How To Avoid Buying Bad Quality Cotton 2


Your Ultimate Guide For Buying Good Quality Cotton

When Fabric Shopping Online

Watch it, or read it! Either way, I’ll do my best to make sure you’ll never buy a bad cotton again!

We’ve all been there. You see a pretty-looking cotton print online and know it would be just PERFECT for your next sewing project. It’s even on sale. How could you not get it?! You spend a couple of days watching for the postman excitedly to bring you your new fabric only to have the biggest disappointment when you finally open the package. It’s scratchy, the print is blurred, it stands up more than it drapes, you can see half of your hand through it, it smells funny, and worst of all…. it’s turned all your socks pink when you tried to pre-wash it. And now it’s shrunk so much it wont fit your pattern on it anyway, and the dye looks like you’ve worn it 50 times already. It definitely isn’t suitable for that perfect project you had in mind. You would never have bought it if you’d touched it in person, and now you’re out of pocket for trying to find your fabric online. So what do you do? Do you avoid online shopping? Well, we’re pleased to say, you don’t have to. I want to let you in on the secrets I have learnt over the years for buying cotton with confidence rather than receiving fabric faux pas!

Reviews & Reputation

Look for reviews for cotton brands as well as the reputation of the fabric store

A great way of deciding on the likely quality of the fabric is to see what other people are saying. Does the fabric itself have reviews? Well great, see what they say. But because fabric lines change often and there is so much variety out there, this often isn’t the case. So you can look for other factors.

Branded Fabrics

If you know that the cotton is from a big design house, maybe Michael Miller Fabrics, Elizabeth’s Studio, Clothworks, Freespirit Fabrics, Blank Quilting, Henry Glass, Studio E, Riley Blake Designs etc, then you know that their reputation as premium cotton providers means that any pattern released by them will be of a premium quality. But what about lesser-known brands or ones you just haven’t come across yet? This is where I would do a quick online search for the brand and see if there are any reviews. There are often people who will put the hashtag of the fabric brand they’ve used in their posts on Instagram too so you can get a better look at how well people have been able to use the fabric for their sewing projects there too, as well as getting an idea for how easily it photographs and some inspiration for new ways of using it.

Use social media to see what other people think of cotton brands

Unbranded Fabrics

For fabrics without a name, we may need to look more at the reputation and reviews of the fabric store as we don’t have any direct information on the specific fabric. So what I do is to look at who the retailer is marketing themselves as, and what the reviews say about the shop overall. Are there consistent complaints about quality, or are people saying how the fabric is even better in person than it looked in the picture?

Are there negative reviews for the fabric shop
Are the reviews for the fabric shop positive

If the cotton you have just fallen in love with is at a website for an online retailer that prides itself on prices that can’t be beaten or discounts-a-plenty, then maybe you hit the jackpot and found cotton that was bought at auction from a premium store that has gone bankrupt. However, most fabrics will either be bought cheap directly from the manufacturer (which will reflect in the quality) or they may have been bought as “deadstock” fabrics. These are leftover fabrics from the fashion industry, so they are usually lightweight cotton. A lush quilting cotton is unlikely at this kind of store. Ask yourself – if these fabric stores are usually buying from the cheapest wholesalers, auction houses and manufacturers that they can find, are they really likely to quality control checking what they are selling?

Cotton patterns change often so reviews arent easy to find on specific fabrics

Or maybe you are shopping at an – everything you need – kind of sewing shop? These kinds of shops will often have everything from cheap budget fabrics to high-end premium fabrics. In this case, who knows what quality you’ll get as the range of manufacturers and wholesalers they use will be very varied, so you’ll need to pay attention to the other factors like the product photographs.

If you are buying from somewhere that only holds a limited variety of fabrics. Look at what other fabrics they stock. Do they pride themselves on their quality? Does it seem like someone knowledgeable and passionate about sewing is in charge? Look for telltale signs like a blog or sewing tutorials. Are there lots of photos of their fabrics taken at different angles, and maybe even people holding the fabrics on their social media? Even the size of the social media following can give you a good indication of how many repeat customers they are likely to have and who is loyal to their brand. Chances are, the descriptions and product information on their fabrics will also reflect how much they care about their products. If I want to stock a new range of cotton fabrics in our shop, I’ll get a full-width sample, then cut a strip off and wash it. I’ll look at the way it feels, drapes and how it changes with washing. I think of our fabric shop as a personal extension of my own fabric stash! If I wouldn’t want to sew a present for someone special with it, then I wouldn’t even consider stocking it. If you’re shopping somewhere like this, then chances are that you’ll find good quality cotton fabric every time.

