Just What IS a Fabric Collection?

When I first began designing children’s clothing years ago, I came at sewing as someone who has always made clothes.  Which seems a little obvious now that I write it out, but at the time it felt like a revelation.  It felt as though I had entered this whole new world, this foreign country that didn’t make any sense, where everyone was speaking a language that was unintelligible to me.  It was Quilting World.

And it wasn’t strange because quilting and sewing are such different things–they’re really the same thing (but that’s a touchy topic for another time).  It was the fabric that made it all so confusing. Suddenly, rather than looking at texture and individual prints and weights and color, I was confronted with fabric “collections,” a concept I truly did not understand and that was freakishly unfamiliar to me.

Fabric collections have been fairly common these past few years, but if you’re new to fabric or to sewing you might not be aware that the concept of having a complete set of coordinating fabrics is pretty new, too.  The quilting industry has revolutionized the way many of us look at fabrics, and has made it much easier to select coordinating prints and complementary colors by building those into fabric groups.

Anna Maria Horner’s Innocent Crush//image courtesy 1crown3tiaras

Simply put, a fabric collection is a group of designs that are created as a whole to intentionally work together harmoniously.  They are comprised of various types of design (stripes, dots, large-scale and small-scale prints) and color palettes so that it is easier to select fabrics that will work well with one another.  Most fabric collections have a cohesive theme that runs through them, and offer the same print in multiple colorways in order to make it possible to take their design (on fabric) to flesh out your designs (in stitches.)

Lizzy House’s Castle Peeps//image courtesy Oh, Fransson!

When I was younger, I assumed that all quilting was done the way my great-grandmother had done it: with scraps and bits and pieces left over from sewing clothing and housewares.  (My own grandmother, Miriam, is not a quilter, but has raised the art of the French knot to epic heights.)  When confronted with quilting collections, I first had to wrap my brain around the idea of purchasing fabric new to make a quilt, something that was hugely unfamiliar to me.  I didn’t see quilts as an art form all their own, as a means of expression, but much as I viewed sewing as simply a utilitarian pursuit, I saw quilting as a way to use up leftovers in true Depression-era fashion.  I was wrong.

Heather Ross’ Far Far Away 2//image courtesy Chasing Cottons

Quilting can be an invigorating foray into color and shape and composition and design, in ways that I am still discovering.  And as such an exercise, finding precisely the right match for a particular blue (or, heaven forbid, red–yowser) can be a battle of Brobdignagian proportions.  A collection of fabrics already designed to coordinate, using the same or coordinating color palettes, and with similar weights and fiber contents, takes the onus off the quilter to seek out all these pieces and allows the focus of the work to be on the sewing itself–such a relief.

Cloud9 organic cottons//image courtesy SouleMama

I think that’s what really explains the success of fabric collections.  It also hints at what I see as their greatest downfall: an overly heavy reliance on strict coordinates when sewing with more than one fabric.  Because so many fabrics come these days as part of a greater grouping–a collection–it is super easy to choose ONLY from that collection when creating something with needle and thread.  And I think in many cases this temptation prevents us from really exploring the colors and subtleties of design that are out there.  Especially today, when there are so many amazing, modern, jaw-dropping fabrics on the market, it’s a shame for us to rely simply on one individual collection as the muse for our sewing–it is certainly more of a challenge to look outside the collection for variety, but the results can be stunning.  While I love the tight palette of a quilt top made entirely of one colorway from one collection, I love the variety of some of the bright, vibrant, robust quilts that come from infinite choice.

Starburst quilt from Ashley of Film in the Fridge

For details on the work that goes on behind the scenes in designing a fabric collection, check out Lizzy House’s e-book. To design fabric of your own, visit Spoonflower and read back issues of their blog.  For some really great insight into choosing fabrics to use alone or with a single coordinate, read these posts by Liesl Gibson of Oliver + S.

You Might Also Like

  • Rebecca
    November 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    I am so excited to visit the store on Sunday for the first time – and taking the quilting class. Can’t wait!

    • Deborah
      November 11, 2010 at 7:32 pm

      Hooray! Looking forward to seeing you then!

  • lesley graham
    November 11, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    heather ross is one of my all-time faves!

    • Deborah
      November 11, 2010 at 7:31 pm

      Me, too! I was shocked I got into the studio sale, but will treasure my treasures, for sure. AND I just splurged on some Macaroni Love Story–woot!

  • Rachel at Stitched in Color
    November 11, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    What a thought-provoking post. Thanks for stretching us =)

  • jan : daisy janie
    November 11, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    primo post! as someone whose background is in marketing and not art, i came to understand the collection concept from the mktg perspective much more readily than from the art perspective. however, i crave the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ look of mixing & matching so it’s a challenge for me to stick with a single collection when i’m designing or sewing! variety is the spice of life!

  • Clover
    November 11, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    I am really enjoying your blog. I am new to sewing and spend too much time looking at “jaw dropping” fabrics. I want them all. But it is hard to always have the right project for a particular fabric. As I sew more things it is starting to be easier to see how fabrics can work together. I never considered myself an artist but I know how to teach myself to “make” something and I think I have a natural inclination for color. So now at age 39 I think I have found the right combination to say I do have some artistic talent. And it all started with the fabric being the inspiration!

  • Deborah G
    November 11, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Love this post, Deborah. I feel the same way Jan does. As an artist/designer I love the concept of collections a lot but I have never been able to purchase fabric that way. I tend to buy what catches my eye. I usually have no idea what it will match in my stash or how I will use it and that’s where the fun comes in! I think what makes our grandmother’s quilts so beautiful is that they tended to use what they had on hand and figured out a way to make it work. I am happy to see that many modern quilters are finding ways to use collections in interesting ways that draws from what our foremothers did but also pushes it into something new and fresh.

  • Janimal
    November 12, 2010 at 9:16 am

    My comment was just eaten. If you get two posts here from me – the one I lost mysteriously reappeared. Anyway….

    Most excellent use of the word Brobdignagian!

    I was JUST thinking about this. I bought the book “Sew Serendipity” with plans to make the skirt on the front cover that uses 5 different fabrics. I thought how much EASIER it would be to just go buy a yard of each in a collection, already matched so well. (From your shop of course!) And I may still do that. But when I sorted through my stash it was fun to try and mix and match up fabrics from different designers.

    Turns out I chose 4 japanese fabrics from two different companies and a solid natural linen. So while not a “collection” I suppose they coordinate in a japanese aesthetic sorta way.

    • Deborah
      November 12, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      To some degree, I suspect we all do that–I tell my students all the time that they’ll find they use the same four or five colors of thread over and over, because each of us tends to lean back on the same palette. So fabrics are almost certainly the same when it comes to quilting, if only we were bold enough to exploit our own taste and confidence!

  • Having Said That… — Whipstitch
    November 12, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    […] fully stand behind every word I wrote about using multitudes of fabrics from various collections when sewing, to really revel in the […]

  • Andie
    November 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Oh man – spot on, lady. I’m a tad more cynical than you, though. The hype and buzz that’s generated around the release of fabric lines is almost disappointing. I started as a sewer of clothing, too, and began quilting in the late 90s when Waverly fabrics were all the rage. Now, it seems that there’s so much marketing and press and designer promotion – especially within the modern quilt community,- of fabric lines. Technique and craftmanship are sometimes replaced with making a quilt that showcases an entire line of fabric with just a bunch of squares sewn together. While I would never begrudge anyone of the way they express themselves artistically, I would like to see more quilters pushing themselves to think a tad out of the box and focus on art rather than commercialism. Soapbox session complete….