One of the first things people ask me when they see my stash is "How do you know which fabric to buy?" That's a great question and it's only been recently that I realized that there's a method to my fabric buying madness.
Fabric is not a cheap item. It's easy to make expensive mistakes so it's important that you develop some kind of strategy. In my case I know what kind of fabrics I'm more prone to use, and I also know enough about how the industry works that I do what I can to fill my needs when the opportunities present themselves.
First of all, buy quality! I can't emphasize that enough. Crappy fabric is crappy fabric and it doesn't cost that much more to buy the good stuff. A load of nasty stuff might make a lot of quilts but they won't last and you won't be happy with them. This is one reason why having a strategy is important, you can afford to buy good stuff when you don't waste money on bad stuff.
Secondly, be honest with yourself. The fabric might be gorgeous but if you won't ever use it there's no reason to buy it. Sometimes I see a fabric I love that I doubt I'll ever use but I still have to have. That's when you buy a fat quarter or quarter yard. You've satisfied your urge without breaking the bank, and you may very well find a use for it somewhere. Otherwise, stick to your style and only buy what works for you.
As far as quantity goes, that's an individual question. I usually buy half yards because I work fairly small and a half yard will provide me enough to back most of my quilts along with leftovers for piecing and applique. If you scrap quilt, fat quarters or quarter yards should be fine. If you follow patterns then you might want to make a list of the quantities you need of different fabrics for different quilts and keep that in your wallet for reference. I don't make full sized quilts, but I wouldn't buy backings unless I already had a use for them, (or I was buying for a particular quilt). That's a lot of fabric that you may never find a use for. Don't invest your limited resources unless you're positive you're going to use it.
Color is one of my main criteria when purchasing fabrics. I think we've all noticed how different colors come and go in the quilt shops. If you see a distinctive green, for instance, you might want to pick up a piece of it if you do lots of floral applique, same goes with other unusual colors. You don't have to buy a lot but keep an eye out, those oranges that are everywhere right now may be impossible to find in a year or two. So, if you want to accumulate a comprehensive stash you need to keep that in mind.
The same goes with prints. Right now we're in a very "graphic" stage where a lot of the fabrics have what I call a "flat" appearance. What that means is the the images don't have a lot of dimension, so although the print might be a floral, it doesn't look like flowers in nature do. These kinds of fabrics are more limiting and harder to work with so unless you have a particular project in mind I'd avoid them. They're trendy which means they won't hold up well in a stash you want to use over the years. I buy them when I like the color combos or if they look like something I can applique and embellish the heck out of . Other than that I'd stay away.
Above is a new fabric line from Michael Miller called "Playdate" by Patty Young. I thought I'd use this line as an example of my thought processes. First of all here are the fabrics I wouldn't buy:
Why not? Well, stripes are something I tend to avoid. These are problematical because of the colors. They're distinctive and will probably coordinate well only with the other prints in this line. The lollipop prints are adorable but too much of a flat "graphic" look. They'd be darling in the right pattern but not something I'd ever use. So, it's a big "no" for these five.
OK, why are these maybe's? Well the stripe is kind of odd but once you put the white in it it becomes more usable. I could see myself cutting it in pieces and using the different colors around squares as borders. The border panel is also a possible. Depending on the size of the figures they could be usable as appliques, or even cut up into squares for piecing. I love dots and these are kind of cute. I'd be more prone to buy the brown one because I love brown backgrounds and because it's a color combo that will probably only be available for a little while. What concerns me about both dots is what size they are. I'm more likely to buy smaller dots than bigger ones, they have a lot more uses. I like the lanterns, but the green background doesn't do as much for me. I'd have to see it to decide for sure.
I'm fairly certain that I'd buy a piece of each of these. I love the goldfish! Such great colors and since they have a patterned background the "graphic' look of them is less flat. Also, anything aqua or purple is generally a plus. Both colors change a lot in hue over the years, and purple prints that aren't too "cutesy" are hard to find. That's why I'd buy the purple lantern print over the green one in my Maybe list. It's all about the purple. The florals have great color combinations and although they have the "flat" "graphic" look I warned you about, they could play well pieced, you'd be able to get some interesting patchwork pieces out of them.
Now, it's not definite that I would buy all or any of these. I'd like to see them in person or at least a swatch online with a ruler on it so I know what size the images are. If they're too big, or too small I might pass. But I've narrowed it down pretty well, and probably saved myself some cash by only buying what I will use and fabrics that will hold up over time. Oh, and Michael Miller fabrics are very high quality so I'm sure I'd be happy with them.
Let me know your thoughts on how you buy fabric, I'd love to hear your ideas!