Is there someone knowledgable in charge of the shop

Certifications

Fabrics don’t need to be certified to be sold. However, there are certain certifications that some manufacturers will pay for to prove that their materials are of a higher standard. These are the 2 main ones you may come across:

OEKO-TEX

This is the most commonly seen global fabric certification, and it usually refers to the “OEKO-TEX standard 100” criteria. This certification is looking at fabric safety. It is performed at least annually by an independent assessor and checks the fabrics for substances that are known to be hazardous to health. This usually goes beyond national and international requirements and includes both regulated and unregulated substances.

Fabrics are inspected yearly for certifications such as OEKO TEX and GOTS

Global Organic Textile Standard

This is the most commonly used certification by ethical and sustainable fabrics brands. Often abbreviated as GOTS, it is short for Global Organic Textile Standard. Again it requires an annual independent assessment but this time it looks at ensuring that the cotton is organic and can be traced right back to the farm. It also looking at the overall environmental impact of everything that goes into the production of the fabric, even including the wastewater system.

Product Specifics Myths

This information is often not there in a product description, but some retailers may use thread count (amount of threads in both weave directions per inch of cotton) or the fabric weight to try to give an impression of high quality. As a rough guide, most of the premium cotton brands will fall between a thread count of about 120-200 with higher numbers often considered as higher quality, and a cotton weight of around 125-145gsm.

Typical thread count for premium cottons is between 120 to 200
Typical premium cotton weight is between 125 145gsm

However, be very wary of any retailer trying to convey quality by celebrating these factors. They are only a good comparison of quality between fabrics if all other variables are the same. You can buy 2 fabrics which are identical in stats, yet feel and behave completely differently.

Everything from the length of the cotton fibres, to how they have been spun, to the processing techniques, and even the type of dye can determine how stiff and scratchy cotton fabric can be, as well as how well it holds dye or how it keeps its shape when it has been washed. After the fabric is woven, many cottons undergo various finishing processes to make it even more luxurious. This can include singeing to remove stray fibres, mercerising to improve lustre and dye uptake, and calendaring to smooth and compact the fabric. All of these production factors will have just as much influence on the finished cotton as the weight and thread count.

So these stats may be helpful, but only as a rough outline. If you have a low thread count and a low weight, you may be looking at a lightweight cotton lawn that won’t be suitable to quilt with but could make a lovely summer dress. If you are looking at cotton with a higher weight, then it may be better suited to bag-making, craft or upholstery sewing projects.

Product Pictures

What you can see in the picture is often what it comes down to when judging fabric quality. Knowing what to pay attention to in the product images can save you a lot of money, time and disappointment. If the cotton is unbranded and there is only a stock photo of the image printed on the fabric to go by, with no pictures of the actual fabric, then I would recommend staying away. Fabric printers usually operate on a different colour profile to computer screens (CMYK vs RGB) so at best, the colours might be a little different to what you expect, and at worst, that retailer may have chosen not to show you how it really looks printed out on the fabric as they know it doesn’t look good and people would be unlikely to buy it.

cotton fabrics are usually designed in RGB colours
Cotton fabrics are typically printed in CMYK colours

If however there are pictures of the fabric, then zoom in if you can, and here is what I recommend looking for:

Fine Lines

Look to see how clear fine outlines are. This is a great place to see the difference in quality. Premium cotton will have completed lines and clear crisp edges. Bad quality cotton is more likely to have areas where the lines are incomplete, colours bleed out passed the lines or there are little gaps where the colour hasn’t quite made it up against the edge of the line.

check the fine lines for crisp clear edges and defined printing
Bad quality cottons may have incomplete fine line and printing errors are more easy to spot

If there are no fine lines then look at the edges. These should be well-defined regardless of how small the pattern is. On bad quality cottons this may look more scruffy as colours can bleed and the printing of different colours may not always line up.

Premium cottons will have well definted neat edges regardless of how small the print is
Bad quality cottons may have more angular edges with colours bleeding beyond the edge

If you can see repeated details, check for the quality of each one. On premium cotton, every repeated section will be identical. On lesser-quality fabrics, you may notice that the position of details may shift, or there may be tiny patches of colour missing.

