Not sure where to start when shopping for fabric online? Ever received fabric that wasn’t what you expected? I’m sharing a guide to buying fabric online so you can decrease risk and shop with confidence! Plus find a free records sheet below.
- Buying Fabric In Person
- Buying Fabric Online
- The Pitfalls of Ordering Fabric Online
- Minimizing Risk of Surprises
- The Guide to Buying Fabric Online
- A Great Local Fabric Shop
- Be a Fabric Detective
- Educate Yourself About Fabric
- Get Your Copy of the Fabric Records Sheet
- Other Tips For Ordering Fabric Online
- Buying Fabric Online Doesn’t Have to Be Risky
Buying Fabric In Person
There is no question that buying fabric in store can be the simplest way to do your fabric shopping. Not only can you see and judge the colours for yourself, but you can also coordinate other fabrics and notions – such as zippers and thread.
But perhaps more importantly, shopping in the store allows you to feel the texture of the fabric, and judge the weight and drape. This can be especially important as it affects the suitability of the fabric for particular uses, especially garment sewing.
Being able to see and touch the fabric helps you to choose exactly what you want and need, and there are no surprises later on. As well, there are other benefits to shopping in a store. These include receiving help from employees, cutting out extra costs such as shipping, less packaging, and being able to support local businesses.
There’s no doubt that I do love being able to shop for fabric in person. And I always end up enjoying my time spent browsing at local fabric, sewing, and quilt shops.
Buying Fabric Online
However, while fabric shopping in a store is ideal for getting exactly what you expect, there are many occasions where you might need – or want – to order fabric online. These can include:
- To search for a particular product. If you cannot find what you’re looking for in a store, you can likely find it online.
- To take advantage of a sale. There are such a large number of online fabric shops that it’s usually possible to find a sale, particularly around holidays.
- To get a larger quantity. You may need more yardage than what your local store carries in stock.
- For convenience. Maybe you want to shop at midnight, or in your pajamas, or when you’re sick. Online shops are always open!
- When shopping in store is not possible. Certainly during the pandemic there have been many occasions where in-store shopping was not wise, or I didn’t feel comfortable. Other times, shops were only open for curb-side pick-up, necessitating ordering the fabric without seeing or touching it.
The Pitfalls of Ordering Fabric Online
Ordering fabric online can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before or are a new sewist. There is a large amount of risk involved in ordering fabric online without seeing and touching it. In the first handful of times I ordered fabric online, I was often quite surprised – and sometimes disappointed – by what I received.
Quite frequently I had misjudged the colour, weight, or texture and it wouldn’t work at all for my project. Or alternatively, I just didn’t like it. It’s also easy to misjudge quality, or be surprised by extra fees.
Does this sound familiar? Have you had similar experiences? Or have worries about what you’ll receive kept you from ordering fabric online?
Minimizing Risk of Surprises
Is it possible to confidently order fabric online and not be surprised with what you receive? The short answer is: Yes, absolutely!
The long answer is still yes, with a caveat. There will always be some small amount of risk when ordering fabric online that you are unable to see, touch, colour match, or view flaws. You’ll need to accept that and be willing to use the fabric anyway or for another project. Or you need to be able to afford to buy replacement fabric.
However, there are so many ways that you can lessen the risk and increase the chances of getting fabric that is exactly as you expected.
I’m going to share my guide to online fabric shopping with you. The tips below will boost your confidence about ordering fabric online. They will also provide another solid option when you can’t find what you want in store, or aren’t able to shop in store.
The Guide to Buying Fabric Online
There are two main ways to minimize the risk of surprises when buying fabric online. First, you can be a fabric detective, which means gathering all the clues available to make a smart choice.
And second, you can educate yourself, which means increasing your knowledge about fabric. This way you can better anticipate what a particular fabric will be like, and make the best choice.
Let me explain more about how to do both of those things!
A Great Local Fabric Shop
Below, I’m going to be using examples to illustrate some of my points from one of my favourite local fabric shops, Fabrications.
