day.

beautiful blur close up color

FLUFF: There is usually an area for stuffing and pillow forms, and otherwise fluffy innards.  With pillow forms, the more expensive, the softer and better the quality.  If you get the rock-bottom bargain form, expect to have a rock-hard pillow form in a few months.  Feathers and down/down alternative are the softest and retain their shape for years to come and, I think, look the best out of the lot.  Do not confuse PolyFill or loose stuffing for a pillow form.   Pillow forms are an all-in-one pre-sewn insert for a pillow cover.  Stuffing or fiber-fill can be used to stuff a pillow, but it is just a bag of fluff, you have to have something to contain it.  It is great for plush toys or unusually shaped pillows.  Note: when using loose stuffing to stuff anything, don’t try to cram it all in at one time, you’ll never get it through the hole you’ve left in the seam.   What you want to do is pull off appropriately sized chunks for the area you are stuffing and place them where you want them – they’re not going to work their way into that doll’s arm by themselves.  Batting is stuffing’s more conservative cousin and is fluff in sheet form; it is used for things like blankets and upholstery.  You will also find foam of various shapes and sizes in this area.  Foam comes in different densities for different purposes and can usually be cut to length, which is nice because the really thick stuff is also really expensive so you don’t want to buy any more than you have to.  If you are doing more than just wrapping a chair seat, this may be out of your wheelhouse if you are a beginner, so proceed with caution, foam can be a little fussy.  Another thing you may find in this area is bean bag filling – this stuff is like glitter, it gets everywhere and static cling makes it stick.  Seriously ask yourself if that store-bought bean bag really just won’t do, this stuff takes commitment.

Everything Else Recap:

  1. Never pay full price for patterns

  2. Basic thread is good for most things

  3. One spool is usually enough

  4. Notions are all the little things you never knew you needed

  5. Get a decent pair of scissors

  6. Have a dedicated pair of scissors for sewing

  7. Pillow forms are pre-made inserts

  8. Stuffing is a bag of fluff

  9. Tear off pieces of fiber-fill to stuff something, don’t cram

  10. Batting is a sheet of fluff

  11. Foam and bean bag filling are probably not worth the hassle for a beginner.


So there you go, that is fabric store boot camp, you should be able to enter one now with at least a vague sense of familiarity.  When you go for the first time, give yourself some time to wander around and get an idea of all the fun stuff there is to find.  If you don’t have any supplies at all, here is my list of must-haves:

  1. Scissors

  2. Measuring tape

  3. Seam ripper

  4. Stick pins

  5. Sewing pins

  6. Thread

  7. Fabric. 

Happy hunting and remember to have fun!


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