Reader question: How should I store my fabric stash?

Reader Zora sent us the following question:

I sew my own clothing; I also quilt, make lace, crochet, etc. I have a 20 year accumulation of cloth, scraps, and supplies that is exquisitely organized (labeled boxes, labeled plastic drawers). If I had a dedicated sewing room, it would all fit nicely there. But I don’t. It’s all neatly stacked in the spare room, which I must clear out so I can rent it. Advice for fabriholics?

Zora, I understand the stash and hopefully can provide you with some help on this matter. I, too, sew (as is evident in the workspace post) and have a fabric stash. Fabric, yarn, fiber, thread and canvas hoarding, along with pattern and supply accumulation is a common problem among fiber artists. (The most unbelievable stash I’ve ever seen photographed is showcased here. It’s a yarn stash, but the hoarding concept is the same.) The advice that I’m giving can be applied to anyone wanting to get his or her stash in order.

Mindset: There is not a limited supply of fabric in the world. Plants continue to produce cotton, worms spin silk, sheep have wool, and there are fabric manufacturers and retailers willing to produce and sell you gorgeous fabrics. If any of these processes cease to exist, you will have larger concerns than obtaining fabric.

That being said, it is ridiculous to assume that a serious artist will have no stash. A friend may appear at your door with a batik fabric from a trip to India. If you can’t think of a project to start immediately, you now have a stash on your hands.

Therefore, I suggest that your stash be a limited size. Determine the size of your stash based on two factors: 1. How much you can sew in a set time period (I suggest having no more than six months or a year of projects), and 2. How much you can carry in one load. If you cannot carry the whole of your stash, then it is too big. You would never be able to save it in an emergency if you couldn’t carry it, so why have more than you could reasonably save?


Future buying: Buy fabric for specific projects. Don’t buy fabric unless you know the exact length, style, and type that you need for a project that you will make in the next six months or year. I carry a list of my fabric and supply needs in a small moleskine notebook in my purse with me at all times. Resist all other types of personal fabric purchases. This is the hardest step in the process.

Organizing your stash: When I bring new fabric into my home, I immediately put it into a large Ziploc Storage bag. The pattern, thread, and all other necessary supplies for the project go into the bag, as well. I write the name of the project and the date the fabric was purchased on the exterior of the bag with a permanent black marker.

I measure fabric that is given to me as a gift and then put it into a Ziploc bag. On the bag’s exterior, I label the size of the fabric, its fiber content, who gave me the fabric, where it was purchased, and the date of the gift. I then actively seek out projects for that fabric.

I store all of the Ziploc bags in a large plastic bin with a lid. The bin is kept on a shelf in my office closet.

Organizing your non-fabric supplies: I have two additional storage containers in addition to my fabric stash bin. The first is a thread organizer and the second is a tackle box for all of my other sewing supplies. I keep manuals and pattern books on my bookshelf and my cutting mat leans against the back wall of my office closet.

Getting rid of fabric: If you haven’t sewn a project in a year, evaluate if you’re actually going to make the project. If the answer is yes, it goes back in the bin with a re-evaluation date written on the bag. If the answer is no, get rid of the project in full.

After a project is complete, immediately get rid of scraps. You don’t have to throw the scraps in the trash (you may have more than a yard of scraps), but you need to get them out of your house. Scraps are clutter.

Here are suggestions for ways to de-stash projects, scraps, or large amounts of fabric–

  • Set up a Pay Pal account and sell it on your blog
  • List it on Craigslist or Ebay
  • Have a yard sale where you specifically mention that you’re getting rid of fabric
  • Freecycle it
  • Contact your local high school and see if the Home Economics department could use it
  • Donate it to charity
  • Let your sewing friends go through it and take what they want

20 Comments for “Reader question: How should I store my fabric stash?”

  1. posted by jehb on

    > Trees continue to produce cotton, worms spin silk, sheep
    > have wool, and there are fabric manufacturers and
    > retailers willing to produce and sell you gorgeous
    > fabrics. If any of these processes cease to exist, you
    > will have larger concerns than obtaining fabric.