Fabrications has a wide variety of helpful resources such as classes, fun events, special deals, and informative newsletters. They offer a great selection of quilting cottons and garment fabrics, patterns, notions, yarn and more, and they really prioritize sustainable fabric choices.
While I love shopping in their store, I always feel confident ordering online for pick-up as well. This is because Fabrications does such an excellent job of adding extra helpful information to their listings. Check out the Fabrications website – they ship worldwide!
Be a Fabric Detective
When you’re shopping online, you don’t have the option to touch, drape, or see the fabric in person. This is what greatly increases the risk of receiving fabric that’s different than expected in the mail.
But just because you don’t have the option to see and touch the fabric doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of useful information to help you select the best fabric. You simply need to know what to look for and pay attention to.
But what clues should you be gathering when shopping online for fabric?
Swatches or Samples
First, there is an obvious way to get around not being able to see and touch fabric when ordering online, and that’s by ordering a swatch or a sample.
I’ve never ordered fabric samples or swatches myself before. But they can be a helpful way to judge colour and texture, or whether they will coordinate with items around your home. A swatch won’t likely be big enough to judge drape, but you’ll get a sense from the weight of the fabric.
I would highly recommend ordering a swatch/sample if:
- You’re taking a big risk (ie. ordering a lot of yardage, or have no back-up plan – can’t afford to order a replacement fabric, etc.)
- You can wait for the added time it takes for the swatch to arrive, decide, and then wait for your order.
- The fabric won’t sell out in the meantime. Many places will have limited stock, or you will need to act quickly to take advantage of a sale.
- Swatches are available. Not every online fabric store offers swatches. If not, you could always order the minimum cut as a sample, ranging from a 1/4 yard to a full yard. But this might not be economical from a shipping perspective to order more than once and pay shipping both times. And again, take into account whether the fabric will sell out by the time you’ve received your sample.
When swatches are not possible, all is not lost. There are many clues or bits of helpful information that may be listed for each fabric in an online shop. And this information will help you to confidently envision what a fabric will look and feel like.
Some shops list more or less information, and certain fabrics may have more information than others. You may need to compare between a few different shops to gather as many clues as possible about a fabric. See the section on cross-referencing below to learn more.
Here are some of the listing clues to look for, both in the written descriptions and from the photographs:
This information will help you cross-reference and search on other sites for more information, or project examples with that fabric.
The manufacturer or brand name, if listed, will help you judge the quality of the fabric. You can use it to research and read reviews. And once you have ordered and liked particular brands, you’ll trust ordering them again. Many brand names create fabric that’s better quality (and a higher price point) than bargain fabrics at a big box fabric store. You’ll soon begin to recognize brand names like Robert Kauffman, Sunbrella, Liberty, Cotton and Steel, etc.
The substrate is the particular kind of fabric – for example, quilting cotton, twill, voile, denim, jersey, flannelette, or chiffon. It can include the weave of the fabric, the fibre content, and the weight of the fabric, and it is a big factor in determining whether a fabric is suitable for a particular kind of project.
Therefore, the substrate is one of the most important things to pay attention to as it has the biggest impact on how the fabric will look, feel, and drape. Particularly if you’re newer to sewing, you’ll want to have a baseline of knowledge so you know more or less what to expect with each fabric type.
Fabric can be made from natural fibres (such as cotton, linen, or wool) or synthetic fibres (such as polyester, spandex, or nylon). It can also be made of a combination of these fibres such as cotton-spandex (for added stretch) in varying percentages. The fibre content will determine how easy the fabrics are to sew, how they wear over time, and their care.
It can be very helpful to know what different fibre combinations feel like so that you can know more or less how they will feel when you receive them. With experience and education, you will get to that point. See the education section below.
Often times, fabrics will have a weight listed, either in oz/yd2 (ounces per square yard) or gsm (g/m2 – grams per square metre), depending on the location. You can convert one unit to another via an online calculator.
