How Much Fabric to Buy: Rules of Thumb for Shopping

by Amy Draughon

So you're at the fabric store, not searching for anything in particular, just having a look around. Suddenly you spot something in the corner! It's so pretty, so perfect, it was meant for you! You snatch up that bolt and rush to the cutting counter. 

"How much would you like?" the lady asks.

Your mind goes blank. How much? How much do I want?

As someone who never uses commercial sewing patterns, knowing how much fabric to buy is a regular determination I have to make. It's all in my head, there's not pattern envelope with all the numbers laid out for me.

What's a girl to do? Here are a few factors to consider. 

What are you making?

The best way to make a good guess on how much material to buy is to know what you want to make with the fabric. A shirt? Skirt? Dress? Knowing what you hope to make narrows down your choices quickly. Refer to the Quick Cheat Sheet at the end of this post!

Keep in mind that certain shapes take up more fabric than others. For example, skirts made of rectangular pieces will fit onto a rectangular cut of fabric really well, and use up almost all of the material. However, a circle skirt will take more fabric to fit it's shape onto, and will leave you with a good amount of scrap fabric leftover. Thinking about the rough design for what you're making will help you decide whether you need a conservative amount or if you need to over estimate on your yardage.

Also, if you ever have doubts, add a half yard. I've found it's better to pay a few more dollars for an extra half yard, than to start working with the fabric and end up wishing I'd bought more of it. 

I Don't Know What I'm Making!

Okay, but what if you don't know what you're making? You just found some pretty fabric that could become anything!

My suggestion is to buy 2 or 2.5 yards. This is a good number that could give you room to make a blouse with some leftovers, a skirt that's long or shot, or a simple dress. 

However, if the fabric you've found is on sale for a great bargain price (Less than $2/yd) buying 3 yards or more is a good plan. When I find fabric I like for less than a dollar I usually buy 4 yards. It gives you plenty of material that you can experiment with...without wasting any money!

How Wide is the fabric?

Something to think about when guessing how much fabric to buy is to look at how wide the fabric is. Most fabric is sold at widths of 44"/45", 56"/58", and 60". There will be a number on the label of the bolt telling you how wide the fabric is.

The bigger widths (56" and higher) can usually get more use out of them because pattern pieces can fit better in the space. On the other hand, 44"/45" wide fabric is smaller and I usually have to split up pattern pieces to make them fit.

For example I can cut a whole circle skirt in one piece with just 1.67 yards of 56", 58", or 60" wide fabric. But if the fabric is 45" wide, I have to split the skirt into two half circles and buy 3.33 yards. 

Quick Cheat Sheet:

Here's a quick chart...keep in mind that these numbers are based off my size (medium/8 dress size) but they will work fine for any sizes close to mine. 

Pin it so you won't forget it ;)

After a while, you will be able to very quickly come up with yardages. Things that you make often will be numbers you remember and know off the top of your head!

Happy Shopping!