    Last I checked, cotton grows on cotton plants, not trees. :) But I totally agree with your sentiment of only buying fabric for specific known projects, because most of the places in the world that grow cotton do so on fertile land that COULD be growing trees instead.

  2. posted by Lana on

    Great tips, Erin.

    I organized my stash by giving it all away! I found that I rarely had time to sew, so it was pointless for me to hold onto so many fabrics, patterns, and supplies when I most likely wouldn’t ever finish anything. I still kept my sewing machine and a sewing box full of thread, scissors, and other tools because psychologically, I like having them around. If I ever want to sew again, I’ll buy just what I need at the time, complete the project and then dump the scraps. I just can’t deal with trying to keep all of that crap organized anymore. My hat’s off to anyone who can.

  3. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @jehb–I always thought they were little trees!! But, sure enough, they’re not classified as trees at all. Ha!! I’m changing it right now in the article. Thank you!

  4. posted by Nat on

    I agree with the opinion that it’s okay to let it go as there is an abundant supply of fabric out there and that one should be realistic about what he/she can complete. New fabrics made with better technologies and newer, more current color palattes are always coming out.
    My current problem is found objects for art stash. So far, I’m dealing with it by moving my studio. I only took what I was currently working on and left everything behind with a deadline for clearing out the remainder.
    However, I do have a fabric stash story. My mom used to buy fabric at every sale. She had a lot of dreams for her fabric, but no time to really do all of them. She also had hundreds of patterns, also bought on sale. Unfortunately, she had more than enough fabric for a lifetime. I inherited it in the mid-90’s. Some of it was “quiana” from the 1970’s. It was probably really fashionable when she bought it, but once that era was over, she probably could have thrown it out. Fashion and decor cycles move way too fast to work on projects that are too old.

  5. posted by Zora on

    Hullo, I’m Zora. Since I submitted the original query, I have finished moving and sorting my stuff. I decided to donate my unfinished projects, plus various fabric lengths and scraps, to the local quilt guild. There are three garbage bags full of cloth sitting in my car trunk, waiting for the next guild meeting.

    Someone is bound to love the stretch velvet with sequins :)

    I still have much more than I can carry, I’m afraid, but it’s all sorted in way that makes it easy to tackle. I put the cloth into large cardboard file boxes, sorted into categories like “upholstery”, “gauze and fancies”, “light cottons”, etc. I only have seven! I intend to sew it down to a couple of boxes, yes I do. Don’t laugh and shake your head!

    I weeded my non-quilt projects down to ten or so, which are stored in labeled eight 12″ X 19″ X 4″ boxes I got at a box store. I full intend (!!!) to work it down to four projects, and keep it at that. No starting new projects until an old is finished or dumped. The box is just the right size for larger projects, but too big for small ones. I had to combine projects in a few boxes. It would be nice to have 12 X 19 X 2 boxes that would stack neatly — I may go back to the box store to see if they have that size.l

    It seems to make a BIG difference to have the projects individually labeled, rather than jammed into a box marked “PROJECTS”. I’m more likely to get to them.

    I got this idea from an online suggestion to store projects in pizza boxes. I don’t eat store-bought pizza any longer, and I wouldn’t want a greasy box, but “large flat box” seemed appropriate.

    I moved all my fabric and projects out of the plastic tubs, as they just seemed to moulder there. Once the tubs are stacked, you may have to move the whole stack to get at the bin on the bottom, which is a disincentive to doing anything.

    Well, yes, that applies to the cardboard boxes, I suppose. Perhaps I can eventually get everything moved into drawers.

    I’m certainly not stripped down as far as the other contributors, and I DO have neat stacks of matching cardboard boxes in the living room, but I’ve made progress.