The weight of fabric is very much connected to the substrate and drape of fabrics. In general, the lighter the weight of the fabric, the more drape it has (think silk, voile, etc.). Lighter weight fabrics with drape are often used for things such as lingerie, blouses, skirts, sheer draperies, etc.
And in general, the opposite is also true. The heavier the weight of the fabric, the less drape it is has (think denim, upholstery fabric, tweed, or wool). Heavier weight fabrics are generally used for more structured garments such as pants and outerwear, or upholstery.
Here is a great article about fabric weight with a chart of common weights in both ounces and grams and common uses.
Some fabrics may be available in a range of weights (such as linen, or various knits) and you will need to select the best option for your project. I usually do some Googling and refer to charts such as the one above to assist my choice. Making a phone call to a person at the fabric store would also be helpful if you’re still unsure.
Don’t be surprised by not ordering enough fabric for your project! Pay attention to the width of the fabric provided in the listing and compare it to what’s required in your sewing pattern or for your project.
Selecting a knit fabric with the right amount of directional stretch for a project is very important to the fit and success of a garment. Patterns using knit fabric will often provide the % stretch recommended in either 2 directions or 4 directions, which you can compare to the stretch in fabric descriptions.
Suggested Uses/Other Helpful Use Info
The suggested uses are extremely helpful clues that will tell you about the drape of the fabric without being able to touch it. The suggested uses will also help you judge a fabric’s suitability for various home decor or garment uses, especially whether it’s something loose and flowing, or more fitted and tailored.
This section is also an area where it really pays to cross-reference other stores and listings because particular online shops do a fantastic job of providing more information than others.
The suggested uses and other information of the above listing for laundered linen is very helpful for an online listing. In fact – you might not even learn most of this information when shopping in the store, unless you had a conversation with the shop employee.
Not only do they recommend this laundered linen for dresses, tops, and loose fitting trousers, but they tell you it’s suitable for Merchant and Mills patterns. As well, you learn that their samples are made with this linen, giving you a perfect place to go to check out how it looks as real garments.
Further, Fabrications provide tips about using it for lighter, casual curtains – but recommend a lining to prevent fading.
Fabrics can have different labels such as OEKO-TEX or organic. OEKO-TEX means it has been certified by a third party to be free from harmful levels of toxic substances. Organic certification means that the textile fibres were grown organically. These labels (or the lack of them) won’t impact the success or risk of an online fabric order, but you may prefer to look for fabrics with these labels.
It is always important to pay attention to the care instructions for fabrics before you purchase them. While disregarding care instructions won’t bring surprises when you receive your fabric, you might be surprised later after laundering. It makes no sense to spend a large amount of time and effort sewing an item only to ruin it by laundering it incorrectly.
You can also quickly rule out fabrics that you don’t want to consider, such as those that are dry clean only.
The photographs on a fabric listing can be worth a 1000 words! Besides the obvious of showing the colour and pattern of a fabric, you might also gather the following clues:
Hopefully the pictures are close enough or can be zoomed in enough to give you an idea of the texture of a fabric. It won’t be a direct substitute for touching the fabric, but you should get an idea of whether it’s smooth, rough, ribbed, etc.
Many fabric shops will include a ruler along the edge of the fabric photos to show the scale of the print. Using coins is another common way to show scale, particular when there is no pattern. This helps you to judge the scale of the weave of the fabric itself. I have rarely been surprised by the scale of fabrics when I take these clues into account.
How big is the repeat of the pattern? Will you need to buy more, depending on the project, in order to get full repeats?
As already discussed, the suggested uses can provide helpful clues about drape. In addition, photographs that show actual fabric in swirls or folds can give you some indication about how stiff or drapey the fabric will be. You might also look for social media photos and videos from the store that show the fabric being handled.
Cross-Referencing Multiple Stores
If a particular store where you want to order a fabric from doesn’t list complete information in the listing, try cross-referencing other sites. Search for the brand and pattern name in Google. I often start with a Google image search to see if there are other photos that show the fabric better.
Sometimes, you can even find photos of real projects made with a particular fabric, or photographs of the fabric on the bolt (searching a store’s social media posts when new fabric arrives can also be helpful for this).