Repeating patterns will have consistent details on premium cottons
Poor quality cottons may have inconsistencies on repeated details and errors are easier to spot by comparing them

Texture

Look for any signs of a smooth or rough texture. A smoother texture will often go hand in hand with a higher thread count. The more even the surface is for printing on, the more defined the details will look. Any signs of roughness, loose weave, snags or unevenness could be red flags not only for how it feels but also there will also be a higher incidence of distorted or unclear features on printing, especially on very intricate designs.

A smooth texture on cotton fabric will allow for highly detailed prints
Rough textures on low qualities will result in printing that also looks less smooth

Uneven-looking texture may be a sign that the fabric grain isn’t consistent. A straight grain ensures the fabric won’t twist or distort when sewn which is especially important in projects that need high accuracy like quilting.

Colour Vibrancy

Pay attention to the vibrancy of the colours. High-quality cotton will have consistent rich, deep or vivid hues. Any signs of uneven colour of washed-out colour is usually a sign of poor quality dyes or inferior application techniques. A good quality dye will look a similar colour despite the type of lighting used so it may be worth checking their social media for more pictures of the fabric in the background – however, keep in mind that many people will try to colour correct pictures so this may not always be an accurate.

High quality fabric dyes are brighter and richer in colour

Some high-quality cotton fabrics have a slight sheen, which is usually as a result of the mercerisation process that strengthens the fabric and gives it a lustrous appearance. Colours that look flat and dull even when the fabric is in different positions can be a warning sign of inferior dyes. If you like sharing your makes on social media or you are making to sell, the way the fabric looks in photographs for the retailer can also give you an idea as to how easily you’ll be able to make your sewing project look good on camera too.

The Edge Of The Fabric

If the photo includes the fabric’s selvedge (the self-finished edge), have a good look. Higher quality cottons will often add details here that may include the brand or designer’s name. Quality brands are less likely to skimp on the fabric construction costs so these details will likely be there. The printing itself will look crisp and clear on premium cottons.

Cotton fabric selvedges should be consitent and soft and fluffy
bad quality selvedges can have stiff uneven or sparse cotton fluff

The weave of the selvedge itself can also offer clues. A tightly woven, even selvedge is a sign of good overall construction. The selvedge should look clean and smooth. There are 2 main styles used. One has a little fluffy edge that goes out passed the binding and the other is fully bound. If the selvedge is loose, frayed, uneven, or the fluffy bits look stiff and stuck together, it suggests that the rest of the fabric is of lower quality. This is also an area where dye problems can show up. If you see scuffs and smudges, this is a cotton to avoid.

bound edges on premium quality cotton are even and clear to read printing
bad quality printing on bound cotton selvedges can be smudged or scuffed

Some selvedges come with colour test strips, which are small blocks of colour that represent each hue used in the fabric’s design. These can give you an idea of the range and vibrancy of the dyes used, as well as help you pick out complimentary fabrics if your sewing project will be using more than one cotton.

Premium quality cotton selvedge edges will often have colour dots to show which colours have been used in printing

Drape

Although not all fabric shops will show their cotton fabrics in different positions, if they do, you can get more of an idea of what that fabric will be like. If the fabric has been scrunched, swirled or draped over something then look closely at it. Quality cottons will be soft. They will move and drape easily. To spot a low-quality cotton, look for sharp stiff points, where it wont relax down easily. You may also see creases where they’ve had to force a stiff fabric not to want to bounce back out of position. Sometimes the way the fabric drapes or folds can also give you clues about its thickness and weight. Lighter cottons may appear more floaty whereas heavier cottons will drape with more depth.

Stiff and scratchy fabrics dont drape or swirl easily
soft cotton drapes and moves more easily

Conclusion

So now you know my best tips, I hope that you much more confident at spotting a shoddy cotton from a mile away—or at least from the other side of your computer screen. From now on I hope that you’ll be able to avoid fabric dying disasters and scratchy stiff sewing. From here on in, I hope all your online fabric shopping will be just as you hoped and your creations can be as fabulous as you are. 🧵✨

If you found this helpful or you have any other hints and tips on how to make fabric shopping online easier then please do share it with us in the comments!


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