  6. posted by Sarah on

    I’m working on my stash at the moment – I think I’ll always want a stash since it’s part of the creative process to think about what I might want to make, to go to my hoard and then work out a way of making it with the resources I have, but having just paid a fortune to move it, I’ve decided that I don’t need nearly so much of it. So, my plan is to limit my stash to one cupboard and what will fit on top of it. However, I’ve given myself a year to do this. I plan to give away anything that I don’t actually want to work with, and to use up as much of what I have as possible, and then in most cases give away the end products. Because what’s the point of stash if you don’t use it?

  7. posted by Lilly on

    I worked as a theatrical costume designer for years. So I had a HUGE stash. I also managed the costuming shop at the university I taught at. Sometimes there are reasons to have a large fabric stash but even those need to be kept under control. There are some fabrics that don’t really go out of style. If you can get a good deal and you know you will actually do something with it, those might be worth hanging on to. Something like black wool for $2 a yard or interfacing. Those won’t go out of style.

    I am in the process of downsizing my personal studio space again since I am not working professionally any longer. I only keep fashion fabrics that are time sensitive if they are for a specific project. I make a rule that I can’t buy more of these until the other projects are done. I store fabrics based on either use or color in clear plastic storage tubs. Anything under a yard goes elsewhere unless it would make good trim for something.

    Give away excess fabric to groups that make quilts for charity or see if a local theater group wants it (only if there is large quantity and it is good stuff).

    Here’s another hint. If you have formal wear or suits you want to clear out, check with local theater groups to see if they want them.

  8. posted by Melinda on

    One word of caution. Please do not store your quilts in plastic bags. It’s not good for them. Theoretically, you shouldn’t store your fabric in them either, but I can see it for the sake of organizing.

  9. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Melinda–If you’re making a project within a six or 12 month timeframe, then plastic storage should be fine. The sturdy plastic bag won’t degrade in that period.

    A finished quilt should never be stored, in my opinion. Either it should be used on a regular basis or it should be properly mounted and displayed. Having a quilt in storage is not properly honoring its purpose.

  10. posted by Mrs. Micah on

    I’m working on stash management right now, too. I have a lot of non-quilting fabric which I left at my parents’ house when I got married. I have two special wicker baskets (w/lids) for my quilting fabric, one bigger for color and one smaller for white/unbleached muslins. I keep stuff for current projects in a little organizer by my sewing table.

    Fortunately, I do use my older fabrics for crazy quilting, patchwork jeans projects, or baby quilts. And I tell myself I can’t buy more unless I’m working on a project. Then add that I should reconsider starting this project when I could make something from my lovely leftovers. Sometimes that works. It’s a clutter-safeguard anyway.

  11. posted by Melinda on

    LOL… Obviously, you’ve never met a truly dedicated quilter. It’s not the plastic bag I’m worried about, it’s the fabric itself. The chemicals in the plastic will eat at the fabric.

  12. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Melinda–When plastic degrades, that is when it destroys the fabric. The degradation process releases chemicals into the fabric, and that is how it can harm fabric. However, a heavy-duty plastic bag will not degrade enough in six months (if stored away from direct heat and sunlight) or a year to do damage to a fabric. A thin plastic, like a dry-cleaner bag, will degrade much more quickly and can stain fabric within months. Additionally, a lot of fabric is sent to stores with the bolts wrapped in plastic — same way with yarn and other fiber products. There are much worse things that you could do to your fabric than store it in a ziploc bag for six months.

  13. posted by Laura on

    “How much you can carry in one load. If you cannot carry the whole of your stash, then it is too big.” I couldn’t carry all my books in one load either, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t value having them and use them often. While it might make sense to decide on a hard ceiling for a stash or collection, ‘what you can carry in one load’ seems both arbitrary and nonsensical.

    I have to agree with Lilly – there are times when you come across a fabric that’s unique or an enduring value (as opposed to just cheap). Although there will likely always be more fabric made, you won’t always be able to find exactly what you’re looking for. Nat, there are costumers and vintage clothing fans who would probably love to have that quiana. My fabric stash lives in two repurposed 3-drawer filing cabinets; that’s the amount that works for me right now.