Or, you might find out more details about a particular fabric by looking at listings at other online fabric shops that list more information (ie. suggested uses). You can also try searching the manufacturer website (or if you’re lucky – through their look books), which can be another source of information.
I cross-reference every fabric that’s not quilting cotton before I buy it. Many times I won’t end up finding other details or photos, but occasionally it’s been extremely helpful.
Tips for Matching or Coordinating Colours
If you need to match several fabrics that you are ordering to each other, or to items in your home, here are a few tricks I use to be more successful:
- Make sure that settings on your screens are as normal as possible. For example, I use Night Shift to reduce blue light all the time. I always need to remember to turn that off when choosing fabrics. But also recognize that certain screens may represent colours differently. And the brightness of your screen may have an impact on how the fabric looks on screen vs. real life.
- Hold up smaller items to your screen that you need to match/coordinate to the fabric. Or take your laptop, tablet or mobile screen to be beside them, such as with larger items or painted walls. It’s not foolproof, but you might be able to rule out certain fabrics right away if they clash.
- To pull together a group of fabrics, you’ll need to see them side by side like you can in person at a store. To achieve this, take a screenshot of each fabric you’re considering and crop it down to just the fabric photograph. Then you can play with those screenshot swatches to make a fabric pull, such as for a quilt, or a group of throw pillows. Again, they may look different in person. But I’ve had more success when I can see the fabrics side by side, rather than flipping back and forth between browser tabs.
Gather Information From Your Sewing Pattern
If you’ve already selected a sewing pattern for your project, that will be the most helpful in choosing fabrics. The pattern should provide you with some assistance for selecting fabrics, especially with looking for the best substrates, drape, or stretch. Of course, also pay attention to knit vs woven.
A pattern may even include information about whether you need to purchase more fabric for pattern matching or if you’re using directional prints.
And very importantly, the pattern provides the yardage required. Be sure to pay attention to the units which may vary between the pattern and your shop. Look for whether they’re using yards or metres. See the Anatomy of Fabric Terms for more information.
Less Risky Substrates
There are certain substrates that are much less risky to order online because they are fairly consistent. One example is quilting cotton. When used for quilts, things like drape are not important, and quilting cotton has a fairly standard weight and texture. However, name brands will be a higher quality and have a nicer weave than inexpensive, generic quilting cotton.
You will also learn the differences in how certain brands feel once you’ve touched and sewn with them. For example, Kona cotton is much thicker and coarser than Art Gallery fabrics, which feel thin and slippery. Regardless, ordering quilting cotton online is a safe bet as the drape and texture are guaranteed to work for a quilt, so it’s mainly a decision about colour and pattern.
Another example is flannelette. Though there are variations in quality and thickness, I don’t usually consider it to be risky to order flannelette online. As long as it’s cozy, it works for me! You can read about my love of backing my quilts with flannel here).
And so over time, you may learn that certain substrates are lessy risky to order online without seeing and touching them. There are also those that you would prefer to buy in person so you can more accurately judge them. However, by carefully paying attention to all the clues provided, and educating yourself about fabric, you can safely order anything you like.
Educate Yourself About Fabric
The next best way to increase your success at ordering fabric online is by educating yourself so that you can better interpret the clues provided in the fabric listings.
This also means that as a new sewist, or a new online fabric shopper, you might still make mistakes. At first, you may still be surprised with what you receive from your online fabric orders. But as your experience and knowledge increase, you’ll gain confidence and decrease risk when ordering online.
There are many ways to start learning more about fabric. But the main idea is to know enough that you can correctly imagine how a fabric will feel and drape without seeing and touching it. This is the key skill that will allow you to order online with confidence.
Let’s look at some ways to educate yourself about fabric.
Anatomy of Fabric Terms
There are a lot of terms when discussing fabric, whether it’s purchased in store or online. These terms include words to describe the physical components, size and directional terms, and characteristics of fabric.
