What is a Fat Quarter and other Precut Fabric?

Almost as soon as you start sewing, you will hear the amusing phrase “fat quarter.”  You may also hear the terms jelly roll, charm pack, and layer cake.  All of these terms refer to cuts of fabric.

Quilting fabrics typically measure 44″ from selvedge to selvedge (in the U.S., this is spelled “selvage,” but I like the English term because it uses “edge” in the name and that makes more sense).  “How it’s Made” created a video on how fabric is woven, and I highly recommend it.

At the end of the process, the manufacturer folds quilting fabric once, the right side of the fabric showing with the selvedges lined up, and then rolls the fabric on to bolts.  In the picture below, I have placed a bolt of fabric on the ground and opened it slightly for illustration.

Folded and selvedges together


When the bolt is on the shelf, it looks great because the consumer can quickly see what the fabric looks like – much like the binding on a book.

Fabric on the bolt

When a customer asks for a cut of fabric, the seller opens the bolt, with the fold toward the seller, and measures the fabric off the bolt.  In the photo below, the edge of the cutting table has a yard stick for measuring.


Although it’s tough to see, the selvedges are lined up together at the top of the bolt.  The line being cut will become what I refer to as the “cut edge.”  For an example, below is a photograph of a linear yard cut of fabric.  As you can see, this yard of fabric has been opened so that the selvedges are no longer lined up so you can see the entire cut of fabric.  The right and left sides of the picture shows the selvedge.  The top and bottom is cut edge.  A linear yard of quilting fabric measures 36″ x 44″.

Yard Cut

If you wanted only a small cut of fabric, you could purchase a quarter of a yard.  However, a linear quarter of a yard looks like this:

Linear Quarter_edited-1

This cut of fabric has limitations because it’s constrained to 9″.  Thus, some clever quilter devised the “Fat Quarter.”  A fat quarter is still a quarter of a yard, but the seller first cuts along the fold on the bolt, making the length 22″ (instead of the 44″ as manufactured), and then cuts 18″ for the cut edge, resulting in a cut of fabric that presents is more square than rectangular.

Fat Quarter

The area of the fabric is still 396 in.² – (both 9″ x 44″ = 396 in.² and  18″ x 22″ = 396 in.²), but this cut is much more useable to the quilter.

The fabric manufacturer making the Moda brand, United Notions, has popularized precut fabrics.

Moda releases fabric collections consisting of up to 40 coordinating prints (and sometimes solids) throughout the year.  Moda prints these fabrics only one time; once sold out, there will be no more.  Thus, the quilter must anticipate his or her project and purchase enough fabric to complete the project.

Moda offers precut bundles of a sample piece of each fabric in the collection.  By purchasing only a small piece of each fabric, gathering a representative of each fabric in a collection becomes financially feasible.  The largest of the precuts are fat quarter bundles, which typically consists of up to 42 fat quarters in a single bundle.  Below is a photograph of two fat quarter bundles in my stash.

Fat Quarter Bundle

Taking the idea of precut fabric further, Moda chose a theme of desserts for its precut fabrics.  A “jelly roll” is typically 40 strips measuring 2.5″ x 44″.  Although many quilters generically name a roll of 2.5″ x 44″ fabric strips “jelly rolls,” United Notions has a registered copyright for the use of this term   Other manufacturers call these rolls design rolls, Bali Pops,  and Roll-ups.


Charm Packs are 5″x5″ squares of each fabric in a line of fabric.  I used a charm pack, for example, in my Half Square Triangle (HST) tutorial.

Charm Pack

Moda also provides a forum for free patterns using precuts; this website can captivate me for hours!

What is your favorite way to purchase fabrics?  In yardage or by precuts?

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