    Incidentally, cutting mats should be stored flat – when they’re stored on their side they often sag and curl, which can become permanent if they’re left that way a while.

  14. posted by Kate Murphy on

    Berkeley quilter here. Ditto on the plastic storage warning. Ditto on the creative process needing fabric bought “just because.” I needed to clean up our bedroom which also provides two walls for my studio, when family was visiting awhile back. Got Billy bookcases from Ikea – tall and shallow, with see-through doors to help limit the dust factor. Now I can see most (not all) of my stash.

    I have found a piece of David Allen wisdom works on my sewing projects: when I have the time to work on them, I don’t have the time to decide what work to do. I try to leave a project with the next step identified or even started.

  15. posted by Becky on

    I was pawing through my disheveled pile of stash on Saturday as a friend looked on, trying to find a specific fabric for her. Something about having a witness to my disorganization spurred me into action and, yesterday, I did it: I organized my stash! I’m grateful I discovered this blog (and this post!) to give me tips; I used Ziploc baggies and bins to get a grip on things. I got rid of a goodly amount, but will purge more once the dust settles. Thanks for the inspiration, Unclutterer!

  16. posted by Little Miss on

    I think the author thinks she sews, but she really doesn’t. A true seamstress has at hand all the tools necessary for her trade. Would you expect a man to have only the nuts and bolts he needs for the current project on hand? No, he has bins and bins of different accessories needed for whatever he feels like making at the time. What about other household items? Do you only keep spices in your cupboard for what you know you will be cooking in the next six months? That’s ludicrous. I could think of more examples, but I think you get my point.

    And only have what you can carry? Ever heard of homeowners insurance? I love my fabric and sewing room but if there was a fire, it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d carry out. There would be my animals and my photos first.

    Uncluttering doesn’t mean having nothing. Organizing what you do have is as good as uncluttering. Buying stuff because it’s on sale but you’d never ever use it – now that’s a problem. But purchasing and saving fabric for future projects – even two or three or ten years out – I see nothing wrong with that if it is neatly organized and can fit in the space you’ve allocated.

  17. posted by Susan on

    Does anyone recall when materials were treasured? I used to feel guilty for picking up fabric I had no immediate need for, because I used to feel guilty that I was an artist. Then I built a studio, and a business, and now 26 years later, I still wonder what I left behind. Also, I think the quality of new stuff often isn’t as good as what used to be available. Much of my old fabric collection is lustrous, higher thread counts, longer stapled, still strong, and treasured.

  18. posted by bex on

    hiya im really bad an keeping things organised i have a sewing business so i have rolls of fabric and stacks of pieces ive got coz it was cheep and would make an awsome item and dont have enuff hours in the day to sew and look after the kids. and i deffinatly agree with “little miss” allthought for a home sewer these tips would work great for someone who sews regulaly some of these tips just arent feasable. i make a lot of products from my scraps.

  19. posted by A Stiner on

    I have the 2 door storage pantry that you can get at any walmart or home depot. I have 2 of them along the wall and all my fabric is folded and stacked in those. I can see everything I have when I open the doors. I got tired of digging thru plastic bins or under the bed boxes to see what I had. I just close the doors and it is all hidden. Now if I could just get rid of the multiple baskets of yarn and bring myself to get rid of books and patterns…

  20. posted by Lisa NYC on

    I agree with Little Miss. However, as a fabric hoarder I TRY and go through my fabric stash every year and get rid of those fabrics I will never have any use for.

    Recently I did a Sewing Room Organization Challenge for my friends on the web. Part I deals with Fabric. Here’s a link to my blog post:

    http://thedomesticdiva.wordpress.com/2007/06/

    Also posted are others which deal with Ribbon, Thread, etc.

    HTH

    With friendship,
    Lisa

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