For a brief crash course, check out my Anatomy of Fabric Terms post that will get you started with 21 key terms. It includes terms such as yardage, bias, shrinkage, directional print, width of fabric, etc. Knowing them will help you better understand the fabric you’re buying and how much you will need.
Take a Field Trip to a Fabric Shop
Before you start making a whole bunch of risky online orders, if at all possible, take a field trip to a fabric store. (Of course if stores are closed for in-person shopping, that might be the reason you need to order online in the first place).
There are a wide range of fabric stores that often specialize in particular types of fabric – quilting, apparel, or home decor. Try to choose one that sells the kind of fabric you’re shopping for, or one that carries a wide variety.
While you’re there, gather information. Look for fabrics that are similar to what you have in mind or need for a project. That might be knits, upholstery, denim, fleece, or any number of other kinds of fabrics.
Then – touch them! See how they drape. You might quickly discover that a fabric is too thin or too stiff for a project you have in mind. Most importantly, pay attention to the information on the bolt end, especially fibre content.
Take pictures of the bolt ends of fabrics you like and can see yourself using (or something similar). Take notes on your phone or in a little notebook of any details about fabrics you like, or don’t like. For example, maybe you love cotton-rayon and poly-cotton blends for blouses, but don’t like the feel of 100% polyester.
Or maybe you’ll learn that lightweight cotton jersey would be too lightweight for a dress, but a bamboo jersey feels about right. The more information you can record from signs, tags, and bolt ends, the more helpful it might be later.
Lastly, don’t forget to photograph bolt ends/record information about fabrics that you do purchase at stores. This information will be even more useful since you’ll have the fabrics as examples for comparison. I’ll show you what to do with that information in just a bit.
Investigate Your Closet/Home
Another way to gather information about fabrics that you already like is by going through your own closet. Assuming you haven’t cut them all off, look at the tags inside your clothes (or those of your family members) for the fibre content of your favourite clothes.
Do you prefer natural fibres? Synthetic? How much stretch is in the denim of your favourite jeans? For example, I like cotton, linen, and rayon or blends of those. Knowing the fibre contents of clothes I like wearing will help me to search for similar fabrics online.
This exercise is the most helpful for garment fabric. However, if you’re needing home decor fabric information, you may be able to find some information by checking inside existing cushion covers, or tags on curtains, etc.
You can also do this activity in reverse. When you’re shopping online and see the fibre content of a substrate, you can go hunting to see if you can find a similar fibre content in your closet to judge the texture and drape of a fabric.
Keep in mind though, that similar fibre contents can produce very different fabrics, so it’s just a starting point!
Keep Records From Fabric Purchases
A few years ago, I bought quite a bit of apparel fabric and sewed many pieces of clothing for myself. I did buy some fabric in person at a store, but most of it was purchased online.
Now that a few years have passed since I bought that apparel fabric, I dearly wish that I had kept better track of what exactly I ordered. I could use that knowledge for comparison purposes when making future orders based on what worked well and what didn’t.
Often times, I’ll order fabric that sews up nicely, but then I’ll discover through wear or use that it’s not the best choice. For example, I bought a fabric for curtains that’s far too heavy once a lining was added. Or I used a knit for a skirt that didn’t have enough drape.
On the flip side, I’ve also ordered fabrics that have been so perfect in particular projects that I’d like to choose something similar again. Only I have no idea what they are, or what their fabric content was.
If only I had kept some useful records of fabrics I’ve bought, including all the relevant listing details, and notes about how they worked in the finished project. Don’t be like me. Start keeping records!
As another example, I ordered some really lovely (and a total splurge) merino wool from New Zealand years ago which I turned into cardigans. I would gladly order more some day, but it’s tricky. It came in several different weights and I recall agonizing about which one to choose last time. If only I had kept a record of the weight I ordered to help with future purchases!
Keeping records sounds like a monumental task, and it might be impossible to get the information for past purchases. But you can always start with purchases going forward. And I’ve got an easy recording sheet to help.
Fabric Recording Sheet
This fabric recording sheet is designed to keep track of information and swatches of fabric you’ve already purchased. This information can then be used for comparison when you make future orders to help you feel more confident when making selections.
There are sections to record details such as the manufacturer, substrate, fibre content, and suggested uses. There is also a spot to write notes. Let me explain how that can be useful.
Say I fill out the sheet for a beautiful pink patterned knit I used for a skirt. I love the fabric, but it didn’t end up having the drape I was looking for in a skirt. In the notes, I might add something like, “Nice to sew, not the right drape for a skirt.”
By adding the manufacturer, stretch information, and fibre content, in addition to my notes and a fabric sample, I can use that to help me choose a better knit for a skirt the next time. If I have examples of knit fabric that had better drape and was better for skirts, I can use all the details together to sort through fabric choices online.
I recommend printing the fabric records sheet (found below) and filling out a section for each new fabric that you buy. Take a photograph of the bolt end or tag information before making purchases in the store. Then record the information when you get home and attach a small swatch with tape or glue. For online purchases, screen shot the listing and then fill out the records sheet with a swatch after you receive the fabric.
Add any notes after sewing a garment or item that would provide useful information for future shopping. For example, you might record things like:
- With a lining, this fabric was too heavy for curtains
- This fabric has too loose of a weave and Oliver snags his nails on it too easily. It’s not a good choice for couch pillows
- This fabric is too drapey and not structured enough for the ______ shorts pattern
- This worked out so well for a button-up shirt – just the right drape
Because quilting cottons and flannels are so consistent, I would not record on the sheet for those. However, you could add one sample of each quilting cotton from a new manufacturer as they each feel slightly different.
If you have receipts or records, or know any of the information for your previous fabric purchases, fill out any information that you know. Even a little bit of information can be helpful when buying similar fabric down the road.
I suggest printing the sheets double-sided and putting them in page protectors in a binder once they are filled out. It might also be helpful to sort or group fabrics from the same substrate, or even just separate knits and woven fabrics.
Get Your Copy of the Fabric Records Sheet
If you want to start keeping records of the fabric you buy/have bought to help you make decisions about ordering fabric online, you can get your copy right here!
Other Tips for Ordering Fabric Online
I have a few other final tips to confidently order fabric online:
- Quality matters. Look for reviews of either the online shop, and/or the fabric manufacturer. Once you have a good experience with a particular online shop, you will be more comfortable ordering from them on subsequent purchases. Similarly, once you know the quality of fabric from a particular manufacturer, you can feel more confident in selecting their products again.
- Don’t be surprised by other costs such as shipping, taxes, currency conversions, and duties. Read all of the shipping policies before purchasing, and consider the location of the shop. In general, as a Canadian, I prefer to order from Canadian online shops to “shop local”, purchase in $CAD, and pay less for shipping.
- Check out return policies. In general, you won’t be able to return cut fabric to any store, even when purchased in person. But read the fine print so you know what the policies are if you have an issue. I usually go into a purchase assuming that if something is not as I expected (through my own fault), that I will just use it for a different project. Having a stash of fabric to pull from is never a bad thing.
- Call or email for advice. If you’re really uncertain about what to choose for a particular project, or need more information to know if a fabric you love is suitable, try calling the shop and asking a real person for advice. Their expertise might make all the difference and you’ll feel more comfortable ordering sight unseen. This is obviously going to be more effective with a smaller shop than a giant company. And of course, keep in mind that employees might be too busy if there’s a big sale on.
Buying Fabric Online Doesn’t Have to Be Risky!
I hope you have found this guide to buying fabric online helpful. Ordering fabric online, without being able to see or touch it, doesn’t have to be so risky. By paying attention to all the clues provided in a fabric listing’s written description and photographs, as well as educating yourself about fabric, you can minimize risk and order with confidence.
I want to hear from you! What’s your comfort level with ordering fabric online without seeing and touching it? Have you ever ordered fabric and been surprised by what you received? Do have any tips for online ordering or favourite shops you like to order from? Let me know in the comments below.